According to Professor Deborah Gray White, “African American women are confronted with an impossible task. If she is rescued from the myth of the negro, the myth of the woman traps her. If she escapes the myth of the women, the myth of the negro still ensnares her.” Given the dynamics between blackness and womanhood – how do we remember the women of one the most revolutionary black activist organizations, the Black Panther Party (BPP)?
ICONIC Black Panther, on display at Stony Island Arts Bank from November 2, 2018 to January 6, 2019, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (ILBPP). Conceived by the SEPIA Collective and curated by Tracie D. Hall, ICONIC Black Panther features the work of contemporary artists reflecting on the ILBPP’s history. Many of the artworks displayed in the exhibit celebrate black women’s activism in the ILBPP and in contemporary movements.
The ILBPP was significantly more committed to women’s equality than the national BPP. In the 1960s and 1970s, the national Black Panther newspaper often presented the women as militant caretakers, supporting their husbands as the men led the movement and raising strong children to join the movement. According to Elaine Brown, the only woman to lead the BPP, by 1977, “the words ‘Panther’ and ‘comrade’ had taken on gender connotations denoting an inferiority in the female half of us.” Historian Jacobi Williams contends that, in contrast to the national movement, the ILBPP was known for reprimanding men who violated party policy on women’s equality. According to Black Panther Joan Gray, the ILBPP “was a place where women rose to leadership…We learned how to lead organizations, how to build institutions, how to take charge, how to negotiate. . . . [W]e learned those skills there in the Party along with the men.” When ILBPP women traveled to the national headquarters in Oakland, they expressed dismay the subordinate role of women there.
ICONIC Black Panther embraces the ILBPP ideal of women as BPP leaders. The text in the exhibit is sparse, but highlights the importance of women in the BPP. There are a few quotes by the Culture Minister of the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas, scattered throughout the exhibit. One of the Douglas quotes in the exhibit’s the main lobby reads, “the Party could not have functioned without women. Women were on the frontlines as community organizers, as artists. The work they did demanded their place in leadership.” On the wall with the quote sit artistic representations of revolutionary black women, including Nina Simone and Angela Davis.
The exhibit also probes the ways black female activism has changed since the early 1980s. While there were many great pieces about contemporary black women’s activism in the exhibit, my favorite was Sam Kirk’s “We keep showing up for America. When is America gonna show up for us?” On the right of the painting is a solemn march for black equality straight out of the early 1960s. On the left of the painting, contemporary activists march sporting “black lives matter” signs. The woman at the center of the painting looks out at the viewer with a sad determination in her eyes, as if to ask, “why must we still march?” On her leather jacket, she has a Black Panther badge and a Women’s March pin. She has clearly been involved in activism for a long time. Perhaps she is Queer, proudly wearing her “StoneWall -Fight Back!” pin. Maybe she’s Puerto Rican, wearing a YLO pin. Or, maybe she’s a straight black woman born in the mainland U.S. who believes that the fights of Queer people and Puerto Ricans are her fights too. She wears an Illinois “I Voted! Did You?” band around her wrist. Even though the system has failed her many times, she knows voting could help ameliorate the current situation. Her fist is clenched by her side. Is she showing her black power or just her frustration? She holds an American flag, because, as James Baldwin famously said, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
The Stony Island Arts Bank is proud to promote contemporary black women’s leadership through the exhibit. When Gaylord Minett, the Outreach Coordinator at Rebuild Foundation, gave a tour of the exhibit, he told visitors to “focus on different images of women. The black female identity is very prominent. Women are the drivers of these movements.” My favorite moment during the tour was when Minett stood in front of the photograph “Calm” by Cecil McDonald and Avery R. Young and pointed at different women, stating, “She comes here to DJ. She has a local Yoga studio. I’ve known her forever.”
In summary, I think the title David Anthony Geary’s painting best expresses the exhibit’s interpretation of women in the ILBPP and contemporary Chicago black activism, “We Are Revolution Personified.”