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Designing The Black Panthers

We talk to Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther party, about how he came to join the Black Panther Party, the Internet, and what the images and icons of today's racial justice movements are missing.

[Image: © 2016 Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

From 1968 to 1980, supporters of the Black Panther Party could keep up with the mission and progress of the movement through its weekly newspaper, the Black Panther. In the years directly following the March on Washington and the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, when the frustrations that fueled the mainstream Civil Rights movement seemed to have subsided, the newspaper vocalized the political and social turbulence still simmering beneath the surface.

With its bold typographic headlines, powerful language, and striking depictions of black people in America, the Black Panther paper highlighted persistent inequality. Creating its distinctive look was the job of Emory Douglas, an activist, graphic designer, and the Black Panther Party's minister of culture. Brought on by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the cofounders of the party, Douglas quickly started incorporating his revolutionary artwork into the paper, as well as designing posters and pamphlets for community programming.

Along with the Black Panther black berets, military-style machine guns, and the symbol of the stalking panther, Douglas's artwork branded the political movement at a time before "branding" was a thing. Douglas was on a mission to bring racial issues to the fore, and to do it in a medium that anyone could understand.

Amber Gregory /Font Shop via Flickr

His unique graphic style—bold black outlines, striking use of color, as well as his frequent illustrations of "pigs" (Douglas is the one who coined the use of the term to describe police)—still define the Black Panther Party for people today. And in the last decade, Douglas's work has enjoyed a renewed popularity: Rizzoli published a book of his work in 2007, both the New Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles have held retrospectives, and last year, the New York-based production company Dress Code made him the subject of a short documentary that was shared widely. These days, Douglas gives lectures and makes politically charged artwork, but he is no longer affiliated with a particular movement.

Many of the same issues he was visualizing more than 50 years ago haven't gone away, and are being confronted by movements like Black Lives Matter and others—which makes it an especially relevant time to revisit his work. We talked to Douglas about how he came to join the Black Panther Party, how the Internet has changed protest artwork, and what the images and icons of today's racial justice movements are missing.

Co.Design: You discovered printmaking under more unusual circumstances than most. You started working at a print shop while incarcerated at the Youth Training School in Ontario, California, as a teen. What drew you to the printmaking process back then?

Emory Douglas: Well, basically it was just the beginning of learning that process. You had an option of where you wanted to work, and I chose to work in the print shop. At the time the teacher and the person who ran the print shop were developing labels that they would use to send the packages out. They asked me to design the labels and showed me the specific process of how that was done at that time. So that was my first introduction to graphic production and that type of artwork.

You went on to study graphic design at City College of San Francisco, which is where you also got involved in political activism. Have graphic design and activism always been intertwined for you?

Well, you could say that, yes. Going to City College of San Francisco, I was introduced to the Black Arts Movement, which introduced me to many of the political icons that I wasn’t aware of at the time. When I went to CCSF, that’s also when I developed my basic skills in commercial arts. The counselor there suggested that I take up commercial art, and it’s a good thing that I did because commercial art teaches you a very broad basic production process in designing, from the drawing classes to printing to layout and design. All of those skills you learn in the commercial art field.

So that played into the work that I did while I was in the Black Panther Party. While I was at CCSF I did get involved in the political activity at the time, which was connected to a lot of the people who were involved in the Black Arts Movement. Many of them went to San Francisco State College, which was about a 15- to 20-minute drive from CCSF. A lot of the cultural and civic activity of the time would take place at State College. I would go out there because a lot of people who I knew from the Black Arts Movement were inviting people like [civil rights activist] Stokely Carmicheal and many others to the campus to talk and do presentations. And then you have [Black Arts Movement activist] Sonya Sanchez, who was a teacher at State College. So I got involved with them doing social programs.

At CCSF my first introduction into these issues was when I got involved in the group trying to change the name of the student association that was then called the Negro Student Association to the Black Student Association. This was during the black power era of conscious race and self-determination: defining for yourself who you are beyond the fact of being defined as negro. Defining yourself as black or African-American. That was the debate at the time. And that was a very revolutionary thing within itself. It was antiestablishment; it was going against the colonial situation in regards to how they had defined you as negro. So that was resistance to the establishment not just in CCSF but across the country.

Were you designing for these different organizations and causes?

I was designing for the Black Arts Movement. I was hanging out with Marvin X, who was a playwright and who knew [writer] Amiri Baraka well. They were doing a lot of street theater, and I would do a lot of the flyers for the different programs and different presentations they were putting together, along with icon posters within the Black Arts Movement itself.

© 2016 Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

What was your introduction to the Black Panther Party?

At CCSF we had an organization as well that was concerned about what was gong on in the country. We—as a lot of young people were—we were trying to figure out what we could do and how we could make a contribution to changing the situation. It was similar to today, a very intense period. A lot of rebellion across the country. . . . Young black men being murdered and it always being justified.

We had a meeting off-campus and one of the young men in our group said he had heard of a group in Oakland patrolling the community and he didn’t know what it was. That was the first I heard of anyone patrolling the community with guns.

Then I was invited to a meeting that was planning to bring Malcom X’s widow to the Bay Area. I was invited because people in the Black Arts Movement knew of my artwork and my contributions to the movement. So I was asked to come to the meetings so I could do the poster for that event. When I was in that meeting they were discussing some brothers coming over to the next meeting, when they would decide if they would do security for the event or not. When they came over—that was [Black Panther cofounders] Huey Newton and Bobby Seale—they came over and gave the talk for what their contribution would be. I went over and asked how I could join the Black Panther movement, and they gave me their cards.

I used to catch a bus to Huey’s house early in the morning. We’d go out into the community, and he'd introduce me to people in the neighborhood involved in the movement. And then we’d go over to Bobby Seale's house. That was my first introduction to the Black Panther Party. It was late January 1967 and I began to make my transition from Black Arts Movement to the Panther party.

You developed a very specific graphic style while you were there that has come to define the Black Panther Party visually. How did you take what Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were saying and translate it into a salient visual message?

It was more about the Ten Point Program that Huey and Bobby had created as a philosophical, theoretical, and political guide for the Black Panther Party and the practice of the organization itself. The artwork was guided by that and the concerns that the organization had about the injustice that was taking place and the lack of services for the community. Dealing with concepts like what we now call the prison industrial complex, as well as black men getting killed from military service.

In the initial stages I did not just do the artwork, but also the production of the newspaper. I was cutting and pasting the newspapers together as well because I learned those skills at the CCSF. And then I started integrating my artwork into the newspaper at the request of Huey Newton when he asked me to do the first pig drawing for the newspaper.

The Black Panther Party was targeted by the FBI, but I’ve seen you say in interviews that if people today were confronting police like the Black Panthers did in the 1960s, they would get themselves killed. How has the social and political climate changed in regards to the racial justice movement? And how has that influenced the artwork?

It's changed because they have had think tanks for many years now regarding how to defeat any type of conscious uprising such as what took place in the 1960s. The things [the police] did illegally then, they're doing legally now, so they can’t be confronted with claims of illegality.

What's an example of that?

Well the simplest example is that protesters get eight years for protesting. That there is a fascist act. That there is injustice in itself. When you care about your constitution, the right to free speech and go out to demonstrate, and they put you in jail for eight years.

Now they continue to put people in positions in law enforcement and in the judicial system that they know will go along with the status quo. In that context, it's repression. It was repression then, but it's a different kind of repression today because they've tried to negate any type of mass enlightening and informing they could. But its a blessing that people in the digital age can use the Internet as a tool to connect, almost in real time, to people around the world.

Right, so the Black Lives Matter movement started online and is largely fueled by the digital tools we have now. When you started working with the Black Panthers, the newspaper was a pretty low-cost, DIY operation. How have you seen the Internet change protest art?

As far as the production aspect goes, you can turn it over quicker. You can do something with an hour that would take you days and days to produce back then. Back then you had to visualize by sketching, understand how it was going to be applied, and guess how it wold look in advance. Now you can do it digitally, and it's right there.

Flickr user Elvert Barnes

Have you seen any images or symbols come out of the Black Lives Matter movement that strike you as particularly powerful?

Maybe it's coming, but I haven't really seen a whole lot of it. I've seen the T-shirts and stuff with "Black Lives Matter," but not the art dealing with different issues. Not on a broad scale. They're not dealing with housing issues, unemployment, antiwar, solidarity with people around the world. I’ve seen them engage and interact and oppose those issues, but I haven't seen the art reflect that just yet.

Do you have advice for politically motivated artists on how they can be doing that better?

Basically just be informed. You can only go so far on the emotions of it because sometimes emotion is a direct experience of being confronted with oppression. But then thereafter, to broaden the scope and understanding and bring it into your art, you have to have a basic understanding of the issues you're being confronted with. You have to have a relevant reference to get your information from.

Have you been approached by anyone asking you make work for Black Lives Matter?

No, I tell everyone I’m retired [laughs]. It's too much stress meeting the deadline. I've put in 50 years designing for the Black Panther Party and beyond. I still do art that has social meaning to it, but I try to do it just whenever I can, not meeting deadline.

The Black Lives Matter branding has been co-opted by advertisers, by people who have adopted the slogans "All Lives Matter," or "Blue Lives Matter." Did you see your graphic style for the Black Panthers co-opted or misused either within the civil rights movement or outside of it?

Well, back in the day the mainstream wasn’t really trying to co-opt us [laughs]. Once the art becomes concentrated on people and the multiple forms that injustice can take, they will not want to try to co-opt it.

Back then we had no problem sharing work for political purposes as long as it was requested for specific purposes and continued the sharing and getting the message out. That was a way of transcending beyond the party.

That's all a part of the growth process. What I'm observing is that Black Lives Matter is a broad movement, so it has to come from the movement itself how they are going to deal with social issues through art.

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