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The Black Power Movement Gets a Permanent Display at the Oakland Museum

The museum has opened a permanent exhibition about Black activism in the Bay Area, which, contrary to public perception, was not always an accepting, progressive place.

Black Power at the Oakland Museum of California (image courtesy Oakland Museum of California)

OAKLAND — Walking through the California history gallery at the Oakland Museum, it’s easy to spot the Black Power exhibition — it’s where you see the large raised fist, probably the most famous symbol of the 1960s and ’70s movement.

From 2016 to 2017, the museum hosted All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, spotlighting the political organization that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded in Oakland in 1966. That exhibition was so popular that some visitors were turned away because the galleries were full. It was then that museum officials realized that they needed to have a permanent exhibition about Black activists.

California, at least its urban centers, has a reputation for being accepting of all kinds of people. So, one thing the museum’s associate history curator Erendina Delgadillo wanted to do when she organized the new Black Power permanent exhibition was to show how that’s not always true.

The first section of the show, “This Happened Here,” features a display case containing a Ku Klux Klan hood. We are told that the state had several chapters of the Klan, with 2,000 members in Oakland. There’s a photo from 1970 of a man in blackface at a party in the suburban Bay Area city of Livermore, and there are racist caricatures, including a postcard with the caption “One of the good things grown in California” and a picture of an older Black woman wearing a headscarf and eating watermelon. There’s a menu from Topsy’s Roost, a popular chicken restaurant and nightclub named after a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that had paintings of Black people in plantation scenes and advertised its food as “Southern Mammy cooked dishes.”

“We think of the Bay Area as a bastion of liberal, progressive thought, and this changes how we understand our legacy,” Delgadillo said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Even being deeply mired in this history, it’s sort of a shocking find.”

Black Power (image courtesy Oakland Museum of California)

This history is upsetting but important to know, agreed Lisa Silberstein, the museum’s Experience Developer.

“Sometimes people think of racism is being something in the South,” she said. “We need to acknowledge that racism is endemic to this place.”

A 1970 painting by Phillip Lindsay Mason, “Rainbow Dream,” signals the next section, “Culture Moves the Message.” Both Silberstein and Delgadillo say the painting is one of their favorite pieces in the show.

“It’s an immediate counterpoint to ‘This Happened Here,’” Silberstein said. “It’s so serene,” Delgadillo added. “It encapsulates so much about the Black Arts Movement and Black excellence.”

The painting, like several objects in the show, is part of the museum’s permanent collection, though there a few loans and new acquisitions, like the sign for Panther treasurer Bobby Hutton’s funeral procession and the belt buckle with a fist which says, “All power to the people.”

Phillip Lindsay Mason, “Rainbow Dream” (1970), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 33 in., gift of Michael J. Learned (Collection of the Oakland Museum of California)

The “Culture Moves the Message” section explores the art spaces that Black artists opened in the mid-’60s. These included Black Arts West in San Francisco, a sister theater to the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School founded in Harlem by playwright and author Amiri Baraka. A magazine in a display case, Black Theater #2, has an interview with Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), and an afterward with the San Francisco theater’s co-founder Marvin X. There’s also a pamphlet for a Black cultural arts center in Berkeley, Rainbow Sign, which served as an art gallery, concert venue, and restaurant, hosting writers such as James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, singers Nina Simone and Odetta, and politician Shirley Chisholm.

“Black Theatre: A Periodical of the Black Theatre Movement” (1968), bound publication, ink on paper, 10 x 8.25 in. (Gift of Lisbet Tellefsen. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California)

Many of these artists championed Black Studies departments at colleges, and students challenged their institutions to acknowledge their histories. This led to the founding of the country’s first Black Studies departments at Oakland’s Merritt College in 1967 and another one a year later at San Francisco State University.

As the Panthers’ popularity grew, the Federal Bureau of Investigation named them the “single greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Several copies of The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, one of the few newspapers to cover FBI actions against the Panthers, are available to page through. A few copies of The Flatlands, which covered education, housing, and discrimination, are also available.

Robin Cherin, “Vietnam will win” (circa 1970), offset lithograph, 18 x 8 in. (Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, All of Us or None Archive, gift of the Rossman family)

Being labeled as enemies of the state, some Black revolutionaries saw the war in Vietnam as an example of government aggression, and considered the Viet Cong as allies in a struggle against American power. A lithograph on the wall shows a Vietnamese soldier holding a gun aloft and the text proclaims, “Vietnam will win.”

Seale believed that if more Black people were in office, they could meet the goals of the Party. In 1973, he ran for Mayor of Oakland with the Chairwoman of the Party, Elaine Brown, as a candidate for City Council. A quote from Seale is displayed on the wall: “You ain’t going to get no power until you get some political seats … You better put some black folks in the white man’s seats, some people of color in those seats.”

Some items from the museum’s 2016 exhibition on the Black Panthers reappear here, such as the Panthers’ Ten Point Platform, What We Want Now! It begins: “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.”

By being clear about their community’s lack of services and what they wanted, the Black Panthers created ripples, Delgadillo said. A section of the exhibition shows fliers from groups who saw the Panthers as a model in resisting inequality, such as gay liberation groups, Chicano rights groups, and the American Indian Movement.

“Black power activists served as a source of inspiration for other marginalized groups,” Delgadillo said. “There was deep resonance for movements looking for a way to empower themselves. And the Black Panthers were deeply intersectional champions for all oppressed people across the world.”

A famous photo of Newton shows him in a wicker throne chair, wearing a beret and a leather jacket, holding a spear and a gun. A bronze model of the chair (also a part of the previous exhibition) sits in front of a large copy of the Ten Point Platform. Visitors are invited to sit in it and think about what the platform means today. There’s a video about the Panthers’ legacy, and a soundtrack featuring Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”

Near the end of the exhibition, Silberstein and Delgadillo installed a collection of postcards which urge us to “PUSH BACK ON CAPITALISM,” “DO YOUR RESEARCH,” and “CIRCULATE YOUR DOLLAR IN THE BLACK COMMUNITY.” If you flip the cards over, there are some ideas on the back, such as joining a credit union, reading or talking to older people about history, and supporting Black-owned businesses. Some of these suggested actions came from social organizations in the East Bay working with housing, food, and employment. The legacy of the Black Power movement is not over. Black Power inspires visitors to keep thinking about this legacy and what they can do to contribute.

Black Power is now open at the Oakland Museum of California (1000 Oak St, Oakland). The exhibition was organized by Associate History Curator Erendina Delgadillo and Experience Developer Lisa Silberstein. 

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