Circulate to educate: an interview with Emory Douglas

Published

Jean-Xavier Boucherat

The Black Panther was a newsletter produced by the radical leftists themselves, which at its height had a circulation of 250,000. It was edited by Elridge Cleaver, a name some will recognise as the author of Soul on Ice, a complex and often horrifying account of Cleaver’s transformation from a drug dealing ‘insurgency rapist’ into a prominent civil rights activist. Cleaver used the paper to disseminate the party’s own breed of revolutionary-socialism, and to counter the inaccurate, sensationalist reports delivered on racial conflicts by a mainstream media that to this day still has a problematic relationship with race.

It’s evening at Kendall Koppe Gallery, a small space near the Clyde, and a selection of prints including pages from The Black Panther have been framed and mounted to the wall, as part of the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. The exhibition is entitled ‘Seize the Time’, curated by Kendall Koppe, and has been organized to showcase the work of a less well-known member of the party, yet an equally influential one. His name is Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Minister for Culture from the early days of 1967 till the party’s decline in the late seventies. Douglas was also responsible for the paper’s visual and stylistic direction, a medium he would use to cultivate what is now an immediately recognizable type of imagery. Gallery owner and exhibition brainchild Kendall Koppe tells me he grew up in New York, where Emory’s images are a continuous presence – ’I never knew it was him, as a child, but In 2008 I went back to New York, and the New Museum was hosting a retrospective of his work. It was quite a historical show. They un-archived a lot of work, and found a lot via collectors and other mediums. It blew me away. I recognized some of the work from my youth, and just thought it was amazing work from an amazing time’. If, like many, you associate the term ‘Black Power’ with a very specific aesthetic, it’s almost certainly thanks to Emory.

I meet Emory the morning after the opening at Grand Central Hotel, where he suggests we go for a chat in the middle of central station. Taking a seat on the rows of steel benches near the platforms, and surrounded by the Sunday day-trippers, I’m suddenly very aware of the surveillance all around us. I’m now talking with a man who in his time would have been widely regarded as a terrorist, a process which, as I learn, is ongoing. I suggest to Emory that there was in the Black Panthers a unity, cohesiveness, and sense of direction that has not since been effectively emulated. ‘Well, people today have the establishment to deal with’ he responds, ‘the government itself has suffocated a lot of those things, and put a lot of psychological fear into people via these extreme laws that they pass in relationship to what is considered terrorist and what is not considered terrorist. The things that we did then, they try to label us as terrorists for today. You’ve got Panthers still in exile as a result, in Tanzania, and you’ve even got political prisoners, both panthers and non-panthers, who they’re trying to reclassify as terrorists. Mumia Abu-Jamal for example, a former Panther, well known, worldwide support, a street named after him in France! And he was on death row in Philadelphia. There’s fifteen to twenty more. Eddie Conway for example up in Jessup, Baltimore Maryland’. The perversions of justice in Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case are well documented, justice being a redundant concept in this and many other instances. ‘The courts are handpicked by the administration’ he continues, ‘whether conservative or liberal, the Panthers are still viewed as a hot issue. The whole mainstream of America is still locked between democrats and republicans. There are some progressives, progressive caucuses, local congressmen who were former Panthers, but overall it’s still a huge machine you have to deal with’.

Emory’s work is a very direct response to this machine – he was first introduced to illustration in a print shop run by the correctional facility he was incarcerated in as a youth. ‘That was my first experience’ he says, ‘working on products, labels and packaging and that. I had no background experience, it just happened I got into the print shop, and when I got there the director at the youth development centre was showing me how the process worked’. It’s funny that the word ‘product’ gets mentioned almost immediately. Emory’s work glows with the sheen of 60’s and 70’s print advertising. ‘That’s from experience. I went to City College and took up commercial art, and from there you learn how to use and apply different materials and integrate them into your art’.

The obvious difference is the subjects involved. North American advertising is a world that traditionally depicts delighted white people, who are almost invariably middle or upper class. Emory’s subjects are poor, angry, and African American. ‘These are the people from the community that you interact with on a daily basis, who you observe, the ones who felt the outrage about the conditions and situation in the United States as a whole. So this work is in solidarity, and is also an attempt to express their feelings around that particular time. But it’s also a reflection of our solidarity with oppressed people the world over. It dealt with self-defense, and with social programs as well’. In this light, Emory’s work can be seen as a re-appropriation of that omnipresent imagery which even today continues to reinforce outdated notions of just about everything, from race relations to gender roles to what couples argue about when shopping for toothpaste. Advertising is a universal language that Emory seized to discuss matters of life, death, and dignity in a manner that could be understood by everyone – no mean feat for a readership which included members likely to of been let down by the education system, if not abandoned entirely.

The process of re-appropriation is a recurring theme in the history of the party. For many, the enduring image of the party is an armed, violent one that neglects the idea of self-defence that lies at the heart of the early Panther’s decision to arm themselves. It was, however, a thoroughly right-wing ideology that enabled Bobby Seale, Huey Newton and other founding members to take the steps they deemed necessary. ‘You had major, major abuses by the police authority in the United States against the people… Copwatch, and The Black Panther Party for Self-Defence, was about protecting communities against those kind of violations, and educating communities about those basic human rights that were being violated’. Under California law, the Panthers were able to carry weapons when patrolling their districts, ‘as long as you didn’t conceal the weapon and it was clearly on display. And really that was thanks to the NRA (National Rifle Association) because they had so many major lobbyists. Obviously we were never a part of that right wing thing, but we applied it to our situations… we were within our rights. They changed them though of course. They tried to change them once The Black Panther Party started to carry guns’.

The majority of the work on show tonight at Kendall Koppe deals with this theme of Self-Defence. Previous exhibitions to feature Emory’s work have been large in scale, with hundreds of works available for viewing in a kind of open-archive format. By contrast, there are only a few pieces on display tonight, as well as a christmas card sent out by the Panthers to its members from the seventies. ‘I pulled back a lot of works’ says Kendall, ‘we wanted there to be a lot more space around the works than usual. It’s Emory’s first show within a contemporary gallery context, the last three shows have all been large museum shows. I concentrated specifically on works between 1968-1970, during which time the party was at its most militant. So obviously the works can be quite difficult. But for me, the message that comes across is that although the works might be about self-defence, they are also about uniting a community, uniting a voice, affecting change by whatever means necessary’.

Of course, an exhibition like this is naturally in danger of being dismissed as a set of nostalgic relics, specifically designed for causes that no longer bear relevance. This is not helped by the Panther’s association with the wider hippie movement during the sixties (‘They did live as a collective, I never knew!’ laughs Kendall), but even a superficial exploration of its relationship with the world we inhabit today reveals a wealth of contemporary relevance. Kendall has his own thoughts on this, particularly with regard to the oft-neglected facets of the Panther’s later history, when they concerned themselves with incredible social and welfare programs. ‘What they were thinking about at the time, it’s interestingly enough what people are concerned with today – self-governance. They had free schools set up, not only for black Americans but for any kind of minority group, they had free health clinics set up, they had free food programs, they had free breakfast programs for people going to work or school, transportation. They also had an incredibly humanitarian program that felt that it was part of everyone’s right to own new shoes. They had a free shoe program. And this is the kind of thing people talk about today. In that respect, it doesn’t need to be nostalgic’.

However, there is a far more direct relationship with the twenty first century. Cops still kill people, and they still get away with it. ‘Never in the history of United States has a police been convicted and done serious time for killing a person’ Emory says. ‘It’s never happened, except recently in the case of a young man named Oscar Grant, but the police only got two years, it was cut loose, and that was cold blooded murder. He had his hands tied behind his back on a platform at a train station in California, and the police shot him dead’. The case of Oscar Grant is now three years old, footage of which is freely available online which features officer Johannes Mehserle and others screaming racial abuse at Oscar Grant before summarily executing him. Mehserle was charged with involuntary manslaughter, and served less than eight months in jail. Among the arguments made in his defence was the possibility that he might of mistaken his gun for his taser, a weapon of entirely different shape, colour, and weight. It’s an argument about as convincing as a young student in a wheelchair is menacing.

Seize the Time was a brilliant manifestation of that ever-pertinent question ‘What Now?’, suffused with the kind of creative violence that allows good things to happen. ‘The artwork itself is done from the experience of Afro-American individuality, but it transcends that, takes on a life of its own’ Emory muses. ‘It’s admired and used by many organizations in relationship to their own struggles. An inspiration, and guide to further action’.