Written by Lisa Marie Sneijder
There is something about the power of print, the carefully placed words and images, the use of colour, the design choices. As we live in a world where print has been taken over by the online world where moving images are the norm, we tend to forget how strong the influence of a single piece of paper can be. Throughout my Design Cultures MA, I especially wanted to examine how print has been used to challenge societal norms and the status quo, leading me to the Black Panther Party’s newspaper titled ‘The Black Panther Black Community News Service’.
When thinking about the Black Panther Party one often refers to the all-black military style with a beret, leather jacket, sunglasses and an AK-47. Or one remembers them as political radicals of the 1960-70s in the USA. But the organisation had a much broader political and socioeconomic scope which focussed on equal rights, housing, employment and education opportunities for the Black community, an end to police oppression, the right to a fair trial, the liberation of Black men in prisons and, most importantly, justice and peace for the Black community. They set up ‘Survival Programs’ including the Free Breakfast program for children, the Free Clothing and Free Food programs, free shuttle busses for the elderly, free health clinics that researched sickle cell anaemia and liberation schools.
The United States of America of the 1960s could be defined by its duality of oppression and liberation, whereby countercultural movements fighting for emancipation were opposed by an establishment terrified of change. The Black Panther Party got their message out by publishing a newspaper on a weekly basis until the 1980s. What makes this newspaper really stand out are the page wide front and back cover illustrations called ‘Revolutionary Art,’ created by Emory Douglas. These illustrations communicate the stories written in the newspaper in a simplified manner, so even the illiterate could understand.
I came across the Black Panther newspaper during my pre-master a year prior to starting my MA, and immediately became fascinated by the unique and inspiring work. As I also scrutinised the newspaper for my pre-master thesis, I gained a basis of knowledge which I then could expand for my MA thesis titled ‘Bold Black Lines: The Decolonial Aesthetics of The Black Panther Black Community News Service’. As the Design Cultures MA is only one year and the process of writing and researching the thesis spans over a little less than 6 months alongside several other courses, it was a welcome starting point which made it possible to research the topic in even more detail. After enthusiastically putting all hands on deck to make the tight deadlines I could not have been more proud to come second in the VU Humanities Thesis Prize. It was an honour to be amongst these impressive theses and I am very glad that my topic stood out as it touched on a subject that has been overlooked throughout history.
To give a thorough overview of the Black Panther Party’s evolving message, my MA thesis examined 8 case studies of front and back covers from 1969 until 1972 which followed two tracks. Each case study first details a visual analysis of the formal elements and their influences by other art or design movements who contributed to Black liberation in the 20th century, like modernist art by the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement, Spiral and AfriCOBRA and poster art by international liberation movements during the 1960-70s. The second track examines the decolonising qualities of these covers based on decolonial theories by W.E.B Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Walter Mignolo, Rolando Vazquez, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin and others.
It is remarkable to see how the narrative and visual language of the newspaper changes drastically within these 4 years. The Black Panther Party shifts their approach from a party fighting for change through counterviolence alongside community work towards an organisation solely focussed on the liberating power of social programs to uplift and educate the Black community. These covers illustrate how the Black Panther Party was able to decolonise their own way of thinking and practice and communicated this in a revolutionary way. Even though their work has influenced a lot of design activism throughout the years, the newspaper does not have a prominent place in graphic design history. So hopefully my thesis can contribute to changing that.