It’s time to dispense, once and for all, with the old narrative that the “good” Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early ’60s was replaced by the “bad” militants who followed. Black Power!, an exhibition at the Schomburg Center, aims directly at this myth, arguing in the introductory wall text that, in fact, the Black Power movement “had a more significant impact on issues of identity, politics, culture, art and education than any prior movement in African-American history.” Some 40 years later, we see that Black Power was in fact many movements, and that its politics and aesthetics have been so integrated into American culture, especially activism, it’s hard to imagine a time before them.
Taking on a subject as expansive as Black Power has its trade-offs. The exhibition at best operates as a sampler, offering the visitor dozens of images and objects that will hopefully inspire further exploration. The didactics have to tread a careful line between giving enough context to support the many narratives and not overwhelming visitors with reading. Curator Dr. Sylviane Diouf, with exhibition manager Isissa Komada-John, responded to this challenge by inviting scholars to write miniature thematic essays to prime viewers for the corresponding thematic sections in the show, such as “Spreading the Word,” “Coalitions,” and “The Look.” The effect is something like a one-hour introductory course on the subject.
And there’s the need to balance what visitors expect to see with exposure to new and underexplored facets of Black Power. On one hand, the exhibition presents the usual, iconographic images: heroic photos of Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Angela Davis, the Black Panther newspaper. The sounds of James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and Malcolm X’s speeches pipe into the gallery. But the great contribution of the show, and an argument for more like it, is the display of lesser-seen images, each of which could inspire a research paper, book, or exhibition of its own.
One particularly illuminating section emphasizes Black Power’s international reach. Famous images show Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver establishing an Algerian branch of the movement while living there in exile and Black Power leaders meeting with heads of state in Vietnam and Cuba. But the section also includes photographs of other organizations inspired by the Black Panthers, among them the Dalit Panthers in Mumbai and the aboriginal Australian Panthers: prefacing hip-hop’s global rise, militant self-determination was adopted and adapted by marginalized groups around the world. A couple of books on display demonstrate how Black Power inspired the 1970 worker-student revolt in Trinidad that reformed and nearly toppled the government.
The Black Arts Movement, in particular its poetry, comes across as especially prescient. In 1965, after the assassination of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka established the Black Arts Repertory Theatre, sparking an arts movement that some say ran parallel to, others say was a part of, Black Power. In a video shot at a 1981 event, Sonia Sanchez argues that poetry is a necessary part of movement work. Next to it is a broadside featuring Nikki Giovanni’s “I wanted to write a poem”; in it, she wonders: “maybe i shouldn’t write / at all / but clean my gun / and check my kerosene supply.” The juxtaposition cleverly dismantles the classic dilemma between arts and activism. We see that, for many in the Black Arts Movement, creating art and fighting for liberation were the one and the same.
Hanging above the objects are quotations from FBI records on the activities of Black Power members, especially the Panthers — a fitting visual representation of the sinister, specter-like presence of the government organization. These include J. Edgar Hoover’s famous pronouncement that the Panthers represented “the greatest threat to internal security of the country” and another targeting “Afro-American cultural-type bookstores,” which “often serve as a meeting place for black extremists and as a nucleus for their activities.” The observations could almost be compliments, if they weren’t justifications for state violence.
Paranoia led the FBI and local police to infiltrate Black Power groups and imprison its leaders. The grimmest part of the exhibition focuses on political prisoners: throughout the long decade of Black Power (the show dates the movement from 1966 to 1976), activists were jailed, framed, and assassinated for their work. The display includes photographs of rallies to free Huey Newton and flyers for demonstrations for Angela Davis. It also devotes space to pivotal, but perhaps lesser-known, cases like that of the Panther 21, in which 21 members of the Black Panther Party in New York City were rounded up on charges of conspiring to attack police stations. After a long and costly trial (the most expensive in New York history), which drained the time and resources of the Panthers, all 21 were released.
Black Power! is part of the Schomburg Center’s commemoration of 50 years since the movement’s founding. Next door, in a small multimedia gallery, there’s a mini-exhibition on Blaxploitation. A series of film clips and interviews deconstruct and pay tribute to the commercial, spectacle-focused, often-maligned cousin of Black Power that, in its own way, provided a representation of Black struggle that many audiences needed. A complementary exhibition, Power in Print, focuses on the poster art of the movement.
Though it doesn’t include objects from Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, or other contemporary resistance movements, Black Power! makes parallels with today immediately clear. Fighting for political prisoners led directly to the current campaign to end mass incarceration; “the look” of afros and leather jackets prefaced the ways that many Black artists and creatives use style and fashion on Instagram; the cross-pollination between poets and popular musicians during Black Power parallels our own renaissance of political hip-hop and R&B.
Despite a hostile political climate and few monetary resources, the activists of Black Power dared to imagine a world in which they controlled their own fates. One of the most poignant images in the exhibition doesn’t come from an official pamphlet, video, or poster; it’s a photograph documenting a hastily spray-painted message on a wall in Brooklyn: “WE THE BLACKS MUST RISE.” If there’s a mark of a movement’s success, it is to tap into peoples’ imaginations and renew their insistence to be free.
Black Power! continues at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (515 Malcolm X Blvd, Harlem, Manhattan) through December 30.