Arts Program Builds Culture of Resistance and Family
by Eric Thomas Campbell
As a discipline, art is usually associated with material forms of creative output—painting, drawing, or sculpting. But engaging in the very human reflex to express ourselves is also a way to insure that we develop our social and political environment. It takes vision and imagination to look beyond the world we live in, acknowledge its contradictions and injustices, and manifest a new direction. Artistic expression also functions as a form of resistance and healing. It can convey, all at once, the suffering caused by injustices and the determination to overcome them.
Aware of the impact that art can make in the political realm, the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program began this past summer on the lower eastside as an extension of Feedom Freedom’s once-a-month ‘Arts In the Garden’ program. In that unrestricted setting, exercising the imagination wasn’t limited to what showed up on the canvas. Painting classes in the garden of Feedom Freedom and the nearby Hope Community Church were held in conjunction with projects related to local food production and food security. Making paint from egg whites stemmed from the idea that community control begins with producing our own tools.
A committed group of activists, local businesses, students, and the parents that frequently stayed behind to participate alongside them, has emerged out of this very grassroots effort, strengthening the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood in the process.
This is the greater opportunity that emerges from attention to culture, arts and community says Feedom Freedom and Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program co-founder, Wayne Curtis. He has found that just coming together with one common goal, in this case to paint or draw, is an act of resistance and a foundation on which to build a stronger community.
“We’re building and legitimizing this culture that creates the roles and the responsibility and the creativity all in the one bag,” Curtis told Riverwise. “Culture to me is, what do you do in order to exist in a particular environment? This particular environment is capitalism. So what do we do to transform this system and survive at the same time? So this creates a culture of resistance and sustainability, and transformation. That’s what we’re initiating.”
Curtis has led the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program with an informal artistic background that stems from his school days when he used drawing and painting as an escape from a hostile world. He attended Ferris State University before enlisting for duty in Vietnam, where he was introduced to the Black Panther Party Newspaper by a friend back in Detroit who would send him copies regularly. In addition to keeping him informed on vital issues back home, the paper introduced Curtis and other Black enlistees to Black liberation politics.
“It was an emotional connection for Black troops, and an education about the movement back home,” says Curtis.
Returning home in 1970, Curtis joined the Detroit Chapter of the Black Panthers and became more familiar with the revolutionary art of Emory Douglas. Douglas’ images adorned the pages of the weekly publication, inspiring countless readers with his graphic representations of political resistance in Black communities. He famously depicted the incessant brutality of law enforcement in urban ghettos by drawing police officers as ‘pigs’– the characterization attained a permanent place in the Black Power vocabulary.
The legacy of the Panther movement has emerged in many present day community-building efforts in Detroit. As Curtis’ own work evolved to the point of being in demand in Detroit art circles, his time was increasingly devoted to community development through the arts. Developing Feedom Freedom’s ‘Art in the Garden’ offered him the time and the space to develop a youth program while paying homage to Douglas, promoting a style of art that transforms and uplifts.
The Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program is not the Black Panther Party, according to Curtis, but many of the basic tenets are the same— specifically, organizing people around our needs and recognizing that we are not dependent on a corporate/political system that does not sustain or support us. Forward progress depends on self-empowerment and creating our own political policies.
“Like the free breakfast program, that was a political policy that we, the people, initiated and, because of that, it got the corporate structure on point because, they said, well, here are the people with hardly no resources, and they’re feeding 400 children every day, at one site,” says Curtis. “The ideology was basically the same, but one of things that changes is that there’s more participation from the neighborhood itself. People donate food and we hope to continue that– but also to heighten, not just the participation, but the awareness of the need to understand what collaboration and collectivism is all about. We do have the power to resolve problems that we have— with all of the resources and information right in our backyard.”
Participants in the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program range from ages five to fifteen, along with parents who, while waiting for the class to end, inevitably find a paint brush and paper of their own. The classes have taken place in the Feedom Freedom garden or the Hope Community Church during the cooler season. The program has garnered support from longtime supporters, but also new support from local businesses and restaurants, such as Harmonie Gardens and Rose’s Fine Dining, who have donated food and supplies to keep participants immersed.
Being able to show their work publically, students have benefited greatly in the area of self-confidence, according to one of the Emory Douglas Arts Program’s staunchest supporters, activist Daryl Jordan. Last year Jordan, a senior organizer at the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC), walked the neighborhood with Curtis, passing out leaflets door-to-door and recruiting participants for the summer session. He says that the importance of Emory Douglas’ work and other work like it goes beyond political agitation; it communicates ideas in new ways, thus reaching a wider audience.
“There are a whole lot of Panthers that have legacies and reputations that we lift up, either in our popular education, or our counterculture remembrances, but talking about Emory Douglas, we began to put some things in place,” Jordan states. “The role that he played was that he took art and began to use it to help people understand issues and problems in the community that were pretty deep, pretty complex. But art became a way to relate to it in a different kind of way, so almost everybody could understand what he was talking about.”
Curtis adds to that sentiment, saying that Douglas’ work with the Panthers and his very graphic style, imaginative yet intentional, had the effect of bringing folks together. As the message reached its intended audience, people were able to coalesce around similar experiences.
“Because of his ability, he created symbols, symbols of education. The symbol was worth a trillion words. When he talked about the ‘pigs’–people knew exactly– they correlated this image of the pig with police brutality, the brutality of the system. Not just the police were pigs, but the whole industrial complex were pigs, because they were greedy, they didn’t care about life. And so the people related to that. The drawings helped organize people.”
In Detroit, current efforts to cease local governments policies incorporating school closures, mortgage and tax home foreclosures and water shut-offs have often utilized graphic elements to embellish messages of hope and resistance. One of the most recognized is the “Free The Water” tag that was placed prominently on the Highland Park water tower by Detroit artists William Luka and Antonio Cosme in 2015.
The [relevant] placement and content of their message was meant to inform and organize viewers around a life-and-death issue– that of water accessibility. Its effectiveness was in reminding onlookers that water, a readily available resource, is being denied to Detroit residents and the consequences are dire for the affected communities.
In both public and charter school curriculums, diminished resources have mutated once-thriving art departments into after-school extension programs. For many families, the promise of providing the means to a well-rounded education, including development of our creative being as a social tool, is at stake.
Art programs that exist outside of the traditional school setting, many with strong community ties, tend to ignore the social and political aspects of self-expression that have been a integral part of social justice movements in any era. Jordan says that this fusion of the arts and community awareness at the core of the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program is an opportunity to examine how education, in any discipline, may include aspects of social responsibility that focus on community issues first.
“My take is that Baba (Wayne) offered the young people a different kind of way to express themselves, by showing them that they can use art as a creative way to say the kinds of things that they want to say or to draw a vision or a picture of the world, the community, whatever it is, the way you see it,” Jordan states. ” In some ways you’re beginning to let these young folks know that once you’ve got the skills you can use these things to tell people things you want them to know, or to share bits and pieces of yourself. Its on you to figure out what you want to do with it, but now you have the skill and you can do almost anything you want to. You can make your own T-shirts and say anything you want it to say. Those kinds of things become powerful in a community where education has been shortchanged.”
For more information on the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts program, call 313-288-2334 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Sidebar: Emory Douglas Visits in April To Support Arts Program That Bears His Name
Emory Douglas will be in Detroit to support the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts fundraiser on April 18 at the Cinema Detroit Theater, where students from the Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program will showcase their artwork alongside the work of Emory Douglas himself.
The night will feature a showing of “The Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution”, a 2015 full-length documentary exploring the role the Black Panthers played in 1960s and 70s American culture and the group’s contribution to the continuing development of the movement for Black liberation.
Emory Douglas was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the 1980s, during which time he managed the art direction, design and illustration for the Black Panther Party newspaper.
The Detroit Chapter of Black Lives Matter will help welcome Douglas to Detroit and is helping to coordinate the April 18 fundraiser. BLM senior organizer John Sloan told Riverwise the legacy of the Panthers and their attention to strengthening relationships through community-based activity is what Emory Douglas Family Youth Arts Program has emulated and successfully built on. It should be widely supported.
“It’s the way in which they (Black Panthers) engaged with the community, using the arts to foster family togetherness and build community relationships,” Sloan says. “We don’t want to lose sight of raising money for a group that has done so much on a bootstrap budget.”
The Detroit Independent Freedom School has also contributed support to facilitate Emory Douglas’ visit to Detroit. For more information, call or email leadership@BLMDetroit.com.