Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has an excellent online exhibit and Internet resource zone which covers such issues as the visual iconography of the Black Panther Party as well as early attempts by African American artists to break the color barrier at some of America’s ‘finest’ museums and galleries. This is important in light of what it finally took for African American artists to be included in American art galleries and museums.
Had it not been for the outrage and protests following the murder of George Floyd, black artists would probably still be under-represented in the most prestigious galleries and museums. White gallery owners and curators did not make it easy for artists of color to gain access to an art viewing and buying public. The meaningful inclusion of artists of color was not a gradual progression but a continual hurdle. This collaboration between Boston’s MFA and New York’s MoMA helps show that the artists were out there, but they were ignored. The American art world was permeated with racism and it took violent riots stemming from decades of frustration and indignation to finally scare this segment of society into opening up. After the reaction to what happened to George Floyd, and the accompanying fury against all racial hypocrisy, the powers that be had little choice but to finally acquiesce. All power to the people.
The show Black Power in Print is in conjunction with MoMA, which recently added numerous copies of the Black Panther newspaper to its permanent collection as part of a donation by Patrick McQuaid. They have featured the work of Emory Douglas, who was responsible for the eye-catching and morally gripping graphic illustrations and photomontages for the paper.
Black “class” consciousness
Friedrich Engels wondered whether the mistreated, underpaid and overburdened working class of early industrial Europe might even be aware of their oppression and exploitation, given what he perceived to be their “false consciousness”. Engels was following up on Marx’s idea that the lower classes will readily embrace the values, vision and ideology of the upper classes. Much later Pierre Bourdieu would offer the concept of symbolic violence - those who suffer social and economic injustice often accept their suffering as being perfectly justifiable and their own fault. But these were all middle-class guys examining workers from a distance and their pessimism about workers’ perceptions came from the outside. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers of Oakland, California proved (the myth of) false consciousness not to exist among the economically and racially oppressed in the USA.
The Panthers emerged as a radicalized proletariat – they represented working class and poor black folks and were openly Marxist (although they welcomed alliances from progressives of any color). Marxism was an overwhelmingly important component of their makeup, and this is often downplayed when considering their agenda and their work in their communities. The fact that they were avowed socialists was, however, one reason why Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by the Chicago Police Department. It was bad enough, in the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, to be black and activistic, it was much worse to be black, activistic and socialist. What’s most significant about the Black Panthers is that they brought America’s racial issues and problems into socialist theory, and showed how race and class could intersect and be embraced by a socialist social science.
The founders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, decided to be more than theoretical socialists waiting for history to develop and attempted to protect their community from police abuse while providing services to their community not expected from the government. The Panthers understood that racism, discrimination and segregation had led to the adverse status of black folks in America, but they did not become absorbed in the Black Power orientation toward racial pride and cohesion. They refused to ignore the economics of capitalism which was the ultimate enemy for them. Although class and race intersected, focusing on race, in itself, was a red herring to them. J. Edgar Hoover actually considered the Panthers to be the most severe security threat to the American way of life at that time and many members of the organization were framed and/or murdered by the police/FBI.
Among the highlights of the visual iconography of the Panthers is a poster of their 10-point plan. The plan included demands for full employment; reparations payments for black folks - General Sherman’s idea of giving every freed black person 40 acres of land and 2 mules after the Civil War was referenced; decent housing; an educational system that provided a knowledge of self and one’s position in society; an end to the war in Vietnam pursued by a white-racist government and business class; an end to police brutality and the right of black folks to carry arms to protect themselves from the police; the release of black prisoners from America’s prison-industrial complex; trials of black defendants before juries that could understand the experience of the defendants and, mirroring the language of the Declaration of Independence, a call for separation from the dominant American culture.
The Panthers got tired of waiting. When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from Birmingham jail, he mentioned that the early Christian Church had been a thermostat for and not a thermometer of its times. He seemed to be urging the contemporary church in America to step forward more into social activism and to change society while helping black folks integrate into it. The Panthers attempted to be this type of thermostat through other means. Perhaps their methodology was ultimately vindicated by the actions of infuriated Americans who took to the streets demanding change.
The idea that folks in the poorer classes cannot even perceive their own abuse was a middle-class academic dogma that the Panthers put to shame. More than anything their legacy, as reflected in this show, is that reform must come from those folks who are being neglected and abused and that those in power will often not listen to reason. It took the nation-wide protests following the cruel killing of an innocent man to finally shake those in power. The Panthers showed that integration was essential but it had to be integration under the terms of those being integrated – because only those folks could be the true moral reformers of their society.