Interview conducted by Riverwise Collective; photos by Alex DaVeiga
Former Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Kathleen Cleaver and internationally recognized BPP artist Emory Douglas visited Detroit recently for a series of lectures and art workshops in support of the community center, Feedom Freedom, which has established an art program named after Douglas. One of the sessions with Emory and Kathleen included a long conversation with local artists and activists, including Riverwise editor Eric Campbell, Tzu Pore, Wayne Curtis, Tawana Petty, Ingrid LaFleur, Rich Feldman and Shea Howell. The following are excerpts from that intense, historic exchange, concerning key aspects of the African American liberation movement, ‘60s – ‘80s, reflections on the role of art in political work then and now, and thoughts on the way forward during the current era of right-wing politics in the United States. Ed.
Creating the iconic pig image of the Black Panther Party (BPP) newspaper
Emory Douglas: To put it in context, Huey and Eldridge started the paper and they had a vision of the paper to tell our story from our perspective. And it would be like a double-edged sword. It could praise you on the one hand and criticize you on the other. When I got involved, they wanted me to be the artist. My first title was Revolutionary Artist, which I liked. Then came the title Minister of Culture. Initially, I was mainly doing production work, cutting, pasting, those kinds of things. Maybe by the fourth or fifth paper is when I remember Huey giving me this pig caricature, clip art, that we were going to put in the paper every week…
Kathleen Cleaver: You mean the skinny one with no clothes?
Emory: …with four hooves, like a real pig. Each week, we would put on the pig the badge number of an officer who was harassing or intimidating, disrespecting people in the community. After I gave some thought to it, it just came to me: Why not stand the pig up on two hooves, keep the snout, the tail, the flies, the whole badge, the whole bit? And that became the image that [heightened recognition of] the Black Panther Party and became an iconic symbol that people identified with as being oppressed by the system of injustices taking place.
The BPP newspaper as a tool for organizing
Emory: It was definitely a tool. The community then wasn’t a reading community, but learned through observation and participation. So what they wanted to have in the paper was some large type print, with photographs and artwork for those who weren’t going to read the long articles in the paper, so they could get the gist of what was going on. So the artwork contributed to informing and enlightening the community. People would identify with the artwork. I remember when we did the Panther exhibition at MOMA in New York, we had a reception and a brother from Harlem said he used to take the paper every week and show the artwork on the back. Then you had people who said they could tell the politics of the Party by looking at the artwork. Those who were inspired, who couldn’t read and write began to learn how to read and write because they wanted to know what was going on. The Party had that kind of impact with the paper.
The evolving style of the paper
Emory: The style evolved as you critiqued and evaluated your work — improving it, not wanting to be monotonous in creating imagery and design elements inside the paper.
The Party’s approach to organizing
Kathleen: Well, we were very, what was the word we used, self-reliant. There’s a North Korean concept, “juche,” which means self-reliance. Once we heard of “juche,” we knew that’s what we had been doing anyway. So the idea was community organizing, activism. Eldridge had a slogan: “Ready or not, here we come.”
Emory: Plus we had a lot of hustlers who came into the Party. Now they were doing constructive things [to bring resources into the Party] as opposed to criminalizing and hustling off each other, and their skills were being used to uplift [the community].
Kathleen: We basically functioned on ideas of self-reliance and community support and donations. I don’t even remember any idea about getting grants….
Emory Douglas’s experience as a young BPP recruit
Emory: I was glad to be able to make a contribution and share my artwork for a cause, a constructive, positive cause. And that was the inspiration for doing the artwork … having this platform with the limited education I had going to junior college. It was a good thing I took up commercial art, as opposed to fine art. In commercial art you learn the production skills needed to put a publication together and design elements and all those things. So that played right into when we started the paper. I had those basic skills. In the Black Arts Movement, I had been doing posters with Amiri Baraka when he was out there in the Bay Area. All that played right into giving me that foundation. We were fearless, you could say, as young people. You’re just inspired!
Political prisoners in the movement
Kathleen: One of his [Emory’s] most famous and most appealing to me and lots of other people is a drawing done during the huge uprising in Newark, of LeRoi Jones, who later became Amiri Baraka. There was a lot of news about his arrest, along with the news about that uprising. And Emory did a drawing of Baraka’s face and his striped suit, his prison suit. It’s just so graphic and so memorable. Most people don’t think of Baraka as a prisoner, but this is what this poster was. And at that point being a prisoner was not a bad thing, in the rebellion of ’67.
Tzu: Was it more like a badge of coming of age, or a rite of passage?
Kathleen: Well, maybe later on you might look upon it as that, but we didn’t look at it like that.
Emory: No, it was just the reality of getting arrested for being involved.
Contributions of young people in the Black Panther Party
Kathleen: … It was a liberating time. Teenagers are imaginative. Their imaginations haven’t been suppressed yet. So that was the Black Panther Party in many ways — the imagination of teenagers. Maybe a little smattering of [older activists]. You know, Bobby Seale was about 30, Huey was 23, Eldridge was 31. We had a leader in New York, Chairman Brothers, who was in his 50s. But other than that, it was teenagers.
The role of art in contemporary social justice work
Emory: Well, I can say that some of the art is intellectually stimulating to individuals, but if you’re talking about art for the masses — that relates to [uplifting] all kinds of people, to enlighten — I think that it’s still lacking. There needs to be more art dealing with the social issues that we’re confronted with today, not only on a domestic level, but on an international level as well…. It can come out of the context of today, how artists interpret those things. There are artists doing it, but it’s not on the scale now as it was back then. You had all kinds of artists who were making political and social commentary during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The Vietnam War, worldwide revolution, and the African-American liberation movement
Emory: We had support committees of ex-Vietnam resisters who went to Scandinavia, who used to sell the BPP papers.
Kathleen: In Vietnam, there was a huge number of blacks. They [the U.S. military] hadn’t drafted so many Black people ever before. They were emptying out high schools to get the troops they needed for Vietnam and a large number were Black, who weren’t really happy about being treated in a racist manner. And they retaliated…. And what was intriguing, looking back, is how divided the United States was about the Vietnam War; but a whole lot of citizens could agree that it’s bad, and my son is not going to go. And so there were these women who would take their children, their boys, to Canada, others would go to Sweden and so this repudiation of the war in Vietnam [emerged]. I don’t think that’s ever happened in America, where the citizens and a large number of people supposed to be drafted refused to fight.
Emory: That’s why you don’t have the draft today. You’re not drafted.
Kathleen: Right, you have to volunteer, you have to show up.
Rich Feldman: There were ten million people in the streets protesting the Iraq War before it started and it didn’t matter — you know, worldwide. What was fundamentally different [from the Vietnam era], and I think this is the hard part for today’s folks to understand, is that there were rebellions in Detroit, in Newark, fifteen years after the movement starts, and freedom struggles were winning, they were winning across the world.
Kathleen: You mean the revolutionary side was winning, right?
Rich: Right, I mean it was a world where the empire was crumbling and then all that happens since that time is that the empire figures out how to respond in a very brutal way. That’s why we have counterrevolution now…. That’s why I appreciate the self-reliance conversation, ‘cause that’s where we end up coming back to.
Advancing justice work in today’s world
Emory: You have to learn the lessons from then and figure out how you’re going to do it today.
Kathleen: You can’t push a button and get your instructions — revolution in America, 2018. You can’t do that. You have to think it through and see who’s doing what. What do you call this — trial and error? Or what did Eldridge call it? He said, “good old Yankee doodle dandy can-do.”
Shea Howell: I think it’s hard for younger people to realize how much went on before things jumped off, before there was a movement here. There was so much work that people did.
Kathleen: Wait a minute! That was two generations of work. I’m thinking about my parents. My parents were activists. My father was in the movement to put an end to the all-white primary in Texas, which really was a life-threatening movement. I didn’t realize it at the time. I knew he did that, but I didn’t realize that people got murdered for trying to [change unjust practices]. And my mother was an activist. She was involved in something called Southern Negro Youth Congress, which was challenging segregation. In fact, my parents met here in Ann Arbor because they didn’t have any graduate school facilities for Black people in Tennessee, where my father was from, or in Virginia where my mother was from. So they had both graduated from college, but to do graduate work, Blacks could come to the University of Michigan as students. They just couldn’t live in the dormitories. So people in the community would take them in, which was fine.
So I grew up with people who were aware of challenging racism, the right to vote, so we’re kind of geared to [continuing the struggle]. I remember I would tell people that I was in the boycotts in Tuskegee. Well, actually I rode in the car when my parents would boycott and drive to Atlanta to buy groceries or whatever. We refused to shop because the Black citizens couldn’t get the right to vote…. In Tuskegee, the city changed the outline of the city limits to make sure all the Black people except for about four were outside, so they couldn’t vote…. People said it looked like a seahorse, the boundaries of the city. You know, most southern towns look like a square, that’s the boundary. Well, they didn’t like that square. There were too many Black people inside. It went up to the Supreme Court, argued by the NAACP, and they lost. Meanwhile, a lot of Black people never got to vote.
Emory: They never want what happened during the ‘60s to happen again. We almost started an American revolution.
Kathleen: It was an American revolution. It was just sabotaged.
Establishment strategies that undermined the movement
Emory: So they began to have think tanks and all that…. and then you had the crack cocaine come into the community, destroying communities. And then you had social programs cut back by Reagan; then you have babies having babies, four or five generations into that, with no assistance, no help. All these problems. That’s a disconnect, a whole other dynamic going on — people just trying to survive.
Then you have these youngsters … on TV 24 hours, seven days a week, MTV, BET. So now you have another dynamic you’re confronted with. You’re looking at the “bling, bling,” the Maseratis, the cars and all, before the conscious Hip-Hop comes in to play. Then today you’ve got people who’ve become a part of the middle class. They got a car, they got a house, some of ’em got a yacht, or whatever. They tryin’ to pay them bills and all those things. You’ve got those dynamics that you’re dealing with. So you got to figure out how you deal with that context today.
The necessity of creating spaces where new ideas and community can evolve
Kathleen: Lots of people can have ideas and lots of ideas are good ideas. But they have to have legs. It’s like Emory says, you know, like he gave the pigs their uniforms and then their hat and then, you know, it has to develop. So you have an idea, but then you have to have a crew. Then you have to have some resources, you have to have space…. That’s what organizing is. Talk to a preacher: They have to know how to get the church built. You have to get church members to show up — and the choir. In the Black community, church people usually are very good organizers.
Wayne Curtis: Right. It was like the Terminator. They understood the importance of neighborhood, so they brought in the dope, the crack. They destroyed the schools; they broke all that stuff down; maybe for different purposes but it took away our abilities. So I think that the Black Panther Party was very ahead of its time in creating the school, our own safety, our own means of providing safety, amongst ourselves and amongst the people…. So I think that creating community is even more important now. The Party created its own intelligentsia, and we still have to create our own means of analyzing things and making it happen. Cause you have a biological need, which is to answer those hunger pains, and you goin’ to have to find out a way to get some food in your stomach or shelter over your head, just like the Black Panther Party did.
Kathleen: That’s called community organizing.