So the second special exhibit I saw at the Oakland Museum celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Now, I knew next to nothing about the Black Panthers before I visited this museum. Even though I grew up very close to Oakland, the first time I heard about the Black Panther Party was during my first year at UCLA, when I walked in on a memorial service for two members of the party, both UCLA students, who were murdered on campus back in 1969. Curious, a quick Google search at the time gave me numerous mentions of the Black Panther Party. I found this particular exhibit very informative, and I was fascinated to know that history took place right in my own backyard and I never knew it. Whatever your opinion may be about the Black Panthers, I still think there is much to learn from this exhibit, and I witnessed visitors from all walks of life perusing through the displays. Read on …
First things first — I was curious as to why the panther was picked as a symbol/mascot. One of the informational plaques described the panther as an animal that only strikes if it is provoked. I took it to mean that the intention is nonviolence, but members will not back down in the face of injustice or attack. Make your own interpretation.
This exhibit not only has a number of art pieces and a couple of short videos by past Black Panther Party members and current social activists, but also memorabilia that I believe were property either of past members or of their families.
One of the first things you’ll see when you walk in is the chair from famous picture of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton with his tilted beret, rifle in one hand, and what looks like some sort of spear in the other. It seems that you’re able to sit in it, because I saw several people posing for pictures.
The next room had a display case filled with relics from a home either belonging to a member of the Black Panther Party, or played an important role in they history of the party; I forget which one. Side note: There are several historic sites from the days of the Black Panther Party still standing in Oakland. There’s this website called Detour.com that provides an audio walking tour of Black Panther history. I haven’t done it, but let me know how it goes if you try it.
A lot of the information I read about the Black Panther Party back in college called them socialists (which I still don’t quite understand why there is such outrage against “socialist” views) and terrorists, but one side I definitely didn’t read about back then was the intense contributions its members made to the local community. There were community gardens, free health clinics, and food programs, as exhibited by the lunch bag featured in this post. I thought it was great that they paid attention to others who were underserved, and I felt that little attention is paid to this enormous feat. The party also ran their own newspaper and had required book reading for their members.
When you think of the Black Panther Party, what do its members look like in your mind? Male? Would you be surprised to know that a great number of members were female, and many held leadership positions? Surprise.
Of course, there are copies of new articles and relics detailing the conflict between law enforcement, the government, and the Black Panther Party. Displayed is one of the few rifles that were given back to the party after a raid, which is now covered in choice phrases and small doodles.
One of the displays that I thought was most interesting was one by artist Sadie Barnette, who pieced together FBI documents about her father and his activities as a member of the Black Panther Party. While I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the scattered splotches of pink, a daughter exploring her father’s history was intriguing, as were some of the information on those files. Some seemed pretty benign to me, but I don’t know anything about the FBI, so clearly I’m not seeing what they saw as interesting in some of this man’s activities.
I learned a lot from this exhibit and I appreciated learning about the Bay Area’s role in history. I would recommend it to those wanting to learn about how a group of a few have the power to influence a nation. Or, you can start on the reading list in the photo.