An Interview with Emory Douglas
The Black Panther Party was the most significant radical organization in American history, and you’d be wrong if you thought that in order to achieve that prominence their graphic identity needed to follow convention. Not only did the Panthers create propaganda and visual materials that broke with the anaseptic conventions of mid-20th-century design and culture, they also managed to rewrite the users manuals of not only “visual communication” but also of art dissemination. It turns out that in order for a political movement to be effective, its art and design must be groundbreaking. And for art and design to be groundbreaking, one could argue, they’ve got to be produced within the context of an inexorable political movement.
Emory Douglas was the artist-designer-organizer who created many of these gorgeous, provocative Black Panther graphic materials and artworks. His genius is to possess, all at once, an eminently skilled typographic eye; a talent for illustration that rivals the abilities of canonical artists like Picasso and Pettibon; a gift for minting nurturing as well as damning slogans; an editorial mind committed primarily to encouraging praxis; and a knack for tying all these together into issues of a revolutionary newspaper which, as they distill in the archive, are increasingly also recognized as masterworks of art and design.
Plenty of people have already written at length about Emory Douglas and his work, but because he’s in Ann Arbor to give a talk at the Michigan Theater, we asked Matthew, a Bay Area propaganda prodigy and Black Ink contributor, to chat with Emory on the telephone. A transcript of their conversation follows. —JC
Matt: The Panther newspaper, at the height of its run, was being printed in an edition of 400,000 copies. What sort of deadlines did you have? How tight were they? Were you having to proof it the night before it went to print? What was that process like, putting together the newspaper?
Emory: It was an evolving and developing process. Initially, the paper was supposed to come out biweekly, but because of the limited staff that we did have who worked on the paper, in conjunction with everything else that had to be done, that didn’t happen on a consistent basis. The first tabloid paper came out in May of 1967. So as we evolved up until about fifth or sixth paper, we got as consistent as we could, and you can say around early 1968, from that period of time, the paper had evolved and became the lifeline which it always was to the parties, giving perspective and what have you. We began to get it out on a consistent basis. Initially that was biweekly, and then it became weekly. I was the one who was assigned to coordinate the production aspect of the papers. And so we did an initiative. Sometimes we had deadlines and initially we didn’t meet them in time because of other actions that had to be taking place. We may have had someone who was very important to editorial or what have you, who was not there to do that part, so we had to wait until that was done before we could do the production part—those kinds of things happened from time to time, until we grew and had sister staff on an ongoing basis. If our print deadline came on a Friday, we had a crew there from Wednesday through to the deadline of the finished paper that was ready to go to the printer. And that was where we worked, usually out of our sister headquarters, a location where we also had comrades and party members who stayed there, with people coming in and out all the time. That meant that we were there, working on the paper, for at least the last couple evenings, but sometimes it was an around-the-clock kind of operation.
Was the place where you printed it located in West Oakland?
No. We dealt with many printers over time because as we evolved, we could publish all of our own materials except for the newspaper. We didn’t have a newspaper press, so we always had to go out to get the newspaper printed. At some points we got it printed over in Oakland and Berkeley. I think we used the Berkeley Post several times to get it printed back in the day. And we used to use Dr. Carlton Goodlett’s Sun-Reporter, which I came to work with years later. We published the paper several times with the folks that they used. Then we moved it from folks, but basically, the primary place where the paper was printed was in San Francisco. It was called Howard Quinn Printing. Used to be on 16th near Howard, right on the corner there. Big building.
Was there any sort of pushback on certain things that you had published? I have a few copies of the paper and as it goes on, there’s more and more “questionable things” for printers to print. Was that ever a problem, as you were going to all these different printers?
No, it wasn’t a problem. What we did find out, though, is that at Howard Quinn Printing, even though we knew people there, someone let us know that they were letting the FBI come in and read our paper, after we’d delivered it there and we’d left. So then we always had people there to proof the paper as it came off the printing press, to make sure nothing had changed. There wasn’t much shifted other than the errors that we may have made early on. As we evolved, we began to correct those, but there were quite a few in the beginning days.
After your position of Minister of Culture of the Black Panther party, was there any sort of arts movement or radical movement at that point that you were able to look upon for overall inspiration to create the work you did?
Oh, yeah. As relates to artwork and stuff, you have to understand that back then you had a lot of political art that came out of Cuba. A lot of posters from Tricontinental and OSPAAL (Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America), where they did artwork in solidarity with peoples’ struggles around the world. That was inspiring. There was also the artwork that was coming out of the war in Vietnam and the Vietnamese struggles. You had Palestinian artwork. You had movements all around the world. Also you had the antiwar movement here in this country. You know, all that had some form of art to it. For me specifically, it was the artists I was involved with, and the art I saw come out of Cuba, Mozambique, and the liberation movements in Africa.
You were born in San Francisco?
No, I came here in 1951. I’m 75. I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had asthma as a kid, and I outgrew it when I came here, but the doctor thought the weather here would be better for asthma, so that’s why my mom came to San Francisco. My auntie lived in Double Rock, which is out there by the military barracks and housing projects, near the ballpark where the 49ers and Giants used to play. It used to be housing projects all up in there. They used to go from all the way down there until all the way up to Hunters Point. As a kid I used to go out there and stay with my auntie, and then my mom, she used to have an extended family sister in the Fillmore district, who we stayed with when we came to California. The Fillmore is where my mom lived, and I used to come and stay with my auntie a lot over in Hunters Point.
So you were coming back and forth between different parts of the city where black folks were living. What was your take on the Hunters Points riots that happened in ’66?
Oh yeah, yeah. By that time I was hanging out there because my auntie had got other housing there, but some of the folks who I knew in Double Rock was shifted from there when they tore all those projects down, over into Hunters Point. I used to go out to Hunters Point all the time and hang out. I knew a lot of the folks during that period. It was about the same things we’re dealing with today—police murder, racism, the whole thing.
What do you think about what’s happened to Hunters Point in the last decade, or even contemporarily? There’s posters around now that advertise white folks saying “I am Hunters Point” and all these different sorts of things. What have you seen in the past 30, 40 years?
One thing is gentrification. You know, the fact of it is, blacks who did own property potentially didn’t have an economic base, because of redlining and other things, and they couldn’t get loans and those kinds of things. All kinds of dynamics play into why there’s gentrification and takeover. That’s the bottom line. In many cases, people moved out when blacks moved in. But when black folks moved out, they seen that the places they were going to wouldn’t let them in, and so they wanted to come back into the city. Like what Jerry Brown did when he took over in Oakland and became mayor, when he said “We need ten thousand new people to come to Oakland.” He wasn’t talking about black folks.
And now, as you can sort of see in San Francisco and Oakland, the resegregation of neighborhoods where brown and black folks had been living for so long, where they keep getting pushed east, and keep moving to the south, and moving to different places other than California.
You’re most known for your propaganda work. After the newspaper, were you still involved in doing any propaganda work, or was the work just solely your own art?
I continued to do work all the time, even though there was a point where I had to deal with my mom. I worked for the Sun-Reporter when Dr. Goodlett was alive. Because when the Party was over, and even before that, when they would have problems, they would ask me to send somebody over from my cadre to help them out, and I was given the okay to do that. They knew when the Party was on the downside, and they contacted me about coming back to work for them. So I did production work for the Sun-Reporter for many years. Every now and then they would ask me to do some graphics or something, although it wasn’t as potent. My stepfather got sick, then my mom, so I had to deal with that for ten to twelve years. There was always interest, but it was about 2004 or 2005 when my art book came out, and my mother had joined the ancestors—that was when I began to do a lot traveling, talking about the history behind the artwork. I’ve also done newer work, and remixes of some of the historical stuff.
So in the mid-2000s there was sort of a renaissance for your work, with people being like, “Oh, this is something!” and you find yourself traveling more, with people embracing what you did. But before that, there wasn’t a spotlight on the work like there is now?
I think it was after we began to do the Panther reunions, wherever you had chapters and branches around the country. Each year there would be a different chapter or branch where it was held. And those who were able-bodied enough to get together to celebrate what was going on, or what took place as a chapter or branch in that community. So that kept it alive. Then you had the young hiphop generation—Dead Prez, Public Enemy, all those were the ones who kept it alive. 2Pac, you know. That’s evolved and continued, and we’ve got a lot of people of color and black folks, and some progressive whites, who began to do a lot of articles and writings around the history. You had black scholars who began to talk about it and teach it in their classes, inviting Panthers to come and engage with their students. So I think all that, as well as the films and documentaries, played into it.
One of the reasons Black Ink had contacted me to interview you was because I’m a graphic designer. I do only propaganda work, and sort of stray away from being a part of academia, or the idea of using my work to gain working capital or something. But as I continue on this journey, I wonder what was the driving force for you? The most fulfilling thing for me to do is stuff against gentrification, or to create newspapers about gentrification in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. What was the driving force for you to do this work that was sometimes important but also, you know, had you stressing yourself out more than you probably should?
Well, it was because back then I was working with an organization. We had political education classes and all those things, internally and community-wide. We had critique, we evaluated our work and what we were doing and what was relevant and we tried to improve stuff. That all played in to help. Also, how the community responded to the work, and how the comrades in the organizations responded to the work. You knew that you were involved with something that’s bigger than yourself, in the context of what you were doing. So that became an inspiration and determination, even though they was stressful times, of course, because of workloads and all those things.
Are you living still in San Francisco?
Yeah. My mom bought a house over here in 1972 when I was in the Panthers. Near San Bruno Avenue and Silver, right across from the farmer’s market.
I recently picked up a book, the Zapantera Negra book, about your time going to Chiapas and doing collaboration work with the women and all the artists that came to do these wonderful projects. What did you learn from that experience?
I was invited there by Caleb Duarte, an artist who ran an artist spot there. He was interested in my coming and we worked it out. Him and his collective already had a space there. I went to do an artist residency and from that I was able to meet some of the Zapatistas, and through that you see a whole other world, an indigenous world. When you go to see them, they treat you with tenderloving care and respect. They ain’t got nothing to give you, because they’re still challenged and confronted by the Mexican government. Most of them live in rural areas, in the jungles and out in the woods. We went out and painted a school and a grocery store. Those things I’ll talk about in my presentation. We also went to some of the caracols and things that they did, and to meetings where they bring all kinds of artists together. You learn that they have their own identity, and how they do things, and how they’re convicted and believe in many worlds. They connect with all kinds of things from around the world, and other movements of resistance.
People have compared the revolutionary struggle of the Panthers to the Zapatistas, even down to the Zapatistas creating an economic base for their people to survive, by making boots, by selling coffee and all the things that they sell. Small little tangent: I met you earlier this year, and I bought a print from you. It’s the one where there’s two little black boys and it says “My suffering, my bitterness, my loneliness; I’m not going to let it get me down, I’m not going to let it turn me around.” That’s one of my favorite posters you ever did.
Were you at East Side Arts Alliance Book Fair? Was that where it was?
It was in Old Town, Oakland? It was like a small little thing.
E14 Gallery? I had a table set up there.
I don’t remember if it was after or before New Years, but I had got a case during that time, and I remember picking that print specifically because it said so much about what I was feeling—that depiction of young black boys facing the penitentiary. And I could relate to the idea that, as a brown person, that moment in the cell won’t get me down, or anybody else who reads that. What was your inspiration for making that piece?
I was dealing with the fact that we’ve all had black folks incarcerated in these penitentiaries. Family and loved ones. Maybe I was thinking in terms of the expression of the feelings of the young person who’s got a loved one who’s incarcerated, how they feel about it, and how they wasn’t going to let it get them down or turn them around. I appreciate what you said, because it gave me some insight.
Yeah, you know. I put it up in my room. I was like, Goddamn.
I’m trying to work for that in the work that I do. That’s why I try to be clear as I can.
Pretty clear! I appreciate you.
Okay, my brother.