In the tumultuous late-1960s the Black Panthers rejected passivity for collective action, an event that some found thrilling and others horrifying. "Serve the People Images of a Vision" uses pictures mostly documentary photography to tell the Panthers' story in a visually dynamic and thought-provoking exhibit that runs through June 29.
Founded in 1966 by California college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers rejected Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of constructive nonviolence for Malcolm X's dictum: "By any means necessary." So they organized urban blacks across the country according to principles of self-defense and self-sufficiency. Part of their program involved patrolling neighborhoods, armed with guns, to protect blacks from the abuses of hostile police. Inevitably, a handful of shootouts resulted, and this violent side of the Panthers' history however justified still dominates the public's perception of them.
"Serve the People" offers a more balanced picture. It includes photographs of Panthers engaged in community activism: handing out food and clothing to the poor, providing free testing for sickle cell anemia and registering voters. But more dramatic images often powered by the sheer personality of their subjects dominate the exhibit.
These include the famous photograph of Newton seated on a wicker chair like an African king. Flanked by tribal shields with his "throne" resting on an animal pelt, Newton regards the viewer regally clutching a shotgun in his right hand and a spear in his left. It is an image of menace, strength and withering sarcasm that has lost none of its bite after three decades.
The Panther leadership understood the power of such images to inspire and provoke. In a photo called "Black Panther Youth," chanting children swagger and march in a single-file line. Beside them is a similar photo of tough-looking, marching men. Each wears the stylish Panther uniform of black leather jacket and beret. They look sharp, polished and smart. But images of glamorized militarism always are problematic, even when used to promote worthwhile principles such as ethnic pride, solidarity and discipline. Such images are seductive, but risk misinterpretation by blurring the line between community empowerment and fascist homogeneity.
A 1970 photograph from the Philadelphia Daily News shows another sort of lineup. In it, Panther men are forced against a wall and made to strip naked for the cameras during a police raid. The resulting image is one of symbolic emasculation that evokes nightmarish lynching photographs, wherein nude or partially nude black men were tortured often castrated and then murdered by white mobs while cameras preserved the event for posterity. Appallingly, such photos were often sold as souvenirs in postcard form and then widely circulated by the U.S. mail, just as this image now a yellowed, tattered clipping in a glass frame was once widely circulated by U.S. newspapers.
The Panthers' empathy for other oppressed groups is apparent in the exhibit's portraits of strong women. In one of them, Frederika Newton the Panther leader's wife looks at us over her shoulder from beneath a large afro. "There was no difference between the men and the women of the Black Panther Party," she is quoted. "We were all working to serve the community." Nearby is a similar photo of a radiant Elaine Brown, who became the Panthers' first female leader in 1974. Brown also is quoted: "It's possible some of you may balk at a woman as the leader of the Black Panther Party. If this is your attitude you'd better get out of the Black Panther Party. Now."
"Serve the People" is an arresting exhibit that bursts with historical importance and sociopolitical relevance. It isn't perfect. Ideally it would be more comprehensive, leaving no facet of Panther history unexplored; and the power of its images is impaired somewhat by its lack of high-tech production values the kind provided by major museum funding. But what major museum beholden to conservative corporations and terrified of controversy would dare to fund a Black Panther exhibit? Probably none. So see it while you can. Its provocative statements and unanswered questions are rare and refreshing in today's pathologically inoffensive gallery environment, and its issues remain especially in racially charged Richmond open and unresolved. S
"Serve the People - Images of a Vision" runs through June 29 at the Black History Museum at 00 Clay St. 780-9093
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