Sometime in the early 1970s, the graphic artist Emory Douglas answered his phone to find an art dealer on the line. The man heaped high praise on Douglas's artwork, along with promises of riches to be made. He asked Douglas to come to a meeting in San Francisco. Douglas hesitated. The next time the man called, Douglas replied that he wasn't interested and hung up. After all, his number was unlisted.
“So I figured it was the police,” he told the crowd who had come to see a retrospective exhibit of his work at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art Pacific Design Center in October 2007. Douglas is now a grandfather in his mid-60s. The short afro he had sported three decades ago has been replaced by a smoothly shaved head, often topped by a stylish fedora. His easygoing demeanor and gentle smile hardly betray the idea of his once having been a high-level law enforcement target, but nearly four decades ago he had a right to be paranoid as the Revolutionary Artist and Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party. From 1967 to roughly 1980, Douglas oversaw the art direction and production of The Black Panther, the party's official newspaper. Douglas's artwork in the paper played no small part in propagating its combative criticisms of the U.S. government, as well as any other institutions or persons the party viewed as perpetuators of racism, police brutality, poverty and global imperialism. Years after the suspicious call, released FBI records would confirm that Douglas had been identified and listed on its Security Index and Agitator Index. “It didn't bother me at all. It just meant we were doing our jobs,” says Douglas later, on the phone from San Francisco.
Douglas on design:
It's an ongoing process, always changing and evolving, like life. We have to overcome the obstacles and rise up to the challenges.
Emory Douglas was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943. At age 8, he and his family moved to the Bay Area after a doctor told his mother the climate there would ease his asthma. Art and design would not be serious pursuits for Douglas until his teens, when his criminal behavior landed him in the Youth Training School in Ontario, California. During his 15 months at the juvenile center's print shop, Douglas had his first lessons in typography, illustration and logo design. Sometime after he left the center, Douglas ran into a former counselor at a concession stand his mother managed. The counselor encouraged him to enroll in commercial art classes at the City College of San Francisco. The classes he took there gave him a basis in combining art and message. “Without that foundation, I wouldn't have been able to do anything I did for the party,” says Douglas.
His advice to new graduates:
Be patient and stay focused on your goal. Develop your craft continuously. And have fun!
It was the late 1960s, and college campuses in the Bay Area smoldered with political anger. At rallies, crowds chanted for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. Demands were made: freedom of speech, justice, self-determination and civil rights for African-Americans. The countercultural fervor made an impression on Douglas, who had grown up watching news footage of civil rights protests. At City College, Douglas admired the artworks of Charles White, Aaron Douglas and Elizabeth Catlett and became active in the Black Arts Movement. Once, in March 1967, when Douglas was working on props for Amiri Baraka's theater workshop, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the newly formed Black Panther Party, came to a meeting to discuss security for an upcoming visit by Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X's widow. They also found a new recruit. “After that meeting, I told them I was interested in joining the party. I began catching the bus to Oakland, hanging out with Huey and Bobby and going on patrols with them,” says Douglas.
At civil rights activist Eldridge Cleaver's apartment, where Seale was working on the inaugural issue of The Black Panther, Douglas offered his design skills. He realized The Black Panther needed potent images to cut through the high illiteracy rates in poor communities. At his disposal were affordable graphic arts technologies—mimeographs, photostats, prefabricated presstypes and screentones, along with offset printing for the newspaper. Embracing inexpensive and available means of commercial art production, Douglas turned his artwork into a powerful visual megaphone.
On diversity in the design profession:
The majority of the world is populated by people of color. Anything can be diverse if diverse people get involved in it.
Mornings, Douglas and other members would wake up early to distribute the paper. Along the routes they also wheat-pasted Douglas's artwork on neighborhood walls. Each made the revolution appear imminent and encouraged pride and self-defense in communities otherwise broken by iron-fisted policing. His signature bold lines formed the faces of an armed and defiant people who refused oppression. Popularized by Douglas, “pigs” became part of the greater language of protest as an alternative name for the police. Many posters depicted violent ends for these “pigs”: shot, bayoneted, doused with acid, knifed and axed, among other fates. Violence, however, defined only one side of Douglas's work for the Black Panthers. As the Black Panthers expanded its scope to address all forms of social injustice, many of Douglas's designs also supported other revolutionary groups all over the world. Women, children and neighborhood figures became popular subjects for Douglas, and people began to recognize images of themselves and their community in the artwork. “They used to buy the paper to look at the art. They could tell through the artwork which direction the Black Panther Party was going at that particular time,” says Douglas.
At its peak in 1970, the paper reached hundreds of thousands of readers across the United States, including those who saw it as a menace. According to a 1976 congressional report, the FBI's field offices hatched elaborate methods against the paper, including pressure on airlines shipping its issues, calls for boycotts and one unexecuted suggestion to secretly sabotage production by spraying the printing room with Skatol, a fecal-smelling chemical. Douglas was doing his job too well.
By the early 1980s, the Black Panthers as he had known them would dissolve as a result of law enforcement crackdowns and turmoil within the party. Douglas now lives in his late mother's home in San Francisco, after having moved in to tend to her declining health. He is retired, but often works as an independent graphic artist lending his talent to social and political issues like black-on-black crime and the prison-industrial complex. “It's an ongoing process, always changing and evolving, like life. We have to overcome the obstacles and rise up to the challenges,” says Douglas of what he has learned from a lifetime in graphic arts. As a grandfather, his recent works frequently feature children, including a series on HIV/AIDS. Asked what he wants to do next, Douglas replies, “To continue to inform and educate through my work. It's an ongoing adventure.”