Last week I watched an excellent documentary on PBS called The Black Panthers: Vanguard of The Revolution. It is a must see of all ages and races. With the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party, and the renewed emphasis on racial tensions in the 21st century I thought it would only be fitting to wrap up the last week of Black History Month highlighting one of the amazing artist who had an integral part in designing artwork that became potent symbols of the Panther movement.
Emory Douglas (born May 24, 1943) worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. As the art director, designer, and main illustrator for The Black Panther newspaper, Douglas created images that became icons, representing black American struggles during the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in Michigan, Douglas grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, raised by a single mother who was legally blind. After a series of run-ins with the law, he was incarcerated for 15 months at the Youth Training School in Ontario, California, where he worked in a the print shop that made product labels for businesses. Here he learned the basics of typography and layout. He later studied commercial art, taking graphic design classes, at San Francisco City College, where he gravitated towards the commercial art classes that taught him the skills he needed for large-scale print production. He began making flyers, programs, and pamphlets for student groups working to advance civil rights and self-determination for African-Americans.
Douglas' role involved communicating the party's message to a community with low literacy rates and little experience of formal politics. He illustrated and laid out the Black Panther newspaper, drawing images of empowered black folk, as well as representations of their oppressors, The Pig, an animal, which stood for everyone from the local police to the president. “Artists have a way of instantly communicating essence,” says Douglas. “Things are made clear, almost like a language, and so art is a powerful tool to communicate with the community.”
After The Black Panther newspaper was no longer published, Douglas worked at the San Francisco Sun Reporter newspaper for over 30 years. He continued to create activist artwork.
In 2006, artist and curator Sam Durant edited a book of Emory Douglas’ work, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, with words commissioned from Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, Danny Glover, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, amongst others. After the book's publication, Emory Douglas had retrospective exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the New Museum in New York. In fact, this fall the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) will present a major exhibition to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party’s legacy from multiple perspectives including some of Emory’s work.
Since the re-introduction of his early work to new audiences, Emory Douglas continues to make new work, exhibit and interact with audiences in formal and informal settings all over the world. With the renewed interest in the Panthers and the tumultuous racial upsets that defined the latter half of the 20th century, a younger generation of political artists has now discovered Douglas’ work, more than three decades later. He is proud of his work and the Panthers' achievements but says there's plenty more to be done.