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.