Last week when mourners remembered the graceful and brave wife of Martin Luther King, white conservatives were disappointed to discover that the passing of Coretta Scott King and the passage of time had not gotten them off the hook with black Americans.
A movement that was once dangerous, radical and of urgent interest to the FBI is now part of our treasured national narrative, and conservatives were steamed at being left out of it, and aghast at the sight of people unafraid to criticize President Bush to his face.
For better and for worse, the legacy of Martin Luther King has been accepted into the mainstream narrative of American progress, but no such reckoning has attended the rise, fall and continuing legacy of the Black Panther Party. However, a revelatory new show at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies is doing its part to change that. Succinctly titled The Black Panther Party: Making Sense of History, the exhibit features dozens of photos by Stephen Shames who, as an upstart photographer, was a front-row spectator during the movement’s flowering.
For Courtney Reid-Eaton, who curated the show with Susan Simone, the exhibit is an opportunity to challenge long-held notions about the Black Panthers. “We wanted to challenge the mainstream idea of the Black Panthers as angry black militants with leather jackets and guns,” Eaton says, as she points to a photograph of marching, beret-clad young men. “Yes, there was that, but they also organized free food programs, free clothing and schools.”
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, Calif. The new group was the product of their dissatisfaction with the goals and tactics of the prevailing civil rights movement, and was deeply influenced by their reading of The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonialist treatise that was a central text of the liberation movements in the 1960s. With Mao, Che Guevara and Kwame Ture added to the mix, an entirely home-grown radical movement of America’s urban poor was born.
As a photography student in search of a project across the Bay at UC-Berkeley, Stephen Shames stumbled upon the nascent movement. His photographs of the Panthers in their heyday are the result of the exceptional intimacy he managed to establish with them.
Unavoidably, many of the photos–particularly the early ones–tend to idealize the handsome men in charge. One such image depicts Huey Newton after his release from jail in Berkeley, Calif. It’s a fine piece of mythologizing, showing us the revolutionary as a warrior-god–shirtless, enviably proportioned and turned into a powerful contrapposto. Only after a moment does one realize that Newton holds in his hands a copy of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, thus turning the portrait into a shoutout from one icon to another, in an era when they all seemed to be playing on the same team and listening to the same music, rather than being dispersed into 300 channels of micro-demographics.
Then again, there’s an ominous intrusion into the photo from above in the form of a white lamp chain hanging from the ceiling behind Newton’s head. It resembles the trailing end of a noose. It could be an accidental bit of flotsam in the background, but given the determination of the FBI to infiltrate and destroy the Panthers–and our knowledge of Newton’s sad decline and early death–the foreboding is all too real.
This photo, which is dated “circa 1968-69,” points up one irritation in the exhibit–the frustratingly imprecise dating of photos. Here, one wonders whether Newton was released from jail more than once during these two years. Similarly, numerous other photos depict events that could have been nailed down but instead are dated with a “circa.”
Hanging nearby is an evocative portrait of David and Pat Hilliard, two other key Panthers. This photo is one of the most purely beautiful in the show, and it’s a far cry from the Brando-esque sexual presence of Newton. Instead, we see the Hilliards nuzzling each other in a Berkeley apartment. David wears a wool cap and overcoat and his wife wears a bandanna; her hand rests on his knee while his hand touches her wrist. Lovers and radicals in Depression-era garb, they resemble romantic revolutionaries from the iconic photos of 1930s lefties united against capitalism and fascism.
Although the show is mostly convincing in its efforts to complicate the cherished stereotypes of the Panthers, the wall text concedes the rampant sexism of the male leadership–a tendency that is here delicately termed “cultural bias.” We can’t help but wince when we look at the list of the party’s Central Committee in 1968 and see, at the bottom of a dozen or so men bearing titles like Minister of Justice and Minister of Defense, the name of only one woman, 23-year-old Kathleen Cleaver, as “Communications Secretary.”
Still, the curators take pains to showcase the powerful female roles, ranging from bodyguards at a funeral to health clinic directors. In one particularly iconic (and yet, in this case, off-handed) photo, Kathleen Cleaver is seen conferring with other women Panthers. Several of the women wear Black Panther sweatshirts, a couple wear rifle cartridges as pendants from their necks, and all have Afros. In a telling contrast of culture and style, the unfailingly elegant Cleaver wears a demure turtleneck and coat, an ensemble that she tops off, however, with a gloriously bouffant Afro of her own. Most striking in the photo are the women’s expressions of defiant purpose, an unsentimental, cold-eyed realism that marks a departure from the attitudes of the non-violent Southern Christians that were beginning to seem quaint by the late 1960s.
While the likes of Newton and Seale gave the movement its sex appeal and notoriety–and members of the Panthers were indeed linked to numerous homicides–the Center for Documentary Studies wants to show us the community organizing that went unnoticed by the national media. In one image, two older African-American women are seated, looking wearily at the camera. In front of them, however, are bags from the Panthers’ free food program, and they both have copies of the party newspaper (which, according to the ever-vigilant FBI, had a circulation upward of 139,000). The women’s faces are tired, perhaps after a lifetime of “no,” and yet they seem to have a wary regard for the prospect that the Panthers will, perhaps, bring them a “yes.”
Other photos emphasize the multicultural component of the movement. One stubborn myth is that the Panthers were anti-white, exclusionary black supremacists. A wall card tells us that, to the contrary, alliances were formed with like-minded white, Latino and Asian radical groups such as the White Panthers of Detroit (which had MC5 as its house band) and the Young Patriots. Shames, in a pair of surprising photos, shows us white biker toughs–wearing Dixie flag insignias–rallying with Black Panthers.
The Panthers were eventually crushed by the extraordinary harassments of the FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance, and important figures like Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis became fugitives. The last issue of the weekly Black Panther Party newspaper was published in 1980. Still, their moment exerts a powerful influence. The surviving members are working for economic and racial justice today, in the urban centers, in the academies and in the old mill towns of North Carolina.
The Black Panther exhibit is explicitly and unapologetically a revisionist account of the movement. We’ve been taught to be wary of revisionist history, as if the story is always told reliably the first time around. What this show at proves is that reexamining history is not only acceptable, but absolutely necessary.
The Center for Documentary Studies will host a reception and artists’ talk by Stephen Shames on Thursday, Feb. 16, from 6-9 p.m. at 1317 W. Pettigrew St., Durham. The Black Panther Party: Making Sense of History runs through March 26. Call 660-3663 or visit the center’s Web site for more information. Listen here for a podcast of the center’s recent panel discussion “Recovering the Panther Legacy of Community Organizing and Activism, moderated by author Tim Tyson.