Many know about the Black Panther Party's iconic fashion—the berets that rested on their illustrious Afros or their well-fitted Black attire that created unity on their marches. But few have looked closely at the Black Panthers' political iconography, which anchored their radical politics to their understanding about land, colonialism, and space.
The dramatic rendering of space travel has become part of the bold, broad look, seen prominently in a poster titled Whatever Is Good for the Oppressor Has Got to Be Bad for Us (Figure 1). Parsing the background, we see stars, shooting stars, and a dark celestial body. Closer to Earth, we see craters and a spaceship with stars and stripes at its base. At the center of the spaceship, a fat-cheeked pig stands on the balcony of the spaceship, holding a gun. Above him, the caption reads, "Handle these slaves with care, we're going to need them for Mars, Pluto, and all of these other planets." Just below the pig are a dozen bewildered humans approaching another pig. The people closest to the base of the spaceship wear conventional attire (i.e., suits and dresses), while those closer to the pig wear prisoners' clothing. They prod, reflexively seeking to make their way on this land, with one of them proclaiming, "I knew we should have stopped this shit before it got off the ground." One pig standing on Earth holds a shovel, remarking, "OK Goddam-it. Don't take 400 years this time."
|Figure 1. Emory Douglas's poster Whatever Is Good for the Oppressor Has Got to Be Bad for Us.|
The message is clear. With great precision, this cosmic rendering of the transatlantic slave trade is devastating, drawing unequivocal links to European aggression during slavery and the enduring presence of the carceral state. As we are swallowed by the horrific scene, the emotional textures that come when the enslaved revolt are a sidelong reminder that coerced punishment is not merely a product of the past. In a way, the work can be seen as visual propaganda, but the image merges history with the future, creating a visual landscape that speaks to the enslaved past and cautionary elements of exploitative space expeditions of the (near) future.
It is an understatement to say that the Black Panther Party was known for its aesthetic choices—the Black Panthers' visual style expressed their deep critique of the structural exploitation in the 1960s. These images might seem to be an exaggeration, but they examine the material exploitation that emerges from air travel, the compulsion for billionaires to conquer Earth—as Jeff Bezos has done—and how that gravely contrasts with the pain and suffering African Americans face. At best, Bezos's trip to Earth's stratosphere was an indulgent exercise that might inspire other billionaires to engage in space tourism. At worst, his trip was an affront to the major inequities in pay and labor in his company, Amazon. A major tenet of Gil Scott-Heron's song "Whitey on the Money" challenged the class (and racial) elements of space exploration by declaring, "I can't pay no doctor bills, but Whitey's on the moon."
Whatever Is Good for the Oppressor Has Got to Be Bad for Us was designed by Emory Douglas, an influential member of the Black Panther Party. Douglas's biography—combined with the Black Panther Party's influence—offers a radical history of design, one not swallowed by easy consumption but rather moving toward full political participation, capable of addressing human need while challenging surface-level platitudes. The power of the image is how everything comes together—the flirtation with history, the timelessness of the piece, the iconic imagery that sits with the viewer. But it also speaks to the weight of political art that is unapologetically calling for Black liberation by designing the world not purely in the way they knew it but as they wanted it.
Developing a visual culture can be a dynamic vessel for getting rid of the rubble that weighs down the salt of the earth.
Born in 1943 during the Jim Crow era, Emory Douglas lived through the deferred promises of American democracy. When the artist and designer became an activist, he curated and designed the political slogans for a revolutionary, Black-led organization that exercised self-determination through collective action. The Black Panther Party—and by extension Emory Douglas—was well aware of and deeply affected by the African American uprisings in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Newark. Douglass became minister of culture for the Black Panther Party in 1967. As the lead illustrator for the Black Panther newspaper, he curated its creative direction, sketching images in the style of woodcuts that depicted the range of experiences for Black people living in the U.S. Douglas did not just commit his design skills to the party; he also designed the cover of Sonia Sanchez's first poetry book, Homecoming, which featured a dark-skinned Black girl standing on one leg and holding a spear. In a way, Black radicals could make space to celebrate poets.
Often identified with armed resistance, the Black Panther Party and its members were able to engage with labor and inspiration beyond the barrel of a gun. More important, as historian Carol Anderson writes in The Second, was that in "articulating this vision for the Black Panthers, [Bobby] Seale and [Huey P.] Newton drew inspiration from the work done in the Deep South" . The Oakland, California—based group extracted the canonical symbol of the black panther and an action-oriented political movement from the American South: Lowndes County, Georgia. For decades, despite Lowndes being a majority-Black county, its African American residents were prohibited from voting, leading the Black residents, with the help of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to form the Lowndes County Freedom Organization during the 1966 campaign to get out the vote. The organization's initial imagery of the black panther was contrasted with the rooster (Figure 2)—the white supremacist symbol at the time. The panther communicated that Black Americans could relay their political message in spaces to directly challenge voter suppression as enacted by organized factions such as the Ku Klux Klan, as well as everyday white American citizens who were fearful of Black voters.
|Figure 2. A brochure by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization contrasting the black panther with the white rooster.|
The Black Power movement was rooted in confronting the injustices in the U.S. by calling for an abolition of police brutality, unemployment, and imperialism. The murals were an important way to inform and enlighten people about basic issues in the community. At its height, the Black Panther Party was distributing 200,000 copies of its newspaper a week, addressing not only the party's political doctrine but also the social programs it offered, including free lunch programs and health clinics.
As a revolutionary party, the Black Panther Party sought to visualize its ideology through a militant aesthetic that would be accessible to the literate and illiterate, the old and the young. The Black Panthers cultivated a graphic identity that was disseminated through newspapers, posters, pamphlets, murals, and more. They were against the U.S. military draft, which funneled young men into the Vietnam War, and the fascism of the Ku Klux Klan. They saw themselves as political prisoners of U.S. fascism.
The Black Panther Party had an international reach, often collaborating with or inspiring anticolonial struggles around the world. Its members wanted the movement and the images to speak to others who faced similar forms of oppression. The message was clear: The Black Panther Party would align itself with Third World liberation struggles, anticapitalism, and democracy from below.
As a movement, the Black Panther Party could have remained myopic in its outreach and demands, but it built political and visual collaborations with other people of color. Like the Black Panther newspaper, Basta Ya! (Enough!), a community bilingual newspaper, operated as a political arm for the Latino organization Los Siete de La Raza. Published in San Francisco and operating from 1969 to about 1973, the newspaper used graphic design to document and strengthen community organization, including the 1968 strike at San Francisco State College. It's fitting that the American Indian movement also drew inspiration from the Black Panther Party's work—it was similarly grounded in self-defense, while also providing a free breakfast program and health clinics.
During the height of radical resistance by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the Black Panthers offered visual and political assistance to the Boycott Lettuce movement (Figure 3). Speaking about the UFW's boycott against Safeway for its poor labor practices toward farmers, Lauren Araiza noted, "[J]ust four months after [Cesar] Chavez's warning, the picket lines—composed of farm workers, UFW organizers, Black Panthers, children, and members of the community—had succeeded in closing the Safeway store for the foreseeable future" . The visual coincided with the political, providing the teeth needed to bite through major corporations.
|Figure 3. Black Panther newspaper, September 23, 1972, with "Boycott Lettuce" headline.|
In one Black Panther newspaper cover (Figure 4) an elderly woman carries a grocery bag with eggs, canned food, bread, a newspaper with a "Shirley Chisholm for President" headline, and a political epithet, for "Bobby for Mayor." She wears two pins, one that reads "Elaine Brown Council Woman" and the other, "Vote for Survival." The imagery is a hard-hitting message not only promoting the political campaigns of Black candidates but also highlighting that voting is as integral to survival as food.
|Figure 4. Black Panther newspaper, July 1, 1972, promoting Black political candidates and suggesting that voting is as important as food. Illustration by Gayle Dickson.|
It also speaks to the ways that Black radicals, even when they were perceived to be on the edge of liberalism, were invested in electoral politics. Radical graphic design, such as "Vote for Survival," was part of the visual aesthetics in Black radical organizing, speaking to the marginalized communities with graphic precision.
With hundreds of Black-led rebellions throughout the U.S. in the 1960s, the artistic arm of the Black Panther Party was integral to the political conversations of the era, with art serving as the period's democratic pulse. In a way, visual images spread awareness, but they were both an adulation and a template for a new world. The demands were often clear, chiming in with an incendiary and growing student movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. But the graphics stayed with people, striking a chord with what was possible when people sought justice.
Whether or not a person was literate, the graphics captured the spirit of the moment. In the short documentary Emory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers , Douglas recalls that "my art is about enlightening and informing people about issues. We were creating the culture—the culture of resistance, the culture of defiance, the culture of self-determination." This commitment to political art is not lost on young designers today. The sentiment of these messages resonates with a new generation. In their attempt to imagine more-equitable futures, the Black-led collective Design to Divest (https://www.designtodivest.com/our-values) not only wants to challenge Eurocentric viewpoints but also to form new institutions that create new futures.
What these older forms of design show is that developing a visual culture can be a dynamic vessel for getting rid of the rubble that weighs down the salt of the earth. The biggest lesson from this radical design is how it evokes a language of freedom, deeply exercising designers whose works are influenced by the ideas of revolution, with no illusions about the state of the world. Black radical design has currency today that gravitates beyond earthly matters of Black suffering and taps into a vision that conjures seeds of hope.
1. Anderson, C. The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America. Bloomsbury, 2021; https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/the-second-9781635574258/
2. Andreev, A. and Covert, D. Emory Douglas: The Art of the Black Panthers. Dress Code, 2015; https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4847592/
3. Araiza, L. "In common struggle against a common oppression": The United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party, 1968–1973. The Journal of African American History 94, 2 (2009), 200–223; http://www.jstor.org/stable/25610076
Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science, an interdisciplinary artist, and a writer. She earned her Ph.D. in the history of science from Princeton University and a master of public health from Columbia University. Working with textual archives and oral testimony, she explores contagion, epidemics, and toxicity through decolonial practices and African diaspora worldmaking by excavating the conditions that fuel modern plagues and how people try to escape from them. Bonhomme lives in Berlin, Germany. [email protected]
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