The Revolution in Our Backyard
There is no better time than the present—as the country mourns the many recent casualties of racial violence—to reflect upon the powerful legacy of the Black Panther Party, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. OMCA’s new exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 takes a fresh look at this revolutionary Oakland-born organization, creating a space for visitors to gain insight into the many different narratives created about, for, and by the Panthers.
“The Black Panther Party was controversial to some and inspirational to others, and it cannot be seen as simply ‘altruistic’ or ‘unlawful,’” says Lori Fogarty, OMCA director and CEO.
To explore all sides of the Black Panthers, the exhibition incorporates a multitude of perspectives, using music, photography, immersive video, interactive art pieces, audio, and installations. Among the artifacts on view are historic photographs, original drawings, police footage of the aftermath of raids on Panther offices, and bars from jail cells where Panthers were imprisoned.
Highlighting cultural and artistic responses to the Panther legacy, Sam Durant’s Proposal for a Monument to Huey Newton at the Alameda County Courthouse invites visitors to sit in a bronze replica of the wicker peacock chair in which Newton was photographed for one of the Party’s most iconic posters. Elsewhere, first-person narratives from former Party members provide insight into Black Panther history and its continued significance.
René de Guzman, senior curator of art and director of exhibition strategy, who organized the exhibition with Lisa Silberstein, experience developer, notes how effectively the Party used imagery to communicate its messages. The show will present poster art by Emory Douglas, the Party’s minister of culture, whose bold style is universally associated with the Panthers. “Art has the unique ability to move people emotionally,” de Guzman says of Douglas’ work. “Sometimes, it’s the poetry that persuades and not polemics.”
A Closer Examination
Despite—and sometimes, because of—the actions taken in pursuit of their goals, the Panthers were understood differently than they are today. One of the exhibition’s challenges is to examine the many conceptions about the Party and to explore Panther contributions and innovations that are not as widely known.
Given the prevalent images of male Party members in leather jackets, some visitors will be surprised to learn of the significant role that women played, featuring notably charismatic figures such as Elaine Brown, Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, and others less familiar, such as Tarika Lewis, the first woman to join the Party, and Gayle Dickson, a Panther newspaper artist.
Another conception is that the Party was anti-white. “The Party was inclusive and very progressive in that regard,” says de Guzman. “It was about embracing other communities as part of its identity and recapturing a sense of pride.”
The exhibition also spotlights the efforts of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his agency’s COIN TELPRO campaign to disrupt the Party through sometimes illegal—and lethal—means.
Issues of repression, race, and identity are also addressed in contemporary works exhibited in All Power to the People. Examples include Oakland mixed-media artist and longtime activist Ellen Bepp’s portrayal of the cost of police officers’ use of deadly force in 100 African Americans Killed by Police in 2014. Carrie Mae Weems, whose award-winning work offers incisive takes on race, gender, and politics, reinvigorates past civil rights movements in Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment, which presents staged reenactments of global fights for human rights through film and photographs. Hank Willis Thomas tackles the painful paradox of racial inequality in the U.S. in We The People, a quilt crafted from decommissioned prison uniforms.
As visitors make their way through this remarkable exhibition, there will be spaces for reflection and dialogue—one features church pews, where they can sit and contemplate their exhibition experience.
Visitors will also be able to spark ongoing reflection and inquiry. The exhibition will include an area where people can leave their own stories and the names of Black Panthers they would like to remember.
Connecting to Today’s Activism
A focal point of the exhibition, presented on a wall in graphic lettering, is the striking display of the Party’s Ten-Point Program. It highlights the inspiration and rationale for the Party’s survival programs, such as the distribution of free food and shoes, free breakfast programs for schoolchildren (which predated breakfast programs in public schools), Oakland’s Black Panther-run school, health clinics, and free buses to prisons to visit family.
The Ten-Point Program, which includes demands for full employment, housing, education, an end to police brutality, and freedom for incarcerated black men, serves as a timely reminder about how these problems continue in today’s society. “In many ways, the Ten-Point Program doesn’t seem like history at all,” de Guzman says. “It speaks about today.”
“The Black Panther Party was a part of a complicated time in our history,” says Fogarty. “Our hope is that we can play a unique role in encouraging dialogue and discussion about these complex issues and their impact today. We believe this is a unique opportunity—and responsibility—for OMCA.”
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California’s Member magazine.