The Danger Of Depoliticising Black Power ActivismBreaking News
tags: black power, Black Panther Party, Protest
“Black Power!” was an utterance popularised by radical Black activists in the 1960s and 1970s.
Although often ignored ideologically, the iconography of Black Power continues to be circulated in popular culture – without a thorough engagement with the politics that led to its creation.
The glamorisation of Black Power imagery is a phenomenon that stretches as far back as the 1960s. However, with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is time that we move beyond our obsession with revolutionary aesthetics and engage with its politics.
In recent weeks, artists Ciara and Teyana Taylor have posted images of themselves on Instagram wearing Black Power-inspired costumes, replicating a 1968 photograph of Black Panther Party (BPP) co-founder Huey P Newton that showed him sitting on a wicker chair wearing the party’s outfit. Both artists were dressed in all-black leather with black sunglasses to match – the only difference being Taylor’s beret and rifle. Despite Ciara and Taylor using their images as symbols of Black pride, they failed to recognise or critically engage with the history and ideology of Black Power.
Formed in 1966, by Newton and Bobby Seale, the BPP was a revolutionary self-defence organisation formed to safeguard the Black community from police brutality and America’s ubiquitous racism. Members of the party quickly assumed a uniform, which included black leather jackets, black trousers, black berets and black sunglasses. This outfit was adopted due to its militant appearance and its similarity to those worn by revolutionaries such as Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
As frequently expressed in its organisational newspaper, Black Panther, the BPP believed in Black self-defence, self-reliance and self-determination. The organisation placed itself in opposition to white imperial capitalism, which it saw as the cause of societal inequality and racial brutality. Despite communicating their objectives through traditional political avenues such as demonstrations and manifestos, the Panthers were aware of the political uses of imagery and fashion.
The iconic black uniform served as a visual representation of the organisation’s objectives and principles, as it not only presented the BPP as militant, powerful and revolutionary, but it also gave them visibility at a time when the Black community often felt ignored. Such clothing also served as cultural capital within Black radical circles as it affirmed one’s refusal to assimilate within the dominant white culture. Party members, identifiable by their distinct outfits, were frightening to many white Americans, as the authorities deceptively began presenting Black Power advocates as dangerous and violent extremists.