Emory Douglas (born May 24, 1943) worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the Party disbanded in the 1980s. His graphic art was featured in most issues of the newspaper The Black Panther (which had a peak circulation of 139,000 per week in 1970). 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.
Douglas was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. As a teenager, he was incarcerated at the Youth Training School in Ontario, California; during his time there he worked in the prison’s printing shop. He later studied commercial art, taking graphic design classes, at San Francisco City College. As Erika Doss wrote, “He also joined the college’s Black Students Union and was drawn to political activism.”
Douglas joined the Black Panther Party in 1967 after stopping by the Black House, a space created by Eldridge Cleaver with Ed Bullins and Willie Dale, when they were discussing the Black Panther Community News Service, and mentioned to them that he could help improve the look of it.
In 1967 Douglas became the “Revolutionary Artist” and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. He redesigned the Black Panther and switched to web press which allowed for colored printing and the use of graphics. He used the back cover and most of the front cover for his graphics and collages that aligned with the BBP message. Here he developed the iconic images that branded the BBP, including the depiction of policemen as pigs. His graphics were very violent, often featuring pigs bloodied or hanged. He also incorporated imagery in line with the Party’s 10 Point program, including things such as social services and decent housing. In addition to this, Douglas aligned the Black Panther Party with “Third World liberation struggles” and anti-capitalist movements in works such as the January 3, 1970 edition, which shows a pig dressed in an American flag being impaled while having many guns pointing at it, saying things like “Get out of the ghetto” and “Get out of Africa”.
In addition to the paper, Douglas also designed postcards, event flyers, and posters that were meant as recruitment tactics as well as an additional method of spreading the BBP ideology and creating the impression that there was mass support of the cause. Douglas recalled, “After a while it flashed on me that you have to draw in a way that even a child can understand [in order] to reach your broadest audience without losing the substance or insight of what is represented.” (Stewart, 2011).
In 1967 Douglas became Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. In 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jessica Werner Zack reported that he “branded the militant-chic Panther image decades before the concept became commonplace. He used the newspaper’s popularity to incite the disenfranchised to action, portraying the poor with genuine empathy, not as victims but as outraged, unapologetic and ready for a fight.”
Douglas drew a lot of inspiration from third world struggles and used art as the primary method of propaganda and outreach. His graphics served to promote the Party’s ideologies, which were inspired by the rhetoric of figures such as Malcolm X and Che Guevara. His images were very graphic and violent, never portraying African Americans as victims. The hope was to start a revolution and end mistreatment of African Americans.
In 1970 the BBP shifted their stance to emphasize survival programs as opposed to violence. With that, Douglas’s imagery changed as well, showing African Americans receiving free food and clothes. They promoted free breakfast programs, free health clinics, free legal aid amongst other things. These programs were considered part of their revolutionary tactic. This being said, the FBI cracked down on them harder than ever during this shift, until it inevitably shut them down. However, their ideology managed to survive.
Douglas worked at the black community-oriented San Francisco Sun Reporter newspaper for over 30 years after The Black Panther newspaper was no longer published. He continued to create activist artwork, and his artwork stayed relevant, according to Greg Morozumi, of the Bay Area EastSide Arts Alliance: “Rather than reinforcing the cultural dead end of ‘post-modern’ nostalgia, the inspiration of his art raises the possibility of rebellion and the creation of new revolutionary culture.”
In 2006, artist and curator Sam Durant edited a comprehensive monograph on the work of Douglas, Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, with contributors including Danny Glover, Kathleen Cleaver, St. Clair Bourne, Colette Gaiter (associate professor at the University of Delaware), Greg Morozumi (artistic director of the EastSide Arts Alliance in Oakland, California), and Sonia Sanchez.
After the book’s publication, Douglas had retrospective exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007–08) and the New Museum in New York. Since the re-introduction of his early work to new audiences, he continues to make new work, exhibit and interact with audiences in formal and informal settings all over the world. His international exhibitions and visits include Urbis, Manchester, England (2008); Auckland, New Zealand, Collaboration with Richard Bell in Brisbane, Australia (2011); Chiapas, Mexico; Lisbon, Portugal (2011)
Photo: MPR News0