When I was growing up in the 1970s, the Black Panther Party’s trademark Afros and black leather jackets were a familiar sight. But it wasn’t until I began studying the Black Panthers in my late teens that I became familiar with the foundational ideals laid out in the group’s Ten-Point Program—around the same time that I decided to pursue a career in art, a path that eventually led me to found the design studio Slang Inc. The Panthers’ commitment to the community directly influences my intention to create work that speaks to and for those whose voices are suppressed. As its minister of culture, Emory Douglas was a core member of the organization whose responsibilities included refining the logo, designing the Black Panther newspaper, and creating its powerful cover imagery. His reduced-color line drawings and bold design style are both timely and timeless.
When I got the call to design the Melvin Van Peebles: Essential Films box set, my answer was an automatic yes. Learning that Mr. Douglas was already working on a cover illustration solidified that I’d made the right choice. I asked for an introduction in hopes of thanking him directly for showing me and generations of artists how to use our voices to change the world. When the project was completed, the Criterion Collection put us in touch. During our conversation, he spoke about joining the party, the Panthers’ role in promoting Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and why a “we” mindset is better than a “me” mindset.
This Melvin Van Peebles box set includes four films, and you did the cover illustration for the whole edition—it was an honor to be able to use that as a starting point and contribute some typography to it. I was interested in the project anyway, but I had to participate because it gave me an opportunity to engage with your artwork. I know that there is some history between the Black Panther Party and Melvin Van Peebles, so I wanted to know a little bit about that relationship.
When the movie Sweet Sweetback came out, Huey Newton had seen the film. And many of us had. But he did an analysis on it and put it in [the organization’s newspaper, the Black Panther] with a huge sort of spread, and also we had the whole front cover of the marquee poster.
Yes. With the red type.
Melvin and Huey got together, and they were discussing some of the things that Huey had seen and evaluated from a sociopolitical perspective. It brought new enlightenment to Melvin about the film. That was how people viewed it from another vantage point, I believe—in the context of the critique that Huey gave that was in the paper. That’s when it took off. Because we put it in the paper, and all over the country you had folks—particularly people of color, Black folks—wanting to go see the film. So that popularized it at that time.
So that was done independently, Melvin didn’t ask for that? That was just a response?
It was, independently, yes.
If that was done independently, where did you get the images to build the spread?
The existing poster was the one that we used, the one that was on the front page. It was to put it in a political context. We wanted people to see the movie and get a perspective on it. So it wasn’t like trying to exploit the copyright or something.
Tell me a little bit about how the idea to create the paper came about, and how you came to contribute in the ways that you did.
That came about when I was invited to a meeting at City College of San Francisco, because some brothers I knew were collaborating together. Nobody knew about the Panthers then at all. Maybe in Oakland, California, and maybe a few people who were going back and forth from San Francisco, activists or what have you.
I was invited to a meeting where they were planning to bring Malcolm X’s widow [Betty Shabazz] to the Bay Area to honor her, and they wanted me to do the poster for that event. So I went, and I agreed to do the poster, and they said some brothers is coming over next week, and they would agree if they’re going to do security. When they came over, that was Huey Newton and Bobby Seale and some of the other first Panthers. And after that meeting, I knew that’s what I wanted to be a part of, so I asked them how I could join. And they had business cards. I didn’t have a car, so I used to catch the bus over to Huey’s house in the morning from time to time. And then he’d show me around the neighborhood, introduce me to folks, we would go by Bobby Seale’s house. So that was my mission, transitioning into the Black Panther Party—late January, early February of 1967—about three and a half months after its inception.
They had no paper then. They knew some other activists, brothers who were working with this family in Richmond called the Dowell family, and they had a young family member who was murdered by the Richmond police. We used to go out there. And I recall back at that time, there was a place in San Francisco as well called the Black House, where Huey and Bobby used to come over to want to connect with Eldridge [Cleaver] . . . because they liked his writings, and they had a vision for the paper.
The Black House had a cultural center downstairs. Marvin X; Amiri Baraka, LeRoi Jones then; Stokely [Carmichael]; Sonia Sanchez—all those folks used to come through there. Upstairs, Eldridge Cleaver’s studio looked like a Victorian house . . . So what happens is that I came over there one afternoon, and Bobby, Eldridge, and Huey were sitting at the table downstairs, because there was nothing happening, events or anything. When I came in, they were talking, and I seen Bobby working on this legal-sized sheet of paper, which became the first Black Panther paper, about that young brother named Denzil Dowell in Richmond. It had been done on a typewriter. I said, “Maybe I can help you improve that.” They said, “Okay.” So I went home and got my materials, came back, and they said, “Well, we’ve about finished with this, but you seem to be committed because you’ve been coming around and hanging around. We’re gonna start the paper, and we want you to be the revolutionary artist for the paper” . . . They said they had a vision about having lots of photographs and artwork in the paper, so people could get to see the artwork who were not going to read the long, drawn-out articles. They could look at the captions and the headlines and the photographs, and they could get the gist of what the story was, what it was about. They said most Black people then were learning through observation and participation. There was a whole segment that wasn’t just reading the news per se. So that’s how they had the vision of the paper. I worked starting on the second paper, which was when we began to do a tabloid-sized paper.
You said your position started as revolutionary artist, but that role evolved into minister of culture?
The Ministry of Culture came about when we began to develop different ministries—the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, what have you—because of the influx of people who wanted to contribute or volunteer or join the Black Panther Party. That’s when I became the minister of culture, dealing with all the production aspects of art, promoting entertainment, culture. Because this was a movement of culture, everything was about culture—it was how we dressed, all that. We were creating the culture, revolutionary culture.
And week after week you were able to translate all of the community-based work that the Black Panthers did—like the child-care and free-breakfast programs—into the visuals of the paper. Which is just really important, particularly those large-scale back covers. The logo of the party is something that stands out as well. The history behind it is really important. I would love to hear a little bit about that from you.
I became aware of the symbol when I joined the Panthers. The symbol came from the South—in Lowndes County, Alabama—during the civil rights movement. I think it was 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed, that you had Stokely Carmichael and others from SNCC [Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] who went to Lowndes County, which is a predominantly Black county. All those racists—plantation mentality—were controlling the county, and I believe a lot of sharecroppers lived there, who made their living and lived in shacks. They all wanted to vote, but was intimidated. But when the Voting Rights Act passed, you had Stokely and SNCC come to do the educational aspects with them around voting, and they agreed—they wanted to do that. But in Lowndes County, the Democratic Party—the ones who controlled the county, the racists—had to have a symbol to be a political party. And the local Democratic Party symbol then was a white rooster. It stood for white supremacy. So when the Lowndes County Freedom Organization wanted to be a political party, they had to have an icon. And from what I understand, they seen these high-school sports teams, and they seen the different animals, with the images that they have for the different teams. They seen the panther, and that’s where the symbol comes from. They chose the panther. And so it comes from the South during the civil rights movement.
I remember when [the Black Panthers] finally had recruited Eldridge, and we were working on the paper at his house. The way they were able to get Eldridge to work on the paper was because he worked for Ramparts magazine, which was a kind of progressive liberal magazine. And at that time, before he joined, they allowed him to cover the Panthers as a reporter. Therefore, he wouldn’t be in violation of his parole. He could’ve been sent back to prison, and that’s what they were trying to do. But he was able to work with the Panthers under disguise as a reporter for Ramparts magazine. That’s how we were able to connect with him and he was able to do the initial work on the paper. Also, he had this book that came out during that time, and he was going back and forth to Atlanta [where SNCC was headquartered]. One time he was leaving, I remember Huey and them coming by, we were there trying to touch up some stuff on the paper, and they asked Eldridge [for the approval of Stokely Carmichael and SNCC, the originators of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization logo], because that’s disrespectful to SNCC to continue using the panther icon. They said yeah, no problem. So what happened is that I refined it—it was a chunky panther, healthy-looking [laughs]—to make it slimmer.
When I was researching the logo, I saw that the Lowndes County people, in their definition, were saying that the panther represented courage, determination, and freedom.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah. Huey and them would see it as a cat that wouldn’t attack anybody. But if it’s pushed into a corner, it will defend itself.
Your work inspires so many people. What have been your influences, in the beginning of your career and now? What do you look to in terms of creating energy?
Well, I’ve developed over the years a style that can go from totally abstract to more realistic. I’m more inspired by the reality of what’s going on in the real world. The injustice, global warming, all of that—it impacts us. Historically, when I was introduced to the arts in Cuba, OSPAAAL, the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America, the political posters that were put out by them, in solidarity with those struggles; the artwork that was still being done about Palestine, Vietnam; African liberation movements, you’d see a lot of posters and stuff come from them as well—all that played into the spirit of the work that I began to develop. I always say, I was inspired by it, I never tried to duplicate it.
You clearly have a distinct style that is yours. For me, inspiration is kind of seeing how other people meet challenges or solve problems—always walking away and finding my own way to address it. And I just want to say I’m eternally grateful for the work that you’ve put in.
What I always try to tell people to let it be made clear is that this is artwork that came out of the context of an organization and a movement. So I look at this as not just a “me” art but a “we” art. You get individuals who look at it and admire it, are inspired by it, and that’s good. But at the same time, we had a national—international—organization. And we had chapters and branches. So our art could be accessible on all those levels across the country and the globe. That was one of the main ways of the work being popularized, in that context. And the fact that it had an impact is in how people responded and related to the vision of what the party was about and what it was doing as a whole, and how art highlighted that in a visual context, as a visual language.
As you said, the first newspaper was started on a legal pad. And we’re now talking about how large it grew to be. So I am thanking you personally for your contributions, but I’m also thanking everyone who had the vision and put the work in to build this. I’m not eliminating them when I say thank you. So thank you all for what you’ve done, because I’ve benefited from it. Myself and many others are trying to carry it forward because the work is important, and we know it’s not done.