The branding and visual identity of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense influenced the aesthetics of Black power in what is arguably one of the organization’s lasting legacies. Posters from the late 1960s into the 1970s show members crowned with an afro, armed with weapons, and posed with their fists raised, gestures and iconography that became in popular imagination stand-ins for the values they espoused. On view through September 10 at New York City’s Poster House, Black Power to Black People: Branding the Black Panther Party explores the bold graphics and printed materials that galvanized the public, disseminated radical ideas, and proposed a vision of revolutionary freedom.
A five-part exhibition, Black Power to Black People moves chronologically and thematically from the organization’s founding by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, California, on October 15, 1966, through its dissolution in the ’80s. Artists including Emory Douglas, Dorothy Hayes, Danny Lyon, and others are featured tackling topics such as police brutality, political campaigns, and gender roles. A maquette of “No More Riots Two’s and Three’s” (c. 1970) by the party’s minister of culture Emory Douglas shows the design process for creating one of many images wheat-pasted throughout Black communities.
Curator Es-pranza Humphrey contextualizes that the Panther’s powerful pro-Black imagery emerged during a period when racist stereotypes portrayed in 19th and 20th-century minstrel shows influenced perceptions of Black identity. “All New This Season” (c. 1945) and a poster to the right featuring Newton from 1967 are foils for each other, portraying the roles of Black men in their communities. Unlike the Sambo-like character on the left, Newton sits with a straightened posture and solemn expression showing the seriousness of the BPP’s agenda.
Humphrey told Hyperallergic that the militant aesthetic was a conscientious decision by the organization’s leadership to inspire and mobilize Black people.
“This sets up why Black Power is important; black ownership over the Black identity is going to propel the movement forward,” Humphrey told Hyperallergic.
Understanding what the Panthers are up against, Humphrey transitions to the Panther image. The organization’s logo originated from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Atlanta branch, which organized the all-Black, independent political party Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), also known as the Black Panther Party, in 1965. SNCC members Ruth Howard and Dorothy Zellner created the LCFO logo, and Lisa Lyons later revised it and designed the version the Oakland-based Black Panther Party for Self-Defense used.
The SNCC Legacy Project recounts that Howard settled on the Panther as an image of Black power and self-determination. “I came up with a dove,” Howard said. “Nobody thought that worked, and someone said I should look at the Clark College emblem … That’s where the Panther came from.”
The logo’s story is one of many ways Humphrey highlights women’s impact on the organization. Other images Humphrey features include newspaper front pages portraying Kathleen Cleaver and Angela Davis; the poster “Revolutionary Mother and Child” (1968) by Emory Douglas; and clippings about Afeni Shakur, who famously represented herself in the Panther 21 trial and was the first to be acquitted of conspiring to bomb police stations and murder officers. A handout in the gallery shares the contributions of 11 influential women in the organization, including Shakur, former leader Elaine Brown, and Rosemari Mealy, whom Humphrey interviewed for the exhibition.
“[Mealy] would put on these puppet shows for children to introduce them to the vocabulary of the Black Panther Party,” said Humphrey.
The exhibition concludes with the vision and sounds of freedom. Humphrey tackles the opposition the Panthers faced and how the organization succeeded, at times, despite seemingly insurmountable odds. The Haitian Revolution, represented by a poster for William DuBois’s 1938 play Haiti: A Drama of the Black Napoleon, frames the final two sections providing a historical model of a successful Black Revolution. Here, violent imagery of Seale in the electric chair and Seale again bound during the Chicago Eight trial show the Panthers communicating their unjust treatment by the United States justice system. Songs from Elaine Brown’s album Seize the Time play on a loop in the gallery, auditorily presenting the Panther’s revolutionary vision of Black power for all Black people.
“I want Black people to come in here and understand that this is a safe space to embrace Black Power and what it can look like today,” Humphrey said.