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Emory Douglas and the Art of the Black Panther Party
Spectrum: A Journal on Black Men, Volume 5, Number 1, Fall 2016, pp. 117-135
Published by Indiana University Press
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Emory Douglas and the
Art of the Black Panther
ABSTRACT: There is a cycle in the visual dialogue on race in America.
Constrained within the prevailing cultural lexicon, expressions of resistance emerge in the language of the Black cultural vernacular; the message is co-opted or suppressed and then emerges again from “behind
the veil.” Advancements in the fields of visual culture and semiotics
have provided a model to better understand how political and cultural
messages are communicated through the visual mediums of popular
culture. In this essay I will examine the language of symbols and images
that go essentially unexamined and unrecognized in political research, a
language that affects everyday perceptions of political reality. It is in the
context of the use of symbols and images in meaning production that I
will explore the art of Emory Douglas and the use of images in the Black
Panther newspaper and community outreach in the critical period of
1969 to 1973. These images and symbols created a communal visual
language of resistance that has resurfaced periodically over time and
can be found in the contemporary struggle for Black liberation.
I am invisible, understand,
simply because people refuse to see me
When they approach me, they see only my surroundings,
themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed,
everything and anything except me—Ralph Ellison
They are guerrilla theatre
so masterfully done that . . .
Spectrum, 5(1), 117–135. Copyright © 2016 Trustees of Indiana University and The Ohio
State University. doi: 10.2979/spectrum.5.1.06
everybody began to believe them
and to be frightened of them—Newsweek, 1970
In a discussion of The Invisible Man, James B. Lane (1973) analyzes Ralph Ellison’s
seminal novel in the context of the protagonist’s journey to reveal his Black male
identity. He concludes:
Ellison’s fundamental assumption . . . was that black people became recognizable only when they suppressed their real self and conformed to emasculating
parodies of the white man’s self-contradictory image of them. In their twisted
psyches, white Americans had defined black men as violence-prone yet childlike, docile yet unpredictable, oppressed yet happy, impulsive yet stoic, primitive yet religious, and supermasculine yet impotent in contact with whites.
With gallows humor Ellison exposed how white society perpetrated their
absurd racial myths . . . (p. 66 )
It is the dichotomous image of Black men embedded in the White mind that would
continue to be the underlying issue confronting the Black Panthers a generation
later. Van De Burg (1992) writes, “The concept of self-definition was central to the
Black Power experience. It was an essential component of the ‘revolution of the
mind’ that militants believed was a prerequisite for the successful implementation
of their plan for acquiring power” (p. 26).
To Huey Newton, who was well versed in Fanon, the struggle to be “seen” and
recognized as strong Black men was the motivation for much of the image and rhetoric of the Black Panthers. Like Ellison the “men of words” that constituted much of
the leadership of the party were proficient in the use of the double-voiced strategy
of signifying and the prolific use of metaphor, myth, and euphemism. The difficulty
was that the Panthers were communicating in the language of Black liberation in
a political discourse within the hegemonic White political and cultural paradigm.
While communicating in the same lexicon, the meanings diverged. Speaking the
language of Black radicalism, the Black Panthers were heard and understood by the
White community in the language of Lockean liberalism. They were defining self
within an alternative system in which they existed primarily as negative stereotypes.
They were fixed in the essentialism of the “White gaze.”
The Black Panther’s strategy of projecting a strong Black visual image to
become “visible” and convey strength contradicted the deep-seated stereotypes
understood and accepted as “truth” by most of dominant society. Misinterpreting
the meaning of Black signs, White authorities and the public understood the message in the context of the established dichotomy of “Sambo” or “Brute.” Because
of these conflicting interpretations, the specter of armed Black men was therefore
Duncan / Art of the Black Panther Party
perceived as a threat and was met with a violent backlash, most notably by the
mainstream press, the FBI, and COINTELLPRO (See Jones, 1988).
Bederman (1995) notes that because society is so vested in the established
political and cultural paradigm, only “certain types of truths” and “certain possibilities for action” are “imaginable,” but possibilities for “dissent and resistance always
remain” (p. 24). The Black Panthers’ strategy attempted to create an alternative to
the dominant paradigm at the margins of White society, from “behind the veil,”
that demonstrated vibrant and vital Black culture under its own terms using its
own language. The Black Panther’s message was articulated overtly in a visual and
verbal narrative played out in the pages of the Black Panther newspaper. In this
essay I will examine the Black radical “second language” as expressed visually by
artist Emory Douglas using the traditional African American sign system in new
and innovative ways.
THE BLACK PANTHER COMMUNITY NEWS SERVICE
The Black Panther Black Community News Service was founded in April 26,
1967, shortly after the party’s inception and after the shooting death by the police
of an unarmed Black man. The first edition was printed on folded 11 x 17” paper
and the shooting was used to proselytize on the party doctrine of self-defense. The
paper at its strongest had a weekly circulation of 100,000 and served as the party’s
voice and an important Black alternative to the mainstream press.
Defined by the Black Panthers as an “instrument of political education” for
the purpose of “countering misinformation,” the paper stated that it was “free from
the distortion, bias, and lies of the oppressor controlled mass media.” Composed of
information concerning the party’s community programs, ideological instruction,
international news, and political editorials, the paper was infused with encoded
cultural signs and contained many visual images to accommodate a community in
which Western literacy was not universal, but the African American aural and visual
vernacular was easily recognized. A May 1968 article from the Black Panther newspaper describes the significance of art in disseminating their message and explains,
“The Black Panther Party calls it revolutionary art—this kind of art enlightens
the party to continue its vigorous attack against the enemy, as well as educate the
masses of black people—we do this by showing them through pictures” (as cited in
Foner, 1995, p.16).
I will attempt to demonstrate a consistent thread of African American visual
signs of resistance from slavery as manifested in the Black Panther newspaper by
its primary artist, Emory Douglas. As Minister of Culture, artist, and layout editor,
the hidden text in the images of Emory Douglas facilitated an important cultural
dialogue within the African American community. His artwork mirrored the message and myth of the party and the signifying tradition of Black figurative language
use. The traditional signifiers of the African American visual lexicon, the mask and
the trickster, and techniques such as parody, repetition, and reversal were encoded
in his artwork. Douglas served as a visual griot relating myth and story in his images.
THE HIDDEN TRANSCRIPT
African Americans, because of their isolated culture, were intimately familiar with the dominant American political languages. They were also fluent in the
distinct language of African American resistance, part biblical, part liberal, and
part radical, the creolized language of their own culture, forged in slavery, pieced
together like a quilt from fragments of their own experience, elements of African
and American. This is the language of the “hidden transcript” they had used interchangeably, depending on the historical moment and level of racial oppression. As
a common cultural practice, it was used in a double-voiced manner in which the
meaning changed with the audience. Much of the vernacular language of Black radicalism was visual, silent but easily interpreted in Black urban communities. In order
to join the public dialogue, Black Panther leadership had to speak in a way that was
understood by the mainstream but had a visceral meaning for the Black community.
The backlash to what appeared to dominant White culture to be a menacing Black
force was understood in the black community as the inversion of Uncle Tom and
Sambo as a powerful Black man integral to the Black Panther myth.
THE MYTH OF THE BLACK PANTHERS
Each rebellion authors itself into being and in doing so creates its own myth.
In a discussion of the Polish Workers Revolt, John Roberts (1989) notes that there
existed a “long prehistory” embedded in the everyday culture of the people: “Each
failure lay down another sedimentary layer of popular memory that would nourish
the movement” until its success in the 1980s (p. 212). This phenomenon, Roberts
argues, is common among oppressed groups and was uniquely manifested in the
African American struggle for liberation.
African American liberation myth contains elements from the early slave folklore that originated in the oral culture of their African heritage. The mythologized
lore of early slave rebellion and African trickster tales is the foundation of the symbols and iconography that surrounded the resistance of the Black Power movement.
The use of parody and the coded polemic created a double-voiced narrative that
Duncan / Art of the Black Panther Party
was, in Bakhtin’s words, “a battlefield of opposing intentions” (as cited in Gates,
1988, p. 110) between dominant society and marginalized Blacks. The defiant
message of liberation and Black manhood was communicated through the cultural
vernacular of the Black Power movement. As Paulla Ebron (1998) observes, these
included “powerful popular stories of community narrated by African American
men . . . . In these men’s stories, African American ethnic pride is achieved through
the development of masculine agency and its imagined product: male-dominated
urban communities” (p. 95).
The myth of the Black Panthers is the story of the “underdog” who seized
power and now controls the meaning of Black image and identity. This myth is
an evolution of the stories of Frederick Douglas and Marcus Garvey and the lore
of Stackolee and the Monkey tales. It was encoded in all Black vernacular mediums, in their iconography, dress, poetry, rhetoric, art, and rituals. The Panther
logo, the raised fist, the black beret, the mask, and spear were all used as signifiers
to establish and communicate the myth. Their verbal and visual narrative and its
connotations permeated African American urban communities as stories of power
and tradition, the trickster tales of the victorious underdog. It became both the
strength and eventual downfall of the party, as their outspoken call for power was
answered with arrests, imprisonment, political asylum, and the violent deaths of
THE BLACK HERO
In both image and rhetoric the message of the Black Panthers followed the
characteristics of the “man of words” signifying on the power of the White authorities. In Figures in Black, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1987) states that “black rhetorical
tropes, subsumed under signifying, would include marking, loudtalking, testifying,
callout (of one’s name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens, and so on” (p. 169).
These “signifying” strategies converged in the Black Panther paper and became the
basis for their visual and rhetorical style. Party leaders were the embodiment of the
folkloric heroes of the past: part wily “signifying monkey,” part Badman Stackolee.
They spun a tale of imagined possibilities for the African American community
regardless of the seemingly overwhelming dominance of White meaning production and control of the media.
Roberts (1989) writes, “If oppressed groups misconstrue the world, it is as
often to imagine that the liberation they desire is coming as to reify domination” (p.
148). The mythical narrative of “Black Power” embodied by the Panthers infused
segments of Black urban communities, especially young men, with an energy and
purpose they hadn’t felt toward the nonviolent movement. The January 17, 1970
edition of the paper includes this statement by Panther leader Landon Williams:
The Black Panther Black Community News Service is not an ordinary newspaper. It is the flesh and blood, the sweat and tears of our people. It is a
continuation of the story of the middle passage, of Denmark Vesey, of Nat
Turner, of Harriet Tubman, of Malcolm X, and countless other oppressed
people who put freedom and dignity beyond personal gain. The Black
Panther Black Community News Service is truly a mirror of the spirit of the
people. (p. 14)
The hypermasculine visual image of the Black Panthers mirrored the aggressive
rhetorical style of Eldridge Cleaver. Using the urban Black signifiers and style
identified by Gates, he openly challenged the enduring stereotypes of Black male
weakness with oppositional verbal and visual representations. His style of “marking
and loudtalking” is described by Claybourn Carson (1995) as his “uniquely caustic, bombastic verbal attacks on white authorities” (xii). This type of verbal wordplay is, however, an important part of Black vernacular. Cleaver, recently released
from prison, was drawn to the party by the powerful televised image of the armed,
uniformed Panthers escorting Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow. As a celebrity
Cleaver was able to draw press coverage and became Minister of Information and
editor of the newspaper, initiating the type of publicity that Newton felt was integral in getting the message to the people. The narrative of Black Power that Newton,
Cleaver, and the other leadership projected was, however, interpreted quite differently by the White media.
BLACK PANTHERS IN THE WHITE MEDIA
Michael Staub (1997) writes that in 1970 two articles appeared in New York
magazine that set the parameters for how White media and, therefore, the White
public would view the Black Panthers: Gail Sheehy’s “Panthermania” and Tom
Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” He argues that these articles served
to influence reader’s perceptions of Black liberation and “shaped the memory of
the Panther’s and their white supporters” as depictions fluctuated between “violence-prone menace” to “oversexed media sweetheart(s)” (p. 56). Until late 1969
the Panthers had received little press outside of the Bay area and it wasn’t until the
appearance of these articles that they began to be described in what Staub calls
“folk devil language.” From that point on the coverage alternated from “demonizing
rhetoric” to “trivialization” as “panic” concerning the Panthers emerged and began
to escalate. The image of political efficacy that the Panthers sought to convey was
Duncan / Art of the Black Panther Party
systematically undermined. It was their trivialization in the press that Staub argues
had the most devastating effect on the strong male image the Panthers were struggling to project.
The media from the mid-1970s conveyed “a set of metaphoric images and
associations” that mirrored and reinforced that pervasive racist dichotomy by either
“fearmongering” or representing the Panthers as “sniggeringly derisive” (Staub,
1997, p. 59). The Atlantic, for example, both “infantalized” them, referring to them
as “boy scouts with guns,” and at the same time “demonized” them, equating Bobby
Seale with Hitler, “To Seale, even more than to Hitler, the gun is a mystic symbol of defiance and virility.” They also appropriated the Afrocentric referents of the
Black Power movement in a denigrating way by referring to the assassinated Mark
Hampton as a Panther “chieftain.”
For her part, Gail Sheehy, writing in the pages of New York magazine, used
similar tactics, shifting from projecting the Black Panthers as a threat to expressions of ridicule, referring to them as both a “deadly virus” and “passé . . . political
infants.” Staub (1997) observes that Sheehy also implemented the timeworn tactic
of equating Blacks with nature, “an unquenchable brush fire . . . fueled by the Santa
Ana winds” simply a “natural hazard of California life.” Joan Didion in the Saturday
Evening Post earlier described Huey Newton as “a bright child with a good memory . . . a fun-fair machine where pressing a button elicits great thoughts on selected
subjects” (as cited in Staub, 1997, p. 63).
Thomas Wolfe, on the other hand, focused on the wealthy White liberals who
supported the Panthers while at the same time casting aspersions on the Panthers
themselves. Tapping into racist White notions of Black male sexuality and fears of
miscegenation, he narrated an imagined discussion between Bobby Seale and a tall
young blond at a Leonard Bernstein fundraiser. Noting the Panthers para-military
outfits, he remarks that, “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three
sized too big” and again draws on the minstrel stereotype of the naive Black dandy
fated to fail in their desire to fit into elite White society. Following this trend, the
Panthers were depicted unfavorably in the mainstream White media as a “Motley
crew of unstable, paranoid black juvenile delinquents” (Staub, 1997, p. 57). The
media attention was in fact projecting the same binary stereotypes that had successfully marginalized Blacks since slavery.
CONTRADICTORY PERCEPTION OF POWER
In 1969 the University of Michigan conducted an attitudinal study in postriot Detroit (1967) on the differing perceptions by Black and White citizens of
the slogan Black Power. Their findings elicited these results, “for the white citizen
the slogan usually provokes images of black domination or contemporary unrest
which he cannot understand or tolerate. For the black citizen, it is more likely
to raise subtle issues of tactics and emphasis in the racial struggle” (Aberback &
Walker, 1970, p. 368). The debate over the role of Blacks in society and the strategy
to reach equality was not undisputed in the Black or White community, but there
were dramatic racial differences in how the concept of Black Power sharing was
In Black communities the goal of political, cultural, and economic equality
was the same, but the strategies and tools differed. In White communities, the
thought of Blacks holding political or economic power elicited connotations of
Black incompetence or fear of retaliation. The ambiguity of the Black Power slogan
created difficulties in defining the issue to the public and therefore Black demands
and the conditions that drove them were left open to multiple interpretations.
Meaning was construed through the semiotic connotations to which one ascribed.
Harold Cruse writes, “While it tries to give more clarity to what forms Freedom will
assume in America . . . the Black Power dialogue does not close the conceptual gap
between shadow and substance” (as cited in Staub, 1997, p. 61). It is from this area
of “shadow” that Blacks had been forced to communicate resistance historically and
that had become a fundamental component of the Black vernacular. Furthermore,
it was the misinterpretation between Black cultural vernacular and White historical connotations that inhibited White and Black political discourse revealed in the
University of Michigan study.
In the University of Michigan study, the understanding of Black Power as
“Blacks Rule Whites” was noted by 38.6% of Whites and 7.3% of Blacks. At the
same time, an interpretation of shared power was noted by 42.2% of Blacks and
10.7% of Whites. Racial views in place for hundreds of years were again being
reiterated and reinforced by a new technological media 100 years after the 13th
amendment had encoded racial equality (Aberback & Walker, 1970, p. 370). The
Black Panther leadership understood who controlled the mainstream media and
therefore who held the power to define people and events to the public. Thus, a
prominent feature of the Black Panther was the evocative artwork, most often by
Emory Douglas, who used color and image as a vehicle to disseminate the message
of the party at the same time it signified on the White media.
Emory Douglas first became interested in art in the print shop at a juvenile
facility. Upon his release he began taking classes in graphic arts at San Francisco
City College, determined to turn his talent into a career. Outside of the classroom,