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Black Panthers in history and culture

by Amy Kingsley

Winston-Salem’s Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art is a rambling Tudor mansion that ruptures the dead-end of a residential street. Walk up the flagstone path and into the foyer and you’ll see low, cozy ceilings and well-stocked bookcases. Move past that and you’ll end up beyond the original house, in a modern addition of tiered gallery spaces and white track lighting. On July 20, those spaces were packed with current college students, veterans of the 1960s counterculture and everyone in between. A handful of men dressed in dashikis, a couple of women wore the hijab and the rest relaxed in anything from jeans to suits. This crowd pressed shoulder to shoulder in the main exhibition space to listen to Rene de Guzman, the director of visual arts for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, introduce the exhibition: Black Panther Rank and File. Guzman was presenting artifacts culled mostly from the Bay Area. The Oakland branch of the Black Panther Party was the movement’s flagship; it is where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale issued their 10-point plan calling for “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.” Most of the work dating from the Panthers’ brief late-sixties heyday was clustered on the far wall of the main gallery and in the upper-level exhibition space. It included documentary photographs by Ilka Hartman, Pirkle Jones and Stephen Shames and posters by Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers’ minister of culture. Jones captured some of the more iconic moments of Panther history, including a shot of three Panthers arrayed on the steps of the Oakland City Hall, shotguns crossed over their chests. He also documented the aftermath of a shooting with local police that left the front window of Panther headquarters riddled with bullets. Ilka Hartman photographed the titular rank and file; in one picture three men compare sleeve-lengths of brand new leather jackets. The jackets were a component of the Panther uniform, but many of the members could not afford them, the caption said. The men had gotten theirs from a Newsweek photographer grooming them for a cover shoot. Douglas painted stylized posters for the Panthers that combined elements of Roy Lichtenstein and GI Joe. His work has recently been collected into coffee-table books. For the Panthers, it was employed to revolutionary ends. The exhibition places the Panther relics in historical context, weaving abolitionist, Civil Rights Era and contemporary pieces throughout the show. One of the more striking contemporary works is a sculpture by Sam Durant. His “Peacock Chair” is a full-scale recreation of the throne in which Huey Newton was famously pictured. The chair is placed on a square of mirrored glass, and the artist invites viewers to sit and ponder their place in Panther history or post-history. Durant proposed the installation for the Oakland courthouse, as a monument to Newton, who was tried there in 1968 for manslaughter. Another contemporary artist in the exhibition, John Bankston, tenders critiques of the Panthers in his coloring-book style. In one piece he depicts a gay African-American couple being lectured by a uniformed Panther. Aside from Bankston’s pieces, the exhibit tends toward hagiography, but it is an instructive collection for those with a textbook education of the Black Panther Party. The largest oversight in this case is the lack of information on the Winston-Salem branch. Winston was home to a vibrant chapter that, among other things, started a free ambulance service. As in Oakland, some members were injured or killed during confrontations with police. Those interested in learning about the Panthers’ North Carolina connections can attend a screening on Sept. 4 of Negroes With Guns. The film tells the story of Monroe, NC native Robert Williams, who insisted on armed self-defense and had to flee the country after trumped up kidnapping charges put him on the FBI’s most wanted list. Larry Little, a political science professor at Winston-Salem State University, and other former members of Winston-Salem’s Black Panthers will be on hand for discussion.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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