Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Emory Douglas' Weapon of Choice: Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party Profiled

The Black Panthers advocated armed struggle. Emory Douglas' weapon of choice? The pen.

Jessica Werner Zack, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In January 1967, the organizers of San Francisco's first annual Malcolm X Grassroots Memorial tapped Emory Douglas, a 22-year-old graphic arts student, to create the poster and flyers for the Hunter's Point event. As Douglas remembers it, "There was talk about some brothers coming over from Oakland to provide security for Betty Shabazz (Malcolm X's widow), and when they got there it was Huey Newton and Bobby Seale."

Douglas, a member of City College's Black Student Union who was designing props and sets for playwright LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), had heard rumors about Seale and Newton. The two friends from Merritt College had, just three months before, co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. "Huey and Bobby spoke," Douglas recalls, "and I knew then I wanted to be a part of what they were doing."

Douglas was soon named the party's minister of culture, a position he filled until the Black Panther newspaper ceased publication in 1979. Art directing every issue, he created a visual history of the party's ideology and agenda, designing hundreds of provocative original illustrations, photo collages and political posters, more than 200 of which are reproduced in the recently released Rizzoli book "Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas."

The Black Panther Party was a controversial offshoot of the civil rights and black nationalist movements. Douglas' involvement with the party began one April evening 40 years ago, when he paid his first visit to Eldridge Cleaver's Duboce Park apartment, the so-called Black House. Douglas found Seale working on the inaugural, typewritten and mimeographed issue of the Black Panther. Douglas offered his commercial typography and illustration skills (first acquired in a Chino prison print shop as a teen sentenced to juvenile detention for burglary) to make the weekly paper look as potent and persuasive as its message.

Interviewed before a packed book release party at Oakland's Eastside Cultural Center, Douglas says that "since the black community at that time weren't by and large readers," he "created an 'everyperson' look everyone could connect with." In effect, he branded the militant-chic Panther image decades before the concept became commonplace. He used the newspaper's popularity (circulation neared 400,000 at its peak in 1970) to incite the disenfranchised to action, portraying the poor with genuine empathy, not as victims but as outraged, unapologetic and ready for a fight.

Some of his most powerful drawings show people in stances of active armed resistance, men draped in bandoliers, women holding infants and toting rifles.

Douglas' art echoes expressionist elements of the African American artists he admires, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. His style -- drawing with thick black outlines and creating woodcut textures -- is also similar to the Chicano poster art of the '60s and '70s.

The images are full of anger and biting humor -- especially the many famous pig cartoons, iterations of the epithet the Panthers popularized for all embodiments of repressive authority. "It's important to remember the context" out of which the Panthers emerged, Douglas says.

The Summer of Love punctuated a volatile period when the United States was riven by assassinations, war protests and race riots. "There were a lot of young brothers and sisters being attacked and brutalized by the police." Young activists like Douglas found their calling in the Panthers' imperatives to "Seize the Time" and make "Revolution in Our Lifetime" a reality.

Quiet and with an easy sense of humor, Douglas exudes a surprising calm for a man whose confrontational artwork Baraka describes in an essay in the book as functioning "as if you were in the middle of a rumble and somebody tossed you a machine pistol."

"They are dangerous pictures, and they were meant to change the world," the book's editor, Los Angeles artist Sam Durant, writes in his introduction.

One 1967 editorial by Cleaver criticizing the NAACP was illustrated by Douglas' "bootlickers gallery," which imposed photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders against a crude cartoon of a black man prostrate before then-President Lyndon Johnson's cowboy boots.

"Emory's pictures are actually a lot less terrifying than the news photos of the day," says Kathleen Cleaver (Eldridge Cleaver's ex-wife) formerly the Panthers' communications secretary and now a senior lecturer at Emory University Law School. "It's amazing that he was able to maintain his gentle artistic being through those risky, extreme times. Cities were on fire, people were being arrested by the droves and police brutality was the order of the day."

Durant (whose own sculptures and installations have explored Black Panther history), says he sees the book as a corrective to "the ways the party has been misrepresented and maligned in the mainstream press, and perhaps even misused in popular culture. ... At a time when the police were an occupying army in the black community, they took up arms to defend themselves, simple as that."

As the Panthers' agenda broadened to include social programs, Douglas' posters illustrated the impact of the party's community outreach: free breakfast programs for children, grocery giveaways, health clinics and sickle-cell anemia testing.

"A lot of people would say they could look at the artwork in the paper and see in which direction the party was headed," Douglas says. He modestly admits that "some people did start buying the paper specifically for the art."

Douglas lives in San Francisco's Excelsior district with his blind mother, and has continued to work as a graphic artist since the Black Panther Party's collapse in 1980. After a brief stint designing ads for Safeway ("That was definitely not my thing," he says), Douglas has been an illustrator and prepress manager for the Bayview/Hunter's Point Sun-Reporter newspaper since 1984. He is currently working on a "children's artwork series called 'Health is Wealth,' a dialogue between two kids about HIV/AIDS."

"My politics have evolved because politics always do," he says. "But I'm still concerned about the same things. I think people are drawn to my work right now because they see the same issues in it on the line today -- police brutality, education, housing. It's a different time but we have the same needs."

This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle


Alison said...

What an inspiring man! I am fascinated by his art and have decided to do my essay on him. I wish I knew more about his childhood.

A Melville

Anonymous said...

Hello!!! is one of the most outstanding resourceful websites of its kind. I take advantage of reading it every day. Keep it that way.