I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when the Black Power Movement was in full swing. One of the icons of the era was the Black Panther Party. And nobody did Black Panther iconography better than Emory Douglas.
A retrospective of Douglas’s art has been published in the book Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas. It is a joy to read and browse.
In essence, Douglas was the editorial cartoonist of his times. He was a college-trained artist who was recruited by Eldridge Cleaver to join the Party. Emory eventually became the Party’s Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture. In that role, he provided hundreds of illustrations for the Black Panther Party newspaper, in addition to providing art for dozens of posters.
At its peak, the Party newspaper is said to have had a circulation of of 400,000. And that included me.
Image from the book “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas”
Douglas’s work is distinctive in several ways. First, his sheer productivity is astounding. He provided art for the newspaper on a regular basis for over a decade. Not all of it was great, but a lot of it was. Second, he worked with a number of styles and mediums, including line art, photography, collage, and charcoal drawings. And finally, there was his style: bold, strong, and heroic. In Douglas’s eyes, a poor single mother in a slum was hero enough to carry a gun and protect her home and children.
Douglas’s work could be satirical, as it often was when depicting the police, and inspirational, as in his countless images of black people in warrior poses. That’s what made his work so memorable for me.
Carol A. Wells, the executive Director of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles, said this about Douglas:
As Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas visualized the party’s ideology and used art to educate and inspire people to action. Douglas’s art is part of a long tradition of activist protest graphics. His critiques of racism, inequality, capitalism, and imperialism are still relevant. In the forty years since Emory’s graphics first appeared, racism, poverty, and illegal wars continue, and his art remains a powerful weapon against social injustice.
Ah, the memories. There was a time when “Power to the People” was not just something that people said, it was something that people felt in their hearts. Emory put that feeling on paper, in bold and powerful images. It gave people a new mirror to see themselves and the world. As Cornell West says in the book, “his art will live forever.”
Cover of the book “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas”
The book consists of over 200 illustrations, as well as essays on Douglas’s art, times, and the Black Panther Party. There’s an interview with Douglas as well. I’ve seen the book at Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com. Highly recommended.