Mar 23, 2017
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Black Panthers Take Over Oakland Museum
by Doniphan Blair
An Oaklander enjoying the Oakland Museum's Black Panther Show with his African-American wife/partner and nine year-old daughter. photo: D. Blair
THE OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA,
as it is officially called, has been on a tear.
Eschewing its state-wide perspective of late, OCM recently dove deep into the Oakland neighborhood of West Oakland with the show, “Oakland, I Want to Know You”. Along with insightful displays, it featured three stunning short videos, looking at church goers, artists, even street dealers, which were filmed by the recent Brooklyn-transplant,
, in his inimitable bob-and-weave style.
Another recent provocative show was “Altered State" about marijuana and featuring—if not complimentary bong hits—art boards labeled “Draw Here If You’re High” and “Here If You’re Not,” actual marijuana (plants and dried) and extensive personal stories.
But now the big megillah, “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50”, the first large survey anywhere in the world about the pioneering African-American movement, which started in West Oakland.
A landmark show by any measure (up until February 12th, see
), "Black Panthers at 50" is even more critical in the context of the racist Trump campaign, on one hand, and the recent opening of the National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, DC, on the other (see
"BP at 50” is great curating, in-your-face and participatory. Right in the entrance way stands a bronze copy of the African wicker throne, which Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton sat in—spear in one hand, rifle in the other—to create a striking icon of the Panthers’ revolution. Many other well-crafted Panther images and performances stunned the world: their police monitoring, their take-over of the California State Capital in Sacramento, their black-bereted and leather-jacketed members marching in disciplined formation.
The Panthers' half-centennial is also commemorated in other shows around town, from the interesting "The Point is...2.0" at the
Joyce Gordon Gallery
, including photos by the late Ducho Dennis, to a great group show, "ICONIC: Black Panthers at American Steel Studios", see the
East Bay Express article
, but nothing like "BP at 50”.
As we can see, the Panthers remain inspiring, a breath of fresh, liberating air, with lots of import to say to the Black Lives Matter movement, white America, those who remember the '60s as all peace and love. While literally starting a revolution in America may have been a bit over-ambitious, the Panthers provided immense pride to many and, to some, the determination and organization to seize "self-evident" rights, rather than wait patiently, as suggested by the pacifist civil rights movement.
Art photographer Pirkle Jones's stylized portrait of Panthers doing stylized agit-prop at the Oakland Court House. photo: P. Jones
With the Panthers' wicker throne now open for all to sit in, the OMC curators make their intentions clear: “All the power to ALL the people” as the Panther's other co-founder, Bobby Seale, famously phrased it. Hence, the show focuses on the Panther rank-and-file, who distributed the party's paper and free breakfasts and staffed their health care and education sessions. This makes it an excellent introduction to today's Oaklander, many who know surprisingly little about the Panthers, as well as people from across the state, country and globe.
The potpourri of people when I attended was incredible, starting at the bronze wicker throne with a poster-child family of post-liberation Oakland: a dreadlocked African-American mother, her not-so-hip Asian-American husband/partner and their precocious and talkative nine-year old daughter (she shot my wicker throne selfie after I took hers and her dad's). That the parents were deaf and the family used sign language to communicate only doubled the dimensions of their already advanced cultural bridging.
In addition to the numerous other kids, there were tourists, hipsters and older folk, black and white, some who witnessed Panthers in action and historical events. I spoke with a short, white guy who recalled meeting Panthers when attending Merritt College in 1967 (“Intimidating,” he said); and a young woman who was fascinated to learn such things happened in the US (she was visiting from left-leaning Bolivia where Che Guevara was killed with American assistance in 1967).
"BP at 50" is a truly spectacular revelation of photos, films, sounds, artifacts and art on ALL things Panthers except one: it doesn’t address the descent into gangsterism by a few Panthers, notably co-founder Huey P. Newton. While perfectly understandable, given the difficulty of discussing such intricate history and OMC's goal of introducing today's typical attendee to the average activist of yesteryear, it does leave out a lot.
In fact, the palace-intrigues of Panther leadership, their roller coaster ride—in just three years—from reasonably stable police protests and media-minded performances to chapters nation-wide, police ambushes (which they delivered as well as received), cross-country and -countries escapes, and the establishment of the Black Panther "embassy" in Algeria are fascinating.
The Black Panthers: The Vanguard of the Revolution
", 2015, was a great documentary last year, which included the tragic aspects, the story is ripe for a political thriller, combining tasteful individual portraits not only with politics but tons of sex, shootouts and car chases to dramatize the sheer breadth and adventure of the party. Unfortunately, "Black Panther", due out in 2018, is a regular Hollywood movie about the first black super-hero, which debuted from Marvel Comics a few months before the Black Panther Party started in 1966. Fortunately, it is being directed by Oakland-homie Ryan Coogler, of "Fruitvale Station" (2013) and "Creed" (2015) fame, hence, will undoubtedly have some convert if not overt cross references.
The Panthers' 'Ten Point Program', emblazoned near the front of the OMC show, called for full employment, exemption of black men from military service and an end to police brutality. photo: courtesy D. Blair
In lieu of that, we have the OCM show and many other Panther stories to tell. Indeed, right after the wicker throne, we are confronted by a wall-filling film full of footage taken from a car driving around Oakland back in the day: kids playing in school yards, men standing on street corners, the ominous Alameda Court House, where many Panther demonstrations went down. Then, suddenly, interspersed in the laconic, time-travel: flashes of Malcolm, Martin, Panthers, Vietnam, making for a masterful avant-garde film. Oddly, it is uncredited, without a title on the wall or at the end of the five-minute loop.
And the show's only getting started. The next wall is filled with the Panther's "Ten Point Program", the next after that with the graffiti, “The moon belongs to the people”—rather poetic until you recall it was painted the year white astronauts went to that heavenly body.
Then there's the powerful illustrations of Panther artist-supreme Emory Douglas (who is still around, doing talks and shows); a day-glo Confederate flag morphing into an African one in Hank Willis Thomas's large, interactive video installation; an antique firearm used by Panthers in their most successful agit-prop piece (the fully armed, May '67 state capital take-over—not a shot fired!); and lots film and photos of Panthers distributing breakfasts, discussing letting their hair go natural (the "afro," which was considered a life changing act), Panther "cubs" reminiscing their parents.
There’s also the impending tragedy, when romantic ideals hit the wall of repressive reality, including another wall, this time of J. Edgar Hoover directives. The notorious CoIntelPro Program grew out of the FBI’s established “black desk” into a protracted, dirty-tricks effort to infiltrate, disrupt and discredit, as well as kill, the Panthers.
Another creator of iconic Panther images was art photographer Pirkle Jones, whose photos are absent from “BP at 50” (a few can be found in the back of the Marin Community Foundation). There’s also no mention of the Black Panther's other white associates, actor Marlon Brando, conductor Leonard Bernstein or film producer Burt Schneider, who all helped finance the BP, with the latter becoming a close friend of Newton. Alas these were the elites of the Panther passion play, a storyline avoided or excised by OCM curators.
One of the many well-known posters by Panther artist, Emery Douglas, who also designed the Panther paper. image: courtesy E. Douglas
When I began researching the Panthers in West Oakland about five years ago, asking friends, people on the street, in community organizations, I found mostly noble but also tragic and conflicted memories. People often disputed or denied rumors or reports about Panther abuses of power or their internecine fighting or killings, even though West Oakland does not have a memorial, mural or even back-wall graffiti honoring the Panthers, which suggests local sentiment.
While young people of all colors flocked to Panther rallies in West Oakland, many older residents came to consider the movement incompatible with the black church, of which there are many in the neighborhood, and, eventually, too violent and risky. Panther achievements in self-defense, image-making and philanthropy are remarkable but knowing the whole story is also essential, see cS article “
The Black Panther Filmography
“Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future,” noted President Barack Obama at the opening of the National African American Museum on September 24th, an important moment in American culture as well as interracial dialogue, especially amidst a racialized presidential campaign but also Obama's victory lap. “Yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable."
The African American Museum covers the entire African-American experience, including the Black Panthers, but, as with the Oakland Museum, they avoid the story's more Shakespearean side. Without a clear-eyed view of history, however, can we heal the wounds, build on the Panthers' important successes and avoid repeating their errors?
Many colorful covers from the Panther paper, which was well-distributed nation-wide. photo: courtesy D. Blair
A few years after the demonstrations, confrontations and shoot-outs of the '60s, BP co-founder Bobby Seale renounced violence and identity politics and ran for Oakland mayor (1973), doing amazingly well and winning 40% of the vote. A few years later, the mercurial Eldridge Cleaver—the party’s third titan, first famous for his prison essays, “Soul on Ice” (1968)—moved back from overseas, served time and converted from black nationalist and revolutionary to Christian and Republican! Meanwhile, the African-American judge Lionel Wilson became mayor of Oakland and moved the city on from a century of conservative, repressive and often corrupt leadership.
If digested properly, the BP experience contributes much to the multiculturalism that undergirds the liberalism of California, where Newton, Angela Davis and other radicals got reasonably fair trails even in the '60s, or America, which eventually elected a president who was not only black but a Chicago community organizer, acquainted with some of that city's many Panthers and radicals. Indeed, Panther history is important not only for a renewed Oakland but America.
President Obama reminded us from the steps of the African American Museum that “I, too, am America” and so are the Black Panthers: from their support of Open Carry gun laws and attitudes towards self-defense to their legitimate political aspirations and use of California's media machine.
As Obama went on to say, almost as if to address the Panthers: "[P]rotest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other... men can proudly win the gold for their country but still insist on raising a black-gloved fist," referring to African-American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Bringing it up-to-date, he added, "We can wear a 'I Can’t Breathe' T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers."
Also very American is Oakland itself. Certainly, the Oakland Museum of California should be a prime advocate for the city's ressumption of a larger national role, as it played in the 60s, and which it stands to do again with the influx of activists and artists, musicians and marijuana growers, Uber and Pandora workers.
Portraits of the many hard, working rank-and-file Panthers. photo: courtesy D. Blair
Although it is essential to highlight the Panther's good work in a manner suitable for children and tourists, without one display or video investigating the fact that, along with revolution coming from the barrel of a gun, so do abusive warlords, Oaklanders are not fully informed.
“A great nation doesn’t shy from the truth,” as President Obama said, quoting an earlier remark by President Bush, and the same is true of a great city.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Oct 19, 2016 - 06:16 PM