Tag Archives: Black Panthers

Echoes of Innocence: War, Black Power and Racial Innocence

This week I finally got to the Black Power exhibition at the Schomburg Center in New York, which recognizes the impact of Black Power and the Black Panther party during the 1960s and 1970s, both in the US and globally.  I was particularly interested in the discussion in the exhibit about children, and have been thinking about this ever since—especially because my week also included a reading of Robin Bernstein’s piece in the New York Times, “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/26/opinion/black-kids-discrimination.html), and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Newbery Honor Book, Echo (Scholastic, 2015).

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Blake was aware in the 1790s that Black children were not allowed innocence in white society.

Bernstein’s op-ed piece talks about the construction of innocence (presumably in the US, since all her examples are American, but her arguments can be stretched to other countries as well) as having racial connotations, beginning especially in the 19th century.  During this period, the romantic notion of the child was as an innocent, blank slate—but only, Bernstein argues, the white child.  “The more that popular writers, playwrights, actors and visual artists created images of innocent white children, the more they depicted children of color, especially black children, as unconstrained imps. Over time, this resulted in them being defined as nonchildren,” she writes.  While she mentions an exception to this (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s representation of Topsy, which was then destroyed by the popular theatre versions of Stowe’s book), and I would argue that there are other counter-examples (William Blake’s version of innocence, for example, was not confined to white children—although as his poetry makes clear, Black children’s innocence was confounded by white society), her main point is sound.  Children who are not white are often seen in white-dominated societies as threatening.

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Kenlock’s Black Panther girls are innocent of wrong-doing, but not innocent of injustice.

I looked back at the photos I had taken in the Black Power exhibit, most of which were either pictures of children or pictures of Black Arts poetry.  None of the children in the photos were smiling, and many of them could be seen as provocative, with the children looking defiantly at the camera adorned with Black Power symbols.  These photographs were not taken by white photographers who saw a threat, but Black and white photographers who saw a possibility.  White photographer Stephen Shames’ image of a Black boy in a white Angela Davis t-shirt was designed, along with his other Black Panthers photographs, to show that “‘black pride’ was not based on denigrating whites, but on showing the black community that they were in control of their own destiny” (http://www.stephenshames.com/projects/black-panther-party). Black photographer Neil Kenlock’s photograph of Black Power girls in Brixton, which was part of the “Stan Firm Inna Inglan” exhibition I saw at the Tate in London, was also reproduced here to showcase global Black Pride.  But whether you looked at these photos and saw strength or threat, it is difficult to see the children in these photos as innocent, in the sense of innocent as someone who is unknowing, a blank slate in John Locke’s definition.  You can’t be innocent if you are aware of injustice.

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Even music is not innocent of understanding injustice in Ryan’s novel that connects children across time and place.

And this is why I found Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Echo so compelling.  The story is really multiple stories, across time and distance and even genre, woven together through the medium of wars (both WWI and WWII) and a harmonica that is owned by multiple child characters.  The harmonica, as an instrument, is not a random choice.  Ryan takes pains to indicate how music connects us all; one of her characters comments, “Music does not have a race or a disposition . . . Every instrument has a voice that contributes.  Music is a universal language” (86) and this sentiment is echoed throughout the novel by different characters.  But the speech made here is in response to another character denigrating the harmonica as an instrument.  Music is not all innocent and even an instrument can be culpable.  Elisabeth is in the Hitler Youth, and the Hitler Youth thinks that the harmonica is “offensive” (85) because it is used to play “Unacceptable music . . . Negro music. Jazz. It’s considered degenerate” (86).  Her brother Friedrich, who is Ryan’s main character in this particular story, knows this is nonsense; music is innocent in the sense that it has not done anything wrong.  But the harmonica and Friedrich are only innocent in this one sense of the term.  They are not the unknowing kind of innocent.  Friedrich may not be Jewish, but he is under threat, both for speaking against injustice and for having a physical “deformity”—a birthmark—that may get him confined to an insane asylum or worse in Nazi Germany.  The harmonica, which is a somewhat magical version of a regular harmonica, “knows” about sadness, and can play it.

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This famous photo from WWII, which appeared in Life magazine, has often been used as a symbol of an innocent boy caught up in fascism. But just because he’s done nothing to deserve a gun being pointed at him, doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand justice.

The knowingness of the harmonica is explained in the next of Ryan’s interconnected stories, in which the Irish-American Mike is taught to play the harmonica by the African-American Mr. Potter.  When Mr. Potter first plays, Mike is fascinated and asks him about the sound he gets the harmonica to make.  Mr. Potter explains, “blues music is about all the trials and tribulations people got in their hearts from living. . . . Blues is a song begging for its life” (293).  Mike has not done anything wrong by becoming an orphan, but he is aware of the injustice that keeps food out of his and other children’s mouths in the orphanage—so he too can play the innocent/not-innocent blues on the harmonica.  Similarly, the next owner of the harmonica, Ivy Lopez, is innocent of wrongdoing but is still sent to a crumbling and understocked school because of her Mexican heritage.  This not only allows her to play the blues, but to understand the injustice done to another: she exposes the wrong treatment and suspicion of Japanese-Americans who have been interned.

Bernstein’s article ends with a slightly mixed message, arguing that all children should be seen as innocent but also that innocence should not be the focus—rather we should look at whether children are being treated justly.  I think most children should be seen as innocent of wrong-doing, because most children are; however, I don’t think any children—Black, white, Latina, Asian, any children—should be the unknowing kind of innocent.  We should not only ensure that children are being treated justly, we should teach them how to fight for justice for themselves and others.  Because only when everyone is working for justice will we ever achieve it.

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature

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This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.

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Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.

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They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.

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Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.

In Color: Photographic Images and BAME Children in Literature

This week, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi became embroiled in a controversy over an ad that depicted Ms. Jenner joining a protest march (after ditching her blonde wig—an interesting detail for thinking about issues of how race is presented). Jenner and Pepsi were mocked by multiple individuals and organizations for co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial reasons (not that they are the first to ever do such things—would you Like to Buy the World a Coke?) and for suggesting that good relations between police and protestors could be achieved with a can of pop (you can see the ad here and judge for yourself: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Kendall+Jenner+Pepsi+ad&&view=detail&mid=6648928C17BBA4A303386648928C17BBA4A30338&FORM=VRDGAR). Even Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., commented on the ad on Twitter, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/06/martin-luther-kings-daughter-gives-perfect-response-kendall/).

 Perhaps Pepsi we thinking of the success of another pop advertisement that co-opted teenage movements–image from the 1971 commercial wanting to bring peace and love through buying the world a Coke.

One of the frequent commentaries on the advert was the suggestion that perhaps if Pepsi had involved the Black community (or the Muslim community, or the Asian community, or any community) not just in the making of the commercial but in its conception that someone, somewhere would have said, hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea. People in a position of privilege (often from the dominant, which is to say white, group) should be aware that diversity is not something (blond-wigged Kendall) that can be put on or taken off; it requires a deep and regular commitment in listening to people from BAME communities, even if what they are saying is not always comfortable or familiar.

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Roxy Harris’s Being Black showed Black Panthers, but no guns . . .

Following several incidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK, to which BAME communities responded by protesting (both peacefully and, in the case of the Brixton Riot of 1981, not so peacefully) against the unjust oppression of the state, there was a rise in photographic picture books depicting BAME people. Some, primarily for older readers, tried to document the struggles of Black people, both in and out of the UK. For example, Roxy Harris’s Being Black (1981), which excerpted Black Panthers George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and combined the extracts with questions and commentary for young people. Harris, in the introduction, writes, “In Britain, blacks have been generally absent from the mainstream newspapers, as well as from TV and radio programmes. As a consequence, they have grown accustomed to being swamped by white commentators’ interpretations and definitions of the black political, economic, social and cultural experience” (4). The book is illustrated with photographs, and the choice of those photographs is telling. Not one picture of armed Black Panthers—the common image in the media. Although several protests are shown in the book, the only one depicting the Black Power salute includes both white and Black people. Harris’s book is a deliberate attempt to change the image of Black Power and Black Panthers through photographs, without diminishing the power of the Black community as an irritant to white power structures.

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. . . Harris did depict the Black Power salute, but rather than using it to isolate or “other” Black people, Black Power is shown as something that white people, particularly young people, agreed that Black people should have.

For younger readers, photographic picture books often provided a similar antidote to media images of BAME communities—not with regard to protests, but in terms of everyday living. The Peckham Publishing Project, a community-based publisher, produced several photographic books that challenged media images of BAME people as foreigners or outsiders who did not want to accept “British values” or a British way of life. One of these was the wordless Our Kids (1984), which depicted ordinary activities of British BAME families. Although there are no protests, as in Being Black, Our Kids nonetheless counters stereotypes about BAME families and about education in BAME communities. The book depicts involved fathers, parents reading to their children, and BAME professionals (such as doctors) working in their communities.

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Peckham Publishing Project’s Our Kids shows BAME professionals working in their communities.

Being Black and Our Kids come from projects initiated by BAME communities themselves, but that is not to say that white people cannot participate in redefining the dominant media images of minority communities if they are committed to spending time in and with those communities. Joan Solomon, a photographer and creative writer, grew up in South Africa under apartheid; while she lived there, she taught creative writing to Black students in Soweto. She left South Africa and came to London, where in 1978 she began teaching English as a foreign language to immigrant communities. She also began producing children’s books, first for Hamish Hamilton and then for Evans, about life in Britain for BAME children. In these books, Solomon challenges stereotypes about BAME communities primarily through her images. The cover of the 1978 A Day by the Sea (Hamish Hamilton), for example, puts a Black child on a very obviously British (rather than Caribbean) beach, digging with a spade. The opening image of Sweet-Tooth Sunil (Evans 1984) has the title character standing in front of a British fireplace-converted-to-an-electric heater, with Indian sweets and Hindu images on the table in front of him. Both photographs are powerful images, placing BAME people as an everyday part of British society, not as exotic and/or temporary interlopers. By taking the time to go into the homes of BAME British families and talking with them—the book’s publication page thanks the family portrayed in the book “for their hospitality and generous help”—Solomon avoids one of the common problems of multicultural texts of this era, that of deciding between presenting only the “foreignness” of people or erasing all cultural markers to allow BAME people to “belong” in British society.

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A very British home: Joan Solomon’s books show BAME families as a part of Britain’s everyday life, without eliding their cultural uniqueness. From Sweet-Tooth Sunil.

Images are powerful, and images that portray people through film or photographs have a way of suggesting truth—especially when they are repeated in the media over and over. Pepsi has apologized for its “misstep” with its Kendall Jenner advertisement. The company said it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” which is of course not a bad thing. But you can’t impose global understanding without trying to understand the people you want to reach.

Mindfulness of a Different Sort: Radical Coloring Books of the 1970s

We’ve all seen the coloring books—in bookstores, in grocery stores, in gift shops—that purport to make you “mindful” through coloring. These books are everywhere, and come in all sorts of themes (Alice in Wonderland, butterflies, the “original mindfulness” of mandalas). Coloring, these books argue, is not just for children anymore (as usual, the best way to insult something is to argue that it’s “just for children” and to say otherwise is to “reinvent” it better than before). One advertising blurb I read said claimed that Colour Yourself Calm was “The original mindful colouring book for adults, from the author of the bestselling Little Book of Mindfulness” and could be used to “Relax, meditate and banish stress. Release unconscious knowledge and calm thought through painting and colouring.” Unconscious knowledge. Amazing.

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Coloring as a way to stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

Now, I’ve nothing against coloring as an activity; thanks to an artistic aunt, my brothers and sister and I colored (and painted and drew and made papier-mâché) long after the age we were supposed to find it fun. And even today, I take my sketchbook and pencils when I go to an art museum and make dreadful copies of paintings or wonky sketches of sculpture, all the while cursing the fact that I wasn’t born a rich Victorian girl (or at least Amy March) with a drawing master and a Grand Tour of Europe. But the kind of “mindfulness” that the rash of adult coloring books now out advocate is a very different kind of coloring for mindfulness in coloring books of the 1970s.

In the late 1960s, Black Power movements consolidated and the Black Panther organization was growing, not just in America, but all over the world. Radicalism in Black community movements increased following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. Many police forces, local as well as national, feared the rise of violence and became more oppressive in their enforcement tactics. This included the American FBI, who in 1968 posted The Black Panther Coloring Book to white-led households to discredit the organization. The coloring book had “beautiful black men” being urged to “kill the pigs” in fairly brutal fashion. It’s unclear what effect the coloring book had, although some have argued that it helped widen the gap between Black and white in America.

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Sure, I believe that Black Panthers would give this to their kids, Mr. FBI man.

Most of the commentary I have found online is about white reaction to The Black Panther Coloring Book, but this is not to say that non-white communities were unaware or indifferent to the book. In fact, radical Black Power-influenced groups rejected the FBI’s attempts to infantilize the Black Panthers, not by making an adult coloring book of their own, but by using the coloring book as a teaching tool for children. Two examples, one from Britain and one from Guyana, show how Black Power ideals were being taught to children through the medium of the coloring book.

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Jessica Huntley, at Bogle L’Ouverture, didn’t sit around coloring–she commissioned books for kids that would teach them self-love and activism.

The first of these was not necessarily intended as a coloring book, but it was designed as a book for children to use. Made with paperboard covers and stapled together, with black and white line drawings, Getting to Know Ourselves was produced by Bogle L’Ouverture Press, an independent Black British Press, as their first children’s book, in 1972. Jessica Huntley, the publisher, had commissioned the book from Bernard and Phyllis Coard specifically to teach Black children about their heritage. Bernard Coard had a PhD in African history from the SOAS in London; Phyllis Coard was a child psychologist. Both were concerned with the damage to self-image that the British education system was having on young Black children, who were routinely excluded from classrooms and/or placed in classes for the “Educationally Sub-Normal.” The book they produced taught Garveyite/Black Power principles of self-love and Pan-Africanism. The first mention I saw of it as a “colouring book” was in Margaret Andrews Doing Nothing is not an Option, a biography of Jessica Huntley and her husband Eric. I was not sure about the designation—there’s no mention of it as a coloring book in the Huntleys’ archive—but I saw it in action at last summer’s Dream to Change the World exhibition at the Islington Public Library, about radical Black publishing in London. At the end of the exhibit, coloring pages were put out for children to complete—photocopied pages from Getting to Know Ourselves.

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Child visitors to the 2015 exhibit were supplied with coloring pages from Getting to Know Ourselves.

Seven Stories, where I’ve been working over the last year, has recently acquired material from Rosemary Stones, the writer, editor and publisher of children’s books such as Mother Goose Comes to Cable Street and the anti-racist Children’s Book Bulletin. In amongst her books was another coloring book from the same period as Getting to Know Ourselves, this time from Guyana. We are One: They Came from Asia is “A Co-operative Republic of Guyana Coloring Book” produced in 1973. The text was written by Allan A. Fenty and the illustrations done by Victor Dawson. Like the British publication, We are One focuses on history and self-image, but extends these Black Power principles out to Asian Caribbeans. I suspect the coloring book may have been part of a series (I can envision a companion, We are One: They Came from Africa), but I’ve no evidence of this (if anyone reading this can help, please do comment).

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We Are One: a coloring book from Guyana

 

 

 

 

The key message from both these coloring books is one that counters The Black Panther Coloring Book: not vengeful hatred of others, but love of self. And not, like today’s mindfulness coloring books, a love of self that gazes inward to calm passivity, but a love of self that calls for activism. To be mindful in these books is to be aware of your connections, past and present, to other people, and to do something positive to enhance these connections—and we could all do with a little more of that kind of mindfulness.  Skip the unconscious knowledge–let’s release a little more conscious knowledge, crayons at the ready.