The Life and Times of Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture in the Black Panther Party (2/3)
Marc Steiner continues his discussion with former Black Panther Emory Douglas
MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA 88.9 FM: Hello. I’m Marc Steiner. And welcome to The Marc Steiner Show on WEAA 88.9 FM, The Voice of the Community, and on The Real News Network. And it’s our pleasure today to talk with Emory Douglas, who was the minister of culture in the Black Panther Party, one of the world’s noted artists and graphic designers, who joins us here in the studios in Baltimore. He’s made another trip through town.
Good to have you with us, Emory. Welcome.
EMORY DOUGLAS, FMR. MINISTER OF CULTURE, BLACK PANTHER PARTY: Good to be here.
STEINER: For people inside as you were inside the party, the Black Panther Party–you stayed in to the end of it, right?
STEINER: You were there from, like, ’67 all the way to–.
DOUGLAS: Yes, yeah, three months after it started, yes, until about three months before it demised, into 1981, ’80, ’81.
STEINER: So if you can kind of–you know, if you were, like, teaching a class to young people about the Black Panther Party, how would you describe its effect on the consciousness of the people at the moment in the community where people are working, but also its effect now, like, the reverberations through the 21st century? How would you reflect on that?
DOUGLAS: Well, it was an enlightening, educational process for the community to begin to expose to them in relationship to the contradictions between what the government should have been doing and wasn’t doing in their interests. And they begin to see that through the social programs, as well as through talking about revolution and change at the same time. Out of that you expose them to other historical markers in the world in relationship to revolutions that took place in Latin America, in Cuba, and what was going on in Vietnam, and being a part of that, those conferences, antiwar conferences that the place in Montreal and our travels. And people begin to see our newspaper and identify with us across the country. So we were leading by example, and they were inspired by that, because of the very foundation of what we were doing in the community. So in that context, we were in the vanguard of being a spark of inspiration and enlightenment.
STEINER: You know, I’m watching you tell these stories, and it’s you as in others–the spark is still there. That hasn’t gone out.
DOUGLAS: No, no, no, no. Yeah.
STEINER: That hasn’t gone out.
DOUGLAS: No, no. No, no.
STEINER: Why do you think that is? I mean, ’cause many people can see you say all these people who were revolutionaries in the ’60s, how they’ve gotten old and it’s not there anymore, they’re working on Wall Street, but–.
DOUGLAS: Well, what a part of revolution is, too, is taking care of your kids and making sure they grow up and become enlightened and informed. So that was a part of the process for me also, past the Black Panther Party.
But at the same time, /dwʌns/ doing that also there was always this interest in that history. So what I–people begin to ask for me to travel around and do presentations, talk about the retrospective history of the artwork in the context of what the organization was about. And so I continue to do that to this very day.
STEINER: Let’s get into that part. This is the part that your role in all this as minister of culture–you were named minister of culture.
DOUGLAS: Yeah. I was–
DOUGLAS: –initially a revolutionary artist.
DOUGLAS: That’s how it first came about. And that came about when the second issue of the Black Panther paper, which was when we went to Sacramento–that was called the May Day paper. And the reason why it was called the May Day paper: ’cause that was the–May 1st was the workers’ day. But because–we went on May Day, which was on a Sunday. So May Day was on–we couldn’t go on–we had to go on a Monday, because the capital wasn’t open on–. So that’s why that paper was called May Day paper. And so it was on that paper, and I got involved with that particular paper.
And how I got involved was when Huey and Bobby were working on the first issue and they were trying to recruit Eldridge Cleaver into the party. And they used to come to a place called the Black House in San Francisco. And they were sitting downstairs, where no activity, cultural thing going on that evening there. And I seen Bobby working on that first one. He had typed it out on a legal size sheet of paper like you have there, and he was doing it with markers. And I still had a lot of my stuff from City College, artwork and materials. So I told him I could go home and get my materials, come back and help you to improve the quality of it. It took me about half an hour to go and come back. When I come back, he’s finished, and he said, well, we were glad you wanted to help, but we finished with this one, and we’re kind of surprised that
I came back, but you seem to be committed, ’cause you’ve been coming around. So we’re going to start this newspaper, and we want you to be the revolutionary artist. And then they had this whole vision about the paper, telling our story from our perspective and our point of view. It could be like a double-edged sword–it could praise you on the one side, and it also can criticize you on the other. And so that was the beginning of the paper. They said I would be doing the artwork.
Eventually I became to do artwork for the paper. At first it was production work, cutting and pasting, laying it out. And then, about the third or fourth issue, I begin to do cartoons and stuff for the paper. Initially it was the pig caricatures, that Huey and Bobby had begun defining the police as a pig.
STEINER: But you drew the first ones.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. He asked me to do the–drew the first–yeah, the first one. And then the first one I drew was on four hoofs. And because of being–have–been had to–thing of critiquing my work from being in City College and evaluating how–the quality of it, how you can improve it, it came to my mind, why not couldn’t I stand it up on two hoofs, keep the snorting detail and the flies that were going around, and put the badge and the belt on, and it took on a life of its own. It became the symbol of oppression of people around the world, not just in Black Panther Party, but just–it transcended the Black Panther Party as an icon.
STEINER: I mean, ’cause it’s an amazing thing when we think about that, because that figure is iconic,–
STEINER: –the figure of the pig that–
STEINER: –that you drew and how people took that up. What do you think about that figure now, reflecting back on it?
DOUGLAS: Well, I think at the time it was a very powerful, very dynamic image. And it had a lot of psychological impact. A lot of people don’t know, in Oakland, because of that you had the Oakland police and the San Francisco police try to–call the pig bowl, when they used to play football against each other, try to clean it up. And they had that for many years. Oh, yeah.
Then it became a misdemeanor–and it still is in some states–to call the police a pig. So it had an impact symbolically or what it represented in the culture of how we were talking about. Of course, in other cultures in some ways it was irreverent, because it’s a food source or what have you. But in the context of what we were talking about, it was meant–had a whole different meaning, the context, yeah.
STEINER: So this whole idea of being this kind of revolutionary artist–and I was thinking about el agitador gráfico, the graphic revolutionary agitator, and that’s a role you played. And all these kind of covers for the Black Panther paper and all the other artwork you did, they really had an effect on people. Sometimes they had maybe more of an effect than the words themselves.
DOUGLAS: Well, Huey and them always had his understanding that the black community learned through observation and participation that there weren’t–a large majority at that time wasn’t a reading community, that they learned, like I said, through [operation participation (?)]. So he thought that [if] we have a lot of visuals in the paper that they would identify, or if they’ve seen photographs and they had just the captions, so on them they would read the caption or the headline and they would see the photograph and they could get the gist of what was going on, as opposed to long, drawn-out essays or editorials, which a lot of people read, but a lot of people wouldn’t read them.
STEINER: So I think this is really important in a lot of ways, because your work, your graphics, some of the montages [incompr.] photographs, and drawings as well, visually interpreted a revolutionary movement and visually interpreted the conditions people lived in. Some of your pieces were about what people had to live like in the inner cities and in poor communities. And you put those out there, as well as these images of revolutionaries [incompr.] revolutionary pictures. So, I mean, those are the things that kind of grab people’s conscience, I think, in many ways. It’s almost like when you look at the world of the internet and the video productions and how that just goes–it takes over. Your work did that before all that.
STEINER: See what I’m saying?
STEINER: So there’s a real connection between that and the work you did.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, there is, but a lot of young people didn’t [incompr.] they’d go take a sidebar and come back. If I was–I was doing a thing with Kathleen Cleaver a couple of years back in Oakland, and you had a young person who came up, ’cause we was talking about information and getting out stuff and what we did. And he raised his hand, and he said, well, you didn’t have computers then. How did you get your information out?
STEINER: How did it go viral with no computer, right?
DOUGLAS: Yeah. And we told him flyers, newspapers.
STEINER: But that did, I mean, your stuff, because your images–talk a bit about this now, ’cause your images, you signed all your pieces, right?
STEINER: But you saw them as the work for the people,–
DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
STEINER: –even though you signed your own name to it.
DOUGLAS: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Yes. Mhm.
STEINER: But, like, Cubans and others actually took your work, didn’t give you credit. You didn’t seem to care.
DOUGLAS: No, no.
STEINER: But used your work, and it traveled the world.
DOUGLAS: Because it was an honor and a humbling honor to be them acknowledging the work itself and acknowledging the organization who wished–inspired the work, and wanting and showing that they were showing solidarity in the relationship to what we were about and what we were doing in relationship to the overall struggle of revolutionary struggle that was going on around the world. And so in that context it was a very exciting time to see the work being appreciated in that context.
STEINER: Did you have a sense then, because your work now is going across the globe in all these art exhibitions a few years back–you brought it here to Baltimore, the Maryland Institute College of Art, where you had that exhibit and that whole big affair around your exhibit of all your work over the years, and that’s gone across the globe. But back then, in the midst of that revolutionary struggle in the ’60s and ’70s here and around the globe, did you have that sense of what your work meant then?
DOUGLAS: In that context of then I did, but not–.
STEINER: You did in that–. Yeah. Right.
DOUGLAS: Yeah, because the people you know and if what it did humbled you and also makes you realize that you have to–and how do people appreciate it, and it was a reflection of them they’d seen in the artwork and their feelings and what they–concerns they had about what was going on in the world around them and broader. And so in that context you know that it was something relevant that people appreciated. And so you had to make sure you had to keep that standard and the art would have to always reflect that in some kind of way. So in that context you got [incompr.] they would appreciate it, and then there were Panthers who would always tell you what they liked about it and how they appreciated it and how–I remember Panthers telling me in New York, when we had the New Museum of Contemporary Art, we had a reception after, and he said in Harlem that he used to sell the paper and turn it over and sell it, because every week people wanted to see what the cartoon art was on the back.
STEINER: Your work.
DOUGLAS: Yeah. So it had an impact in that sense that–how people identify with it, because they seen themselves in it. They became the heroes in the artwork itself.
STEINER: The people became the hero in the artwork,–
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yes.
STEINER: –because of the images you created out of the people, what you saw, what you brought to light with your pen.
DOUGLAS: Yes. Yes. And they could see their uncles in it, they could see their fathers or their brothers and sisters in the art, in some of the images and stuff, yeah.
STEINER: Emory, though, this has been a huge honor to see you once again in Baltimore.
DOUGLAS: It’s my pleasure to be here. I’m glad to be here.
STEINER: And coming to The Real News studios here to do this for Real News and for The Marc Steiner Show. And we’ll be linking to all the places they can see your artwork and even more.
Former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party from the beginnings, almost, until the end of the party and has never stopped his work.
Thank you so much, Emory Douglas, for coming by our studios.
DOUGLAS: Oh, thank you. Glad to be here.
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