It’s business as usual at the White House. The joyous uproar that greeted Barack Obama’s inauguration, the happy incredulity that accompanied America’s decision to install its first black president, is beginning to subside. Obama is busy dealing with an economy on its uppers; the colour of his skin is less an issue than his ability to save his voters from penury.
And yet, only 40 years ago, the thought of an African American president was unthinkable. America in the 1960s was tormented by segregation and the brutal repression of anyone who dared call for racial equality. How, then, can we connect this version of the US with Obama’s America?
Black Panther: Emory Douglas and the Art of Revolution, an exhibition at Urbis in Manchester, attempts to do just that. It features one of the unsung heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement, the graphic artist Emory Douglas. Little known outside the US, Douglas was one of the leading members of the Black Panther Party, a radical grassroots political party once declared by the FBI as ‘the greatest threat to the internal security’ of America.
Black Panther succeeds in combining politics with serious artistic endeavour. The exhibition starts by laying out the lives led by black communities in 1960s America; it traces the bloodstained history of black repression before moving on to Emory Douglas himself.
Urbis argues that Douglas’ lasting achievement was to create a visual identity for the Black Panther Party. Through his posters, pamphlets and newspapers, hundreds of which are on display in Manchester, he created a heroic, soviet-style ‘brand’ for the Black Panthers: his images of the beret-clad, gun-toting heroes of the revolution have since been burned into America’s cultural consciousness. It was Douglas’ artwork that mobilised a largely illiterate population, and his images that spread the party’s message across the globe.
The exhibition, beautifully laid out though it is, provides more than just a visual snapshot of the Black Panthers. It deftly illustrates the power that the image, grassroots distribution and political sloganeering have in forcing political change. Before Douglas, and the Black Arts Movement of which he was once a part, there was no visual or artistic representation of African American culture – no music, no theatre, no art, literature, history – nothing.
Douglas created a new visual mythology for African Americans. His images, while reflecting the harsh realities of life in the ghetto, were underpinned by positive messages. The slogans he brought to life – such as ‘All Power to the People’ – instilled in the black community a sense of pride but, more than that, mapped out its role in the revolution. The work of Emory Douglas created a tangible sense of hope: that if ordinary citizens took collective action today, the future would one day be better.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the Black Panther Party’s tactics and Barack Obama’s, whose election campaign centred on generating grassroots support and giving supporters the motivation and the tools to disseminate his message. Like the Black Panthers before him, Obama used slogans to keep up momentum (‘Yes We Can’), mobilised alienated voters and ensured that those who had never voted before, did so now. And, like both Douglas and the Black Panthers, Obama conjured up the very real sense that ordinary people could bring about change.
In his victory speech, Obama said, ‘It’s been a long time coming, but… change has come to America.’ Black Panther is a timely reminder of just how extraordinary Obama’s election was, and just how exquisite that victory must have been for those men and women Douglas had hailed 40 years before as the real heroes of the revolution.