Written by Cathleen Lewis, Manager of High School Programs.
“Emory Douglas: Black Panther” is a survey of the graphic designer Emory Douglas’s work from the time he was the Minister of Culture and the designer for the Black Panther, a weekly newspaper that served as the voice of the Panther movement from its inception in 1967. Douglas was a founding member until the Party’s demise in the late 1970s.
This is a show about Douglas, and his unique graphic vocabulary. But Douglas’s body of work, taken as a whole, also gives a visual history of the Black Panther Party. Douglas joined the Party after founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. He is responsible for the now-famous emblems of the crouching panther, and the pig, which after 1968 entered the general vocabulary as a stand-in for the police. Douglas’s posters, handbills, and general design for a newspaper—whose circulation in the US was once estimated to be 400,000—also featured the ennobled photographs of the party’s heroes. It also charted its development from an organization fixated on self-defense against police brutality, to a more complicated organization that not only ran crucial social programs in US ghettos, but became, in coalition with other liberal organizations, a participant in government at the local and the national level.
This lesson is part of the Emory Douglas curriculum that utilizes the artist's work from the period that he was the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture and the designer for the Black Panther, the Party’s weekly newspaper. Douglas’s unique graphic vocabulary mixes influences from classic activist artists of the 1930s and ’40s. Selected by the Los Angeles artist Sam Durant, whose work often deals with political and cultural subjects in American history, the exhibition includes more than 165 posters, newspapers, and prints dating from 1967 to 1976.
Introduce your students to Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party. Tell students that Douglas was the Revolutionary Artist of the Black Panther Party and its Minister of Culture. Douglas created the overall design of the Black Panther, the Party’s weekly newspaper, and oversaw its layout and production until the Party’s demise in the late 1970s. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in 1966. The Panthers practiced armed self-defense as the first organization in US history to militantly struggle for ethnic minority and working-class emancipation. The Party’s agenda was the revolutionary establishment of economic, social, and political equality across gender and color lines
In Colette Gaiter’s essay What Revolution Looks Like: The Work of Black Panther Artist Emory Douglas, she describes the Civil Rights movement as having two waves, the first, being the Civil Rights movement, the second the Black Power movement. Gaiter states that the Civil Rights movement was an essential and long-overdue legal battle. The first wave was practical and legal in its focus, relying on photography as evidence to build a case for racial equality in the public mind. Newspaper images of police dogs attacking black protesters and fire hoses turned on protesters built international support. In the “second wave” of civil rights activity, the Black Power Movement activists shifted their focus from changing laws to changing minds. Douglas art fused everyday black life with revolutionary spirit., poor people represented a new political consciousness.”
Show students the following Douglas images (titled by date of the Black Panther publication) while continuing the lesson:
- "July 25, 1970," (We Want Decent Housing...).
- "March 27, 1975," (For The Young, The Old...).
- How do the newspaper images that the young girls are holding relate to each other?
- What thoughts do you have when you see a young girl being searched by an officer? Are her rights being violated?
- "July 28, 1973," (Few Black Folks die of old age - ...).
- "July 29, 1972," (You Got Me Washing Clothes...).
- What is Emory Douglas telling us about the distribution of wealth in the US?
- Who has wealth and who doesn’t?
- Based on what you see in the images, what are likely to be the professions of the people Douglas portrayed?
- Ask students:
- What do the people in the images have in common?
- How does Emory Douglas organize space in these images?
- How are images collaged within an image? What is the effect of this technique?
- "September 11, 1971," (U.S. Govt. Approved).
- What narrative is being illustrated in this image?
- How did the country support war veterans who returned home with battle fatigue and addiction?
- How many black men do you think returned from the war addicted to drugs? Discuss the effect this may have had on the black community.
- "September 16, 1972," (At Ease).
- Ask students to unpack the image, beginning with the center figure, moving to the figure on the left, then to the right.
- What is the center figure holding?
- Who are the two men that anchor the corner of the image?
- What is transpiring on the adjacent corner?
- Why are they standing on the flag? Which flag is it?
- What is the visual evidence that lets you know that there may be some tension or conflict?
- "August 7, 1976," (The Olympics...).
- What story is being told in the graphic portion of this narrative?
- What does the text add to the images?
- In this drawing Douglas depicts how black athletes’ achievements and victory at the Olympics do not shield them from the effects of racism.
- These images were inspired by 1968 Olympic medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith. The athletes gave the Black Power salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and were banned from Olympic competition for life.Smith later told the media that he raised his right, black-glove-covered fist in the air to represent Black Power in America while Carlos’s left, black-covered fist represented unity in black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around Smith’s neck stood for black pride, and their black socks (and no shoes), represented black poverty in racist America.
- Ask students to visit <www.infoplease.com/spot/summer-olympics-mexico-city.html/> for a photograph of the athletes’ protest, and additional reading on the historical event.
- Have students read the Black Panther’s Ten-Point Program, and see the image What We Want, What We Believe.
How does this image mirror and reflect the words in the Ten-Point Program?
Have students listen to James Brown’s 1968 song “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud." Provide students with the written lyrics attached. Share with your students the concept of bearing witness and ask them:
- What rights, or lack thereof, is James Brown referring to in his lyrics?
- What social justice is he advocating?
- How do the lyrics speak of black empowerment?
- What images of black people were the lyrics trying to counteract?
- Discuss the difference between bearing witness and speaking out.
- How did Douglas’s work as the Minister of Culture go beyond bearing witness? How did he act?
- What formal elements in the artwork and his process allowed Douglas work to reach so many people?
- How does the music and poetry of the time reflect the social issues of the day?
- What does Brown’s lyrics have in common with Douglas’s images? How do they both empower the black community?
- The song became an anthem for the black community during the 1960s; however, the song did cost James Brown a crossover audience in the white community. His concert-goers became almost exclusively black after the recording.
- What were the demographics of the mainstream audience during the 1960s? Who controlled the media and government?
- Which words in the song do you think upset the mainstream audience? Why? In what ways does this challenge the status quo?
How does the lyrics relate to the Douglas image "November 8, 1969," (Revolution In Our Lifetime)?
Ask students to discuss the artist’s role in society. What role(s) can an artist play? What do Brown’s lyrics tell us about the cultural climate of the country during the late 1960s? How does Douglas’s images speak to it?
Watch the sixty-minute documentary Merritt College: Home of the Black Panthers (2009).
Ask students to list the changes the Black Panther Party sought. What are the social changes? Political changes? How do the political changes respond to the social changes, and vice versa?