Panther Party Rank and File
A Review by Wanda Sabir
The foot soldier
rarely gets his or her due, yet if it weren’t for what is
known as the “rank and file” contingent, movements like
the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense would have remained a great
idea not an actual movement for social change.
Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale couldn’t have accomplished
this broad-based effort without the brothers and sisters like Jabali
who ditched school for the revolution – a “much more
viable vocation,” he thought at the time when he moved here
from Gary, Indiana. Ruth Beckford set up the breakfast program which
fed children daily before school, while others prepared the food,
collected donations – served the people in whatever capacity
necessary at that moment. Parents like Elaine Brown let other party
members raise her daughter, her life dedicated “to the people.”
certain if the personal sacrifice is visible in “BPP Rank
and File,” which at times is unwieldy intellectually and philosophically
when one tries to connect the dots or panthers as it were. Perhaps
some panthers on the floor, dates, geographical markets, even thematic
names of the various galleries…would have been helpful here.
in such a broad task of portraying history is finding the balance
between text and design, aesthetics and content. The opening essay
on the wall and an aerial drawing of key historic moments in Party
history is not that helpful when looked at in the context of the
larger work filling gallery after gallery.
Jones’ piece is about the closest to this “map”
in the entire exhibition, yet even here one has to know certain
things to truly appreciate the breath of his artistic vision. Nonetheless,
it helps – the artist’s two dimensional landscape beginning
with Newton’s birth ending with his murder – the two
ends of the horizon visible markers along a finite timeline –
one man’s life.
DuVal (Harlem Party member), her mom and me
uses this life to delineate the growth of the Black Panther Party’s
key story elements – characters and scenes, like the 10-point
program, Bobby Hutton and where he was shot by police, the courthouse
where Huey sat while BPP members stood sentinel, dates and/or key
words like “Mulford Act,” which rescinded Californian’s
right to bear arms.
indicated, there are pieces one could miss, especially those not
up on “Black Panther Party for Beginners,” which is
probably most of us, so a narrative would have been helpful for
this piece – to decipher the layers, digging beneath the surface
to find the core Jones places in his “draft” of a movement.
There are so
many unanswered questions along the precipice….Jones’
perfectly drawn lines. What happened? Why did Newton really die?
of Culture, Emory Douglas’ rendering (within the Jones’
piece) of a party member, fist raised in salute to the path, Afro
big and loud – Jones’ keen ability to chart this journey
– in this case Newton’s and his Party’s, is what
Rank and File” is about –taking archival material and
weaving it between fine art, installations and other work to show
how a Brenda Presley (Oakland/San Francisco), a Shelly Sanders (Oakland/San
Francisco), a Tekeba Banto (Seattle), or a James Mott (Sacramento
chapter), decided to participate in a movement which gave rise to
Black resistance and Black organization, direct response to Jim
Crow in the north, the continued legal enslavement of Africans post-Civil
War south—the institution’s name changed to shield the
guilty. The BPP was an answer to the lynchings and police brutality,
separate facilities, fear and repression…. What did Langston
Hughes say about raisins in the sun?
Not only were
Party members hip to the plight of the working class and other subjugated
folk the world over, other folk were hip to the movement growing
in America, a movement that appealed to the boldness of youth who
wanted immediate results after watching their parents terrorized
for marching, carrying signs, and singing.
The BPP rank
and file members asserted their rights as citizens. Politically
savvy – the leadership educated the masses well and the legacy
of this was evident at the reception, Friday night, March 17, the
hugs, pictures and travels along memory lane lasted well into the
wee hours of the night.
10 situated in one of the only enclosed spaces – what used
to be a cyber-café featured the work of the ten artists on
the theme of “Risk and Response.” Both here and elsewhere,
there was a conscious effort at integrating genres: primary documents
explaining the history of the party through rare copies of papers
covering the early Black Panther Party days through the end of this
amazing organization. All of the papers and other published articles
on the BPP like the Gordon Parks exposé in Life Magazine,
articles from the San Francisco Examiner, and other media outlets
are bound in readers available for gallery patrons to read or skim.
There are also listening stations throughout the multi-gallery space,
with rare archival footage of Huey P. Newton and other Party members
speaking about issues of the day courtesy of California Newsreel.
a few times, my favorite area was the archives. I felt grounded
here and after looking at the artifacts, I felt fortified and capable
to venture into the more abstract areas of the exhibition.
and BJ, BPP Historian at Opening Reception
Photo: Wanda Sabir
Party Rank and File is more than one can possibly digest in one
tour, even a four hour one; this exhibition is one which requires
several tours to allow certain philosophical concepts to sink in.
The BPP was not a light-weight organization; people studied, and
acquired knowledge applicable today.
All the party
members I spoke to opening night, even those who complained a little,
couldn’t help but concede Rene de Guzman and Claude Simard,
co-curators, in consultation with Bill Jennings, Director of It’s
About Time, the Panther Alumni Association and the BPP archive,
did an excellent job in showcasing a movement many do not know much
“The Black Panther Rank and File exhibition reflects YBCA’s
ongoing commitment to highlighting the Bay Area’s significant
impact on world art and politics. The struggle for social justice
that characterized the turbulent ‘60s, is still prevalent
today, and continues to inspire art making. This project, which
brings together art and artifacts, also demonstrates how contemporary
art plays a role in civic life, and provides (a) positive impact
beyond the conventional confines of museum or gallery settings.”
agreed on the value of such an exhibition despite any visible weaknesses
which for Brother Jabali was the absence of more Party women on
the walls or present at the reception, and for Bobby Seale an unarticulated
“something,” I haven’t followed up with him to
get the details, now that some time has passed. For me, the thin
connective tissue linking the larger concepts: black power movement
to social action to political activism, to self-awareness, to self-destruction
is a piece or aspect of the movement which is noticeably absent—
unless the empty peacock chair akin to a vacated throne, is symbolic
of this. What remains undefined or clearly articulated is the historic
moment which created the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in
the first place and how this movement in turn is connected philosophically
to the globalization of the Party’s influence, for instance,
in work by Paa Joe, Ghanaian sculptures of coffins in the form of
historic slave dungeons.
The Party is
nothing else was a force, palatable, a medium on could feel and
express, so why the silence?
If the BPP
were this benign presence gone and now forgotten, then why are former
Party members Ray Boudreaux, John Bowman, Richard Brown, Hank Jones,
and Harold Taylor – torture victims, still being persecuted?
Why is former Party member Aaron Dixon, Green Party, Seattle, is
running a successful campaign for U.S. Senate in Washington, against
first term incumbent Maria Cantwell (D-Washington)? He said when
here a few months ago at an event connected to the YBCA exhibit
that his platform is the same as that presented by the Party (10-Point
Program). Visit www.aarondixon.org and http://www.dixon4senate.com/.
All the wheel
needs is air, not reinventing.
BPP Rank and
File is indicative of the political clime and mood which made it
possible for a Ron Dellums to walk in the Oakland mayoral office
with more than a 50 percent plus one lead. At some point the people
wake up and reclaim their power, a power too easily relinquished
to constituencies which did not have their interests in mind.
there is no gallery which allows one to collect one’s thoughts
and think about next steps, the art is nonetheless provocative and
the photos a part of a collective memory as are many artists’
names. The BPP still resonates in the lives of Americans.
are cognizant or can “count the many ways how the BPP for
Self-Defense has impacted American society as reflected in the role
and presence of African people on these shores in cities like San
Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, San Jose, Antioch…when they
enter the gallery, remains to be seen. Yet, when they exit, the
same is definitely not true.
leave the impact is undeniable, however. One cannot deny the fact
that the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a formidable force,
a force which called American leadership -- local, state and federal
into tangible accountability, which is still calling this government
to accountability. Cases like of Mumia Abu Jamal (http://www.mumia.org/freedom.now/),
and other Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War like Marilyn
Buck, (http://www.prisonactivist.org/pps+pows/marilynbuck/), Sundiata
Acoli (http://sundiata.afrikan.net/), even MOVE members still locked
behind bars point to this (http://www.onamove.com/). “Black
Panther Party Rank and File” gives one an inkling of the power
and determination which struck fear into the institutional legs
of America causing it to quake.
closes July 2 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission
Street, San Francisco. Visit http://www.ybca.org/va/future/mar06/black_panthers.htm
or call (415) 978-2787.