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Underground papers

Shaun Roberts

“Information is the raw material for new ideas,” goes an old Black Panther Party slogan, and in this digital age alternative media is only a click away. However, there was a time when underground journalists could barely find a press that would print their subversive newspapers.

The radical underground newspapers of the 1960s and 1970s, including The Black Panther, are the focus of a new exhibit called “It’s About Time” displayed at Babylon Falling a “conceptual bookstore” in San Francisco’s Nob Hill district.

The collection of newspapers, many of which are Bay Area-born, are now on view as a historical and artistic record of past activism.

The exhibit, which runs until Mar. 11, is the result of the collecting and archiving of Billy X Jennings, a former Black Panther Party member and the founder of “It’s About Time,” the first committee dedicated to preserving the Party’s legacy.

About 10 years ago, Jennings contacted every Black Panther Party member he knew, from San Francisco to Paris, in an attempt to reunite the Party and preserve its historical contributions.

This exhibit took shape when Jennings was contacted by a friend who gave him a stack of old newspapers. With the memories of his youth jumping off of the yellowing newsprint, he soon set off to find as many copies of underground newspapers as he could, searching garage sales and calling aging radicals, hoping they had hung on to papers he called “too sacred to throw away.”

His collection now boasts hundreds of issues, and his archive of The Black Panther, or the Black Community News Service, forms most of the exhibit.

“I don’t want to keep them all to myself,” Jennings said. “I try to take them, have exhibits like this for the next generation who wants to know their history.”

“This is what my job is as an elder. I want to put [them] into some kind of format so people can use [them],” he said.

The newspaper’s goal was to bring its militant and liberating political message to the African-American community on its own terms.

“We talked about the paper telling our story from our point of view,” said Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party and a well-known political artist.

According to him, the Party differed from other political groups because of their radical approach to social justice in the African-American community.

“We respected what was going on in the Civil Rights movement but we wanted more. We wanted war,” he said.

Douglas remembered the very first issue of The Black Panther, released on Apr. 25, 1967. A photocopied four-page paper, with headlines written in marker, the first incarnation of The Black Panther was modest.

Upon seeing the first edition of the paper, Douglas immediately knew what it was lacking: art. Douglas sought ways to improve the paper visually and was appointed to the role of Revolutionary Artist for the paper.

His very first drawing reached far more people than he could have imagined.

“I had this thought: why don’t I take this pig, stand it on two hooves, put some blue pants on it and slap on a badge,” he said of his caricature of a policeman.

“It transcended the African-American community. Nuns were calling the police ‘pigs!'” Douglas said. “[The newspaper] began to have impact. It was an important tool to get our images and ideas across.”

Douglas’ political artwork has since become iconic of the Black Panther Party. His brightly colored portraits of party members, their figures outlined with thick, dark strokes, accompanied by text, have earned him worldwide recognition.

His work is now immortalized in Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, a book that contains his work for the Party and other collages and drawings.

But beyond the appreciation he has gotten over the years, Douglas is grateful for the way his art became a medium through which the complex politics of the Black Panther Party could be translated, both for others and for himself.

“When I came into the Party, [the politics were] a foreign language to me; It wasn’t like I came in intellectually equipped for it,” he said.

“But even though I couldn’t articulate the politics verbally, I could do it in art.”
In addition to the Babylon Falling exhibit, the West Oakland Branch Library is holding an exhibit called Women Artists of the Black Panther Party, in celebration of both Black History Month and Women’s History Month in March. The show, sponsored by “It’s About Time,” features Tarika Lewis,’ Kiilu Nyasha’s and Gail Dickson’s work, all of whom were Party members.

The exhibit has been up since mid-February, but the reception will be held on March 14 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Across the bay, the San Francisco Public Library is displaying photos, newspapers and memorabilia from the Black Panther Party through Mar.12, 2009 at the Main Library Branch’s African-American Center.