ArtRage Gallery mounts an exhibit of Black Panther Party papers to mark Black History Month
The Black Panther Party was a feared entity in civil rights-era America.
All Power To The People:
Graphics of the Black Panther Party USA, on display at the ArtRage Gallery, displays posters, party newspapers and other documents dealing with the party’s activities during the era’s heyday.
One exhibition can’t offer a complete narrative on that period, and the ArtRage show certainly doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. On one hand, it offers a brief overview of the party’s history, including armed conflicts with police and surveillance of the BPP by the FBI and other government agencies. On the other, it emphasizes the party’s community-based programs and its connections to other social movements.
Indeed, the exhibit presents posters detailing free breakfast programs and health clinics operated by the Black Panther Party across the United States, and the BPP’s operation of liberation schools, formed to empower African-American children to reach their full potential. There’s information about the party’s efforts to raise public awareness of sickle cell anemia and to lobby for more spending for medical services to treat the disease.
In addition, there’s material covering the BPP’s relationship to other organizations. The party opposed the Vietnam War and supported the United Farm Workers’ efforts to improve working conditions in fields and orchards across the United States.
Beyond that, the exhibition presents profiles of several people prominent in the Black Panther Party, including Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Cleaver, as the show notes, transformed himself from 1960s revolutionary to 1990s patriot who made a living speaking before church audiences. On one occasion, he said he would rather live in prison in the United States than be free in any other country in the world. There’s no way to reconcile that perspective and the sentiments expressed in Cleaver’s best-selling autobiography, Soul on Ice (Random House, 1968).
Newton, meanwhile, was instrumental in co-founding the Black Panther Party and in helping it to grow during a turbulent period. He’s also a man who by the mid-1970s was obsessed with his own power. Evans Hopkins, author of Life After Life: A Story of Rage and Redemption (Simon & Schuster, 2005), first joined the party in North Carolina and then moved to Oakland, Calif., where he eventually wrote for the party’s newspaper, The Black Panther, which achieved a weekly circulation of 40,000 at one time. Hopkins says Newton evolved into a corrupt, autocratic leader who encouraged a climate of violence within the Black Panther Party. In his book, Hopkins writes of a friend who fled San Francisco after a brutal beating by other party members.
Historians, journalists and other observers have long debated Newton’s role in the party, with some people arguing that he and his inner circle were just one segment of the Black Panther Party and have received far too much attention. Other party members, including Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown, have written books about their experiences in the Black Panther Party. It’s worth noting that in 1972 Seale ran for mayor of Oakland and Brown for a seat on the city council.
In one sense, the ArtRage show, put together by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, is part of a larger discussion, a reconsideration of the Black Panther Party’s history and long-term impact. In order to encourage more discussion of this topic, ArtRage has shown several documentaries about the party and has also scheduled a Feb. 17 talk by Cleo Silvers about her time with the Black Panthers and Young Lords in New York City. Her presentation begins at 7 p.m.
All Power To The People is on display through Feb. 19 at ArtRage, 505 Hawley Ave. The gallery is open Wednesdays to Fridays, 2 to 7 p.m., and Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. For more information, call 218-5711.