Thursday 1 December 2022

The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas

 A revolutionary in the true sense of the word, the American graphic artist Emory Douglas created strong, eye-catching imagery for the Black Power movement in the United States during the late 1960s and into the 70s, mostly for the BPP's newspaper The Black Panther. He wasn't just an artist who served the cause of Black Liberation through his art, but also served as Minister for Culture in the party from 1967 until the 1980s when the party was dissolved within a new climate of reaction.

Born in Michigan in 1943, Douglas was politicised at a young age after being caught up in the juvenile detention system, but found opportunities to explore his talent for print-making, and later more formal arts education, a skill he brought with him when he joined the Black Panther Party for Self Defence in 1967.

I cannot help but reflect upon how, growing up years later across the Atlantic, all the books I could find on the comix and art of the 1960s counter culture, including all of the reprints, would tend to focus on sex, drugs, music and mysticism. Growing up in the 1990s the comix of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton were still very popular, including with teenagers my own age. The political satire discussed in both reprints of classic underground comix and histories of the period and the form however tended to focus on the anti-war movement or women's liberation, with the artists and journalists associated with the openly socialist Black Liberation movement barely mentioned.

This oversight is a shame, as there is a power to this imagery which should not be forgotten. I am encouraged that at the time of writing I understand Emory Douglas is still alive and some books and websites are certainly available about his fierce, revolutionary work.

For now, bathe your eyes in the revolutionary art of another time.

These savage cartoons make the editors of Private Eye look like the Cambridge-educated toffs they were (and, as much as I enjoy their work, Shelton and Crumb look like bourgeois liberals):

A  common theme in Douglas' work is the desire to link civil rights struggles within the USA to the wider anti-colonial struggle taking place at that time in Africa and Asia:

The title of this piece reminds me of a quote attributed to Ahmed Sekou Toure, the revolutionary socialist who was the first President of independent Guinea-Conakry:

In this powerful image Douglas brings together the imagery of Black Power with Women's Liberation. This woman is clearly not about to be forced to choose between motherhood or the revolutionary, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggle, as capitalism today tries to make women feel guilty for having to prioritise motherhood/career:

Here is a traditional newspaper-style cartoon that pulls no punches in its depiction of the cops:

It's always important for a new generations, especially those of today whose own struggles may have been shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement, to be able to see and draw inspiration from the language and imagery of past struggles. 

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