Left: Ronald “Elder” Freeman; Right: Christine Choy. Photographs by Bryan Shih, 2011–2015, courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum.
Fifty years after the founding of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and two days after Donald J. Trump was declared the winner of the United States presidential election, “The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution” opened at the Queens Museum. These diametrically opposed but inextricably related events—the establishment of a radical organization that strove to defend and empower black Americans, and the election of a candidate who capitalized on people’s prejudices and divisions—make context feel especially meaningful here.
A visitor moves through multiple contexts on the way to this intimate exhibition, which features 25 black-and-white photographic portraits of former BPP members, taken between 2011 and 2015, paired with interview excerpts. First, there’s the 7 train chugging to the Queens Museum through one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the world. Second, there’s the Unisphere, the steel globe commanding the center of the circular plaza on which the museum sits. Created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Unisphere embodied its theme of “Peace Through Understanding.” Third, there’s the building that houses the museum. From 1946 to 1950, it served as the seat of the U.N. General Assembly. At its inaugural session in 1946, President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would abandon its policy of isolationism.
Past these places and sights that fly in the face of Trumpism, at the museum’s reception desk, there’s a handout titled, “Some coping tips from the Queens Museum’s ArtAccess therapists.” “Many of us have been troubled by the lack of civility in the political discourse,” it begins. “We feel powerless when we are rendered helpless by forces outside of our control.” Though this handout is specific to the 2016 presidential election, it’s hard not to find resonances with the founding of the BPP. It was, in essence, a refusal of powerlessness. Through the Panthers, black Americans pushed back against the systemic racism of the American government and society by agitating for “power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” as stated in their Ten-Point Platform and Program, which is on view among the portraits in the exhibition.
Left: Atno Smith; Right: Bill BJ Johnson. Photographs by Bryan Shih, 2011–2015, courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum.
Photojournalist Bryan Shih took the portraits and organized the exhibition together with the National Alumni Association of the Black Panther Party. Shih’s style recalls that of pioneering portraitist Richard Avedon. He shoots his subjects at close-range against a white background and surrounds the images with a thin black frame that echoes Avedon’s inclusion of the edges of negatives in his prints. The pictures and accompanying interview excerpts were pulled from a book Shih co-authored with historian Dr. Yohuru Williams, from which the exhibition takes its title and purpose.
“The BPP remains one of the most misunderstood organizations of the twentieth century,” Shih and Williams assert in the book’s preface. “Here, instead of taking the typical top-down view of Panther history, we offer…a view of the party from the bottom up by focusing on the rank-and-file members responsible for its day-to-day operations.” In so doing, they create a concert of narratives, not always harmonious, that provides a more nuanced understanding of the BPP than structured histories.
The rank-and-file members appearing in Shih’s portraits are now middle-aged. Many joined the BPP when they were in their teens. Among them is Ronald “Elder” Freeman, a priest and activist, who claims in his interview: “What I would want people to really see is that the Black Panther Party…was for good, and we were willing to defend ourselves to bring about that good.” For Paula Peebles, whose tattoo of a panther peeks out of the sleeve of her patterned dress, the BPP offered a constructive way to fight for black people. She explains that the repression she experienced growing up “created a thirst in me like a nomad lost in the desert, a desire to strive for justice, to pursue greater understanding as to who I was and what was my purpose.”
Left: Paula Peebles; Right: Thelma Bunny Davis-Legare. Photographs by Bryan Shih, 2011–2015, courtesy of the artist and Queens Museum.
Describing the mix of violence, idealism, effort, and devotion that characterized the BPP, singer Thelma Bunny Davis-Legare is reflective. “We’re all connected to this,” she says. “When something affects one of us, it affects all of us.” Her words are as urgent today as they were in the 1960s, when young people calling themselves the Black Panthers rose up and demanded to be heard.
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory