Friday, March 17, 2006


Black Power's true power on display
'Rank and File' exhibit highlights good works, importance of Panthers

By Cecily Burt, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area

Forty years ago, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton sparked a social revolution that still resonates today.

While the revolutionary leaders of the Black Panther Party made headlines, the largely anonymous rank-and-file members and volunteers created the party's most enduring legacies, such as free school breakfast programs, community health clinics and testing for sickle cell anemia.

"What happened was we kind of embarrassed the American government because there wasn't any free breakfast program in the schools, and we had a lot of kids that were below the poverty level and they couldn't afford to purchase a lunch," said Jimmy Slater, a former party member who now works for Oakland's Public Works Department. "We felt it would help them concentrate on what they needed to, instead of finding their next meal."

"Black Panther Rank and File," an exhibit opening Saturday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, explores the 1960s Black Power movement through historical photographs, newspapers, posters and news reels. It also examines the era's lasting influence on contemporary artists working in a range of different media.

"The show considers the Black Panthers in the broader context of slavery, the Black Power movement and colonization," said Rene de Guzman, visual arts curator for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. De Guzman co-curated the show with Claude Simard of the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, who donated several pieces relating to racial politics.

"It's really (about) unpacking why the Panthers are so important, why they were necessary (as the culmination) of this painful struggle that had been occurring over centuries. It all came together in 1966," De Guzman said.

On Oct. 15, 1966, Newton and Seale wrote the first draft of a 10-point social justice program that would become the backbone and guiding principle of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, whose motto was "Serve the people body and soul."

The Panthers focused on the plight of poor black communities by demanding equal rights in education, housing and employment. It armed its members, claiming guns were needed to defend against police brutality.

People were drawn to the charismatic Seale and Newton, and their images loom from nearly every corner of the exhibit. But there are plenty of rarely and never-before-seen images showing the party's good works: children eating a free meal, low-income seniors with bulging bags of free groceries, people getting tested for sickle cell disease, young students lined up two by two on their way to the community school, black residents registering to vote.

Billy X Jennings, the party's historian and founder of It's About Time, the Black Panther reunion committee, pitched the idea for the exhibit to commemorate the party's 40th anniversary, which culminates in an October reunion.

De Guzman took the idea a step further. The collection provided by Jennings and others is interspersed with the work of contemporary artists who have interpreted the Black Power movement and other watershed moments in the struggle for civil rights.

The vast display showcases the works of more than two dozen artists. It includes extensive archives by Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones, whose photo collections document early pivotal moments in Panther history. There are walls of bold images created by Emory Douglas, whose iconic graphics and revolutionary posters graced The Black Panther newspaper and influenced a generation of artists.

Visitors can sit and reflect in contemporary artist Sam Durant's life-sized bronze reproduction of the famous "Peacock chair," in which Newton sat, spear in one hand, rifle in the other. A larger-than-life clenched fist in the Black Power salute created by Hank Willis Thomas rises from the gallery floor.

Jennings, a former member and director of the Panther's Oakland Community School, has made it his life's work to combat misconceptions about the party and highlight its good works.

"His (de Guzman) thing is art, my thing is party history," Jennings said. "I want to present the real story. ... I'm not a thug. I'm not a gangster. My whole thing was for love of the community of Oakland.

"We had 3,000 or 4,000 people, volunteers, all across the country working in each one of those little programs."

The exhibit opens Saturday and runs through July 2 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St. at Third Street, San Francisco; $6, $3 seniors, students and teachers; opening-night party today from 8 to 11 p.m. $15. Gallery hours are Sunday through Thursday from noon to 5 p.m., Thursday noon to 8 p.m. Free first Tuesday of the month. Closed Mondays. Call (415) 978-2787 or visit for more information.

On Thursday at 6:30 p.m., join former Black Panther Party members as they share their experiences in the party. Emory Douglas will speak May 4.

1 comment:

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