The Art of Revolution

As the original Minister of Culture and Revolutionary Art, Emory Douglas provided the Black Panther Party its iconic, energizing look and feel from 1967 until the early ’80s. During much of that time, Douglas designed The Black Panther, the Party’s organ of communication, published weekly and distributed throughout the U.S. Douglas is responsible for much of the language, visual and otherwise, we associate with modern American resistance and revolution; his early illustrations of Oakland police as hapless swine inspired the epithet for corrupt cops still used today. Since his time with the Panthers, Douglas, now 73 years old, has remained an active revolutionary and firebrand, using his art to advocate for causes that affect people of color around the world.

Chances are you’re not going to hear Douglas speak tonight at the Central Library as part of the Design Lecture Series; the event has been sold out for weeks. Douglas gave me an hour of his time over the phone from his home in the Bay Area a week ago, so the following far-ranging interview might be the closest you’ll get. Dig in.

Looking at copies of The Black Panther that are 45 years old, your illustrations and design ideas are still contemporary and even shocking. Your art established the graphical look that we still associate with revolution. How did you arrive at that style?
Emory Douglas:
The style is something I developed. It came about by being inspired by woodcuts in the early days. But not being able to do them in the short amount of time that was necessary in working on the newspaper, I began to use markers and playing with shapes and shadows to get the feel of woodcuts using just markers and stuff that I could use expediently to get that kind of visual expression.

There’s also a lot of innovative lettering and layout and what looks like collage going on.
Yeah, my foundation was commercial art, where you prepare your portfolio to look for employment, so you look for different styles to develop. I was able to integrate some of those to the style I used when I got into the Black Panther Party, which wasn’t considered a commercial style. At San Francisco City College the teachers told me it wouldn’t be appropriate for the portfolio because it didn’t reflect the style you’d use for job interviews. So I came back to that style that I was was comfortable with, that woodcut style, but integrated the styles I developed at City College.

What did you get into there?
Still shifting the art, using pen and ink and markers, which were basically the limited materials we had to work with in the Panthers. We didn’t have a huge amount of materials.

So you developed this stark, graphical style out of necessity?
You could say that. And to not be monotonous. After a while if you create the same line all the time, people will get bored. Unless you can make it relevant and interesting to them in some social context.

I’m amazed at the amount of content you were producing with the newspaper. There’s an incredible array of storytelling in the issues I checked out: personal essays, investigative journalism, community news. It was a serious journalistic endeavor.
I mean, you had people who were there that had those abilities. The first original editor for the newspaper was Elbert “Big Man” Howard, who was a founding member of the Party, and then Eldridge Cleaver, who came after that in ’67. He had an amazing style of communication. And you had others, like Katherine Cleaver, who were inspired by those founding editors. We also had those who worked with us who were our allies, who did a lot of investigative reporting and shared their work with us.

Like freelancers? How did they get involved?
Because it was sometimes things they couldn’t get published [elsewhere]. It was also people in solidarity with us but didn’t wanna be whistleblowers.

It was an incredible group effort.
It was a process. Collective. Initially the paper didn’t come out on a regular basis but around late ’67 early ’68 it began to come out on a consistent basis, and thereafter, every week.

How many people were involved?
You had the whole Ministry of Information, which the Ministry of Culture was a part of. In the beginning it was just myself and maybe Kathleen Cleaver when she came into the Party. Bobby Seale’s brother John Seale in the initial days of the paper. As we evolved and grew and developed, I had a cadre of six or seven people who I worked with [in the design department]. And then you had editors who where there, a staff three or four people, and others who contributed articles, and then typesetters, three or four different typesetters. We had photographers as well, and as we developed that department we had three photographers who were members of the Party.

And this was all based in Oakland?
We had central headquarters that were located at various locations at different times. We had our own office, our own layout department. Sometimes we took over Victorian houses at the time.

And you guys were printing posters and posting them around Oakland and San Francisco, right?
Yeah, there was a time early on when we would go sell papers at 5 or 6 in the morning. I recall some comrades taking old newspapers and wheat-pasting them with flour and water and pasting them up all over the community. We developed our own printing operation so we could print everything except the newspaper. We printed our own posters and greeting cards.

You had your own printing press?
The printing press was given top us by a guy who came into the office and gave it to Billy Harris, a young man who was a genius, and he gave him a press that was on bricks and blocks of wood, just the core and engine, and that became our first printing operation. Over a period of time, we were able to evolve into a full-fledged operation where we could print our own publications, booklets, posters, all those kids of materials that we needed that we produced ourselves.

How’d you get the paper to chapters outside the Bay Area?
We mailed it, snail mail. Mostly. Or we had people coming back and forth between different chapters. It was required that the local chapter had a Deputy Minister of Information who would report on what was happening locally in those areas. That material would be sent in and we’d determine what could be used in the paper. There were articles they’d send in that needed to go in, of course, so those were given priority.

It’s a lot to get done on a weekly basis.
We lived in collectives and stuff like that, the whole bit, so that helped. Matter of fact, that was a great relief in terms of having places to stay and not having to worry about food, eating. Everything was done collectively.

It sounds like a lifestyle.
It evolved into that.

Does that lifestyle carry on today? The Black Lives Matter movement seems like a direct descendent of the Black Panther Party, though the media landscape is so much different today.
You could say a lot of folks have been inspired by what the Black Panther Party did. Of course the context that it came out of was a different dynamic that doesn’t exist today. The Black Lives Matter movement has been taking notes in regards to the Black Panther Party and its practices.

The Panthers seemed interested in Black liberation, not just in America but in raising up oppressed people around the world. And you established the language that’s still used today in revolutionary movements.
You had people in there that had a historical background, that understood the commitment to revolutionary struggles around the world. That wasn’t across the board—some people like myself came to the Party because of oppression, and wanted to do something about it. Those who did were creative in the way they expressed it and how to improve it and overcome the limitations of it. The sprit of what we talked about was a cultural identification, a different kind of language that had a flair. Some language that everyday folks would use in the streets in their expressions. That’s a part of the legacy the Panthers have left, and the blueprint of what we did and how we did it.

I was impressed by how many women’s voices were present in the newspaper. There seemed to be a real emphasis on feminism within the Party.
It was ingrained, you could say, because at the same time we were reading other struggles around the world and in Vietnam, Palestine, China, there were women in those movements. And you have to understand, with the Black Panther Party, people who came in brought their baggage with them and transformed while they were in the Party. We had chauvinist reactions to women in the Party that we had to correct, in relation to men respecting women in the context of leadership and giving orders. We had to deal with those issues, and sometimes we dealt with them by having those people with chauvinist attitudes working under women and taking directions form them in order to respect them. That’s how we’d transform those attitudes. Plus you had women who demanded their right to leadership because they to were sacrificing their lives just like men were.

Did you have any contact with Elmer or Aaron Dixon, the founders of the chapter up here in Seattle?
They were one of the first chapters outside the Bay Area. I came up on several occasions, but not a whole lot. Aaron came to some meetings, I believe, and was inspired by the discussion at that time, and from there on they became involved in the Party.

I’m surprised at how aggressively militant some of the imagery in the paper was. You guys seemed to adopt a deeply aggressive stance, ready for violence.
It became that. And then you had other dynamics, too. Today they’ve passed laws, so what took place in the ’60s and ’70s would be difficult to duplicate. Some of the things we did, they’d call us terrorists and try to wipe us off the map.

I don’t see that same willingness to die for a cause today—maybe because there are already people dying in the streets at the hands of police without even engaging in any type of resistance.
The oppression breeds resistance, as we said then. Same thing today. What we did came out of the necessity of what was taking place then, and the same thing is happening now. Of course there are things to be inspired by, like we were inspired by. We had respect for different liberations around the world, had an international section of our paper, and there was an understanding of the necessity of serving the interest of the community to achieve a better quality of life. And that was based on the 10 Point Program of what we believe.

Community-involved policing, for instance, which we’re still fighting for today.
That was Point 7.

It sickens me that we’re still dealing with these same problems, even though we’ve made advances and see people of color taking more prominent roles in government.
You’re talking about institutional racism. Just because you have people of color who integrated into the system… The transformation of the system hasn’t taken place. They just became more sophisticated in how they want to be perceived.

How do you mean?
They allow a certain number of people of color to be displayed as integrated into the system but at the same time at the core of the system is the same culture that existed 150 years ago.

Hence the need to fight back with images of Black people carrying guns.
Yes. Out of necessity. And it was done within the context of the law. The people who started the organization understood the law and had the courage and begin to organize and the way the did. It attracted a lot of young people who were frustrated, then as now. You had 300 rebellions and riots in the U.S. in ’64 and ’65, and there was a lot of murders of young blacks always being justified. Same thing as today. No accountability. Those kinds of things. It’s like slow genocide.

As an activist, how do you live with that?
You gotta do something. Like we used to say, you gotta do something That was Bunchy Carter. 

It’s incredible to think that you were legitimately fighting against the injustice perpetuated by the most powerful government in the world.
It was also enlightening and educating a lot of people who were naysayers. Even today you have people who don’t realize the depth and magnitude of the Black Panther Party, who had those stereotypes about what it was about.

That legacy grows more and more important as time goes on.
It goes beyond us too. Scholars got interested in the history and have done research and written quite a few books about the Panthers, some relating to a form of genocide, others doing books on the history. Stanley Nelson did the Freedom Riders, an award-winning film about the civil rights movement, and he did the recent film Vanguard of the Revolution that gives insight in the broad aspects of what the Party was about. It’s been shown all over the world and it just came out last year. You can watch it online.

The Internet has changed things so much. You guys were building a newspaper, 10 people in a Victorian house in Oakland, working together, cranking out page after page every week. The Internet has decentralized that effort, but it also makes it instantaneous.
It’s become a powerful tool. It can be a powerful tool for communication but also for those who want information and enlightenment and want to share with a broader audience. It’s almost real-time for those who access it in an audio-visual way, computers and what have you.

I deal with Facebook. I got the maximum 5,000 followers—that’s filled up. I share images all the time on there. I’m connecting with people all over the word. Not because of Facebook but because of travels. I travel three, four times a year. I collaborated with aboriginal artist Richard Bell in Australia, so we we’re working on a project together in Amsterdam this year. And then I came back and went to Cuba and then went to a print exhibit in Havana at the annual Poster Festival. After those travels I came back, then went to Chiapas with the Zapatistas, I was invited there in 2012 by EDELO art center and have come back in fort with the cofounder Caleb Duarte and we’re painting mural in the Zapatista territory. Some of those things I’ll have as part of the slide presentation I do [at the Central Library]. Some of the more recent work I’ve done in some of my travels, in New Zealand collaborating with Maori artists, Portugal, various places. 

Portrait of Emory Douglas by Bryan Shih. All other images by Emory Douglas.