Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


Why Black Art Matters

One recent Friday night, Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale addressed a packed house at East Side Arts Alliance. Seale mentioned he was a jazz drummer at age 13, and later acted in plays written by Oakland’s Marvin X. He went on to relate the importance of arts to social movements: “To me, it’s all a revolutionary culture. That’s what this is about.”

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale, 1968. Photo by Henry Raulston

As Seale, now 78, spoke to an audience which included former Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas and Joan Tarika Lewis, the organization’s first female member and a violinist who works with youth, he was surrounded by images of himself taken almost 47 years ago, during a 1968 Panther rally in Defremery park. To look at pictures of Seale in 1968 while being addressed by the 2015 version of the man was the very definition of epiphany.

The photos, which have never before been exhibited publicly, were shot by Henry Raulston, a former Army photographer who joined other local photographers to form the Association of Black Photographers in 1967. Using a Nikon F and Tri-X film, he set out to document rallies, demonstrations, and community gatherings in Oakland. The Panthers, he said, were “doing something to build the people up.” With cultural arts also taking radically progressive turns, activism became infectious: “There was this vibe of, ‘what can we do'”?

Raulston’s exhibit, “Seizing the Time,” presents 35 prints–many of his negatives were lost due to improper storage, he said–which not only capture a young, charismatic Seale, but other Panther leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and Kathleen Cleaver, as well as Brown Berets–whose presence emphasizes black-brown unity–who’d traveled up to Oakland from Fresno for the rally. There’s an iconic shot of Carmichael and Seale together, appearing hopeful and determined; another of three Afro’d women raising their fists in front of a banner which reads “Free Huey.” Collectively, Raulston’s unearthed treasures paint a picture of a cultural community for whom activism was intermingled with the creative arts. Even the Panthers’ sartorial choices—dashikis, turtlenecks, berets, leather jackets, sunglasses—reflect a stylistic awareness and implicit coolness which counterbalance their fiery radicalism.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Henry Raulston with a photo of Stokely Carmichael.

Curator and ESAA co-founder Greg Morozumi explained how, back in those intense times, with the Vietnam war raging, cities burning all over the world, and the Panthers battling both the Oakland police and the federal government, the Black Arts Movement emerged to catalyze social change through cultural expression. BAM, he said, was “an integral part of the black power movement,” yet is often overlooked by historians, not because it was ineffectual, but “because it had such a big impact.”

Interestingly, Harvard academic Skip Gates downplayed BAM, perhaps prematurely, in a 1994 essay for Time magazine, in which he placed more emphasis on the then-current progenitors of a black cultural renaissance: “It’s not that there are black artists and intellectuals who matter; it’s that so many of the artists and intellectuals who matter are black.”

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

Malcolm X, patron saint of Black liberation

More than a decade after Gates curiously called BAM “the shortest and least-successful” African American artistic movement in history, the extent to which it represents a critical link in the black cultural continuum has become more clearly visible – in part because there’s a more defined sense of intergenerationality than existed in the Clinton years, in part due to the maturation of the hip-hop generation, but also because of the repetition of some of the same social and political issues which initially informed BAM, such as police brutality and the need to organize communities around unequal justice. It’s also been posited, most recently by Berkeley author Jeff Chang in “Who We Be,” that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 was one of the long-term impacts of four decades of POC-driven cultural movements, of which BAM was both catalyst and seminal influence.

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka in 1972

The movement was a national one. In the Bay Area, Marvin X founded Oakland’s Black House Theatre and SF’s Black Arts/West, while Douglas’ illustrations graced Panther newspapers and political posters. On the East Coast, Amiri Baraka  founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem in 1965, following the assassination of Malcolm X – an event which was also instrumental in the founding of the Black Panther Party. Repercussions were soon felt in other “chocolate cities” like Detroit and Chicago, which established their own black threater companies and literary journals by the late ’60s.

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

Henry Raulston with Emory Douglas

BAM was multi-disciplinary, covering music, visual art, theater, literature, spoken word, even film. It informed a generation of brilliant poetic, literary, and musical minds, including Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, Maya Angelou, and John Coltrane. And its reverberations have continued to echo for five decades, influencing later generations of black artists as well as other marginalized demographics including Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and LGBTQ folks, paving a creative path for a multicultural, post-millennial arts scene which has given rise to innumerable individual voices in each of the disciplines BAM touched, as well as a collective consciousness which emphasizes community-building along with social activism.

Locally, the combination of BAM, the student-led Third World Movement, and the Black/Brown Power dynamic of the Panthers, Brown Berets and Chicano farm workers created intersectionality between arts and activism which remains one of the defining, if not THE defining characteristic of the Bay Area’s multicultural arts and culture scene, particularly in the East Bay and especially in Oakland. As Morozumi pointed out, the currency and relevancy of BAM can be seen in the current conversation over “race relations” – which he said is really about “systemic racism and oppression” – and the reaction of Oakland’s artivist community to those challenges.

“Black lives do matter,” he said, adding, “black culture matters.”

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Henry Raulston and Greg Morozumi

Black History Month is always an auspicious occasion, as February’s 28 short days are suddenly filled with an outpouring of African American cultural arts programming which isn’t so visible the other 11 months out of the year. 2015’s BHM seems especially crucial, what with the aforementioned national conversation about race in the wake of the Ferguson situation and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, as well as the 50th anniversary of the BAM – which will be celebrated in an all-day symposium Feb. 7 at Laney College.

The role art plays in social movements is a crucial one, and part of a cultural continuum. We can trace history to see how visual artists like Douglas inspired contemporary political art by Favianna Rodriguez, Spie TDK, Refa 1, the Dignidad Rebelde and Trust Your Struggle collectives, or how Morrie Turner’s groundbreaking “Wee Pals” comic strip preceded Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition by two decades.  Cultural and social statements, like those rendered by Karen and Malik Seneferu in “Black ❤ Matters,” their current exhibit at Impact Hub’s OMI gallery (which hosts an artists’ talk Feb. 6 ) are just as important as overtly-political imagery.

Art from "Black <3 Matters" by Malik and Karen Seneferu

Art from “Black ❤ Matters”

Black liberation movements have also influenced a wide musical spectrum. The recent tribute to Sly Stone at the Fox Theater served as a reminder that The Family Stone was formed the same year as the Black Panthers (1966), and that Sly’s response to the race relations conversation of his day was the multiculturalism-affirming #1 hit “Everyday People.”

Just as Stone’s “Thank You For Talking to Me Africa” opened up a dialogue with the cultural motherlode, the connection to the Continent has been advanced by Oakland soul singer Candice Antique Davis, who collaborated with native hip-hop artists during a recent trip to Ghana (she’s scheduled to talk about her experiences  in Ghana Feb. 9 at 8pm on KPFA’s “Transitions on Tradition” program ). Antique also recorded her new single, “Freedom Song (This Song),” in Ghana. The song’s lyrics reference Baraka as well as Audré Lorde, Bob Marley, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah and other freedom fighters/revolutionaries/icons. “It seems to me this song is for revolution solution,” she sings. “Freedom is coming,” she promises.

The Panthers’ impact on music is reflected not just in the funk band The Lumpen (chronicled in Rickey Vincent’s book “Party Music”), but also through 70’s soul singers Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield, who expanded their lyrical topics to address what was going on at that time.

The Panthers also had a direct influence on Fela Kuti and the development of Afrobeat, and established a blueprint for politically-minded, socially-conscious hip-hop from Public Enemy to KRS-1 to Tupac to dead prez to current Oakland artists like The Coup, Kev Choice (who debuts his new album, Love + Revolution, Feb. 5 at Yoshis), and Jahi (who heads up the second iteration of Public Enemy, PE2.0).

The emphasis on theater and literary works which played such a large role in BAM continue through the Laney tribute, which includes a black women writers’ panel and a performance of Marvin X’s play “Flowers for the Trashman,” as well as the African American Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Sophocles’ “Antigone,” retitled “Xtigone” and starring Oakland emcee/poet/actress RyanNicole in the lead role, directed by Rhodessa Jones and with musical direction from Tommy Shepard (“Xtigone” opens Feb. 14 at the African American Art and Culture Complex in SF).

Aesthetically-speaking, it doesn’t get much more artistic than updating a classic Greek tragedy, and, as West African academic and playwright Wole Soyinka has pointed out, tragic dramas are directly descended from primal sacrificial rituals prevalent in pre-Christian European history, and similarly extant in African culture and mythology. The orisha Ogun, Soyinka has asserted, was the first actor; the ritual-myth tradition the origin of what we now call the dramatic arts.

Ogun: the first actor

Ogun: the first actor

Which brings us to another point about the black history/black art continuum: Not only is the artivist paradigm one of Oakland’s unique features, differentiating it from other similar urban cities, but “The Town” is also a repository of ashé, the universal life force conceptualized by the Yoruba and other West African peoples. Poet/playwright Ishmael Reed and cultural historian Robert Farris Thompson have connected ashé to the development of black art and Afro-Disaporic culture in the Americas and Caribbean (which in turn has informed American popular culture in a multiplicity of ways). Oakland’s vibrant Afro-Diasporic community is perhaps most visible around drumming and dance, but can also be seen in the colorful, Afrocentric visual art of the Seneferus, which creates ritual space and honors tradition.

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Art installation by Karen and Malik Seneferu

Ashe also manifests through the music of New Orleans and the Mardi Gras festival, which just happens to coincide with BHM. Mark your calendars now for the two-day Mardi Gras fete, which begins with a second-line parade at Awaken Café followed by a free concert at the New Parish, and continues the next day with a Katdelic show which also features NOLA-style bass bands.

Amiri Baraka in 1970

Amiri Baraka in 1970

All of that is to say, it’s important to recognize that black history isn’t just in the past and is actually a still-evolving, still-living thing. Not only is tradition continually being referenced across the artistic spectrum, but major cultural works are still being created today by contemporary artists. Baraka may have become an ancestor, but his legacy lives on and continues to inform us today. And while artivism is in of itself a form of cultural resiliency against oppression, it’s also important to note that there’s just as much positive, live-affirming creative expressionism as reactionary measures. And all of it matters.

On that note, Hodari Davis, co-founder of the Life is Living festival, has announced a month-long series of events happening during BHM called “Life is Loving” which he says establishes an alternate narrative to the “we’re angry and upset” stance which has framed the African-American dialogue around race. Focusing on love as an aesthetic concept and a manifestation of art transcends politics, and, he hopes, may even ultimately overcome societal and economic barriers which continue to limit the black experience in America.

Got all that? Good. It’s gonna be an incredible month for black art in Oakland and the Bay Area, and Oakulture will try to cover as much of this dynamic ashe, love, and artivism going around as is physically and logistically possible. Bookmark this site now if you haven’t already, and return early and often throughout February for the latest updates.

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TV One Offers A New Look At the Black Panthers

Television review/ Celebrity Crime Files: “Violence is Necessary,” Monday Nov. 3, TVOne (check local listings for airtimes)

P-Frank Williams, Elaine Brown, James Mott, Marcus Osborn, and D'Wayne Wiggins at the screening of "Violence is Necessary"

Jeannie Mott, James Mott, Elaine Brown, D’Wayne Wiggins, P-Frank Williams, and Marcus Osborn at the screening of “Violence is Necessary”


The week prior to TV One’s airing of a Black Panther-themed episode of “Celebrity Crime Files,” former Panther Chairperson Elaine Brown was in the news. Brown’s latest project, Oakland & the World Enterprises — announced at a press conference alongside Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, City Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, representatives from congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office, Housing and Community Development director Michele Byrd and neighborhood activists David Roach (founder of Mo’Betta Farms and the Oakland International Film Festival), and D’Wayne Wiggins (an original member of Tony Toni Tone) — is a West Oakland business center which will create employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated people.

The timing was purely coincidental, but seemed entirely symbolic of the lasting perseverance and relevance of the Panther legacy. Though often portrayed as a militant group whose internal squabbles were just as controversial as their brushes with police and Federal agents, at their core the Panthers had a simple mission: to improve the quality of life for African Americans, not just in Oakland, but all over the country. The new West Oakland center, for instance, speaks to two of the points outlined in the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program: “we want full employment for our people,” and “we want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.”

Elaine Brown

Elaine Brown

Brown was also on hand, as was Wiggins, radio personality Marcus Osborn and former Lumpen member James Mott, for a special VIP screening of the Celebrity Crime Files episode, hosted by producer P-Frank Williams (an Oakland native), at Berkeley’s 44 restaurant. Titled “Violence is Necessary,” the episode – which airs tonight, Nov. 3rd— traces the history of the Panthers and their frequent run-ins with authority figures. Narrated by a gravelly-tongued Ice-T, the episode pulls no punches in its retelling of the story of how Merritt College students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded a revolutionary organization which openly challenged the Oakland Police department and the FBI, and how the Black Panthers declined in the late 70s and early 80s, decimated by government counterinsurgency, legal troubles, violence, sexism, and drugs.

The episode’s first half is its most compelling, as Ice-T’s voiceover introduces “a new generation of civil rights activists coming out of Oakland, California.” Frustrated with the perceived ineffectiveness of Dr. King’s nonviolent, civil disobedience approach in the face of rampant police brutality against the black community and spurred to action by the assassination of Malcolm X, Newton and Seale organized like-minded recruits to open-carry guns and observe police actions in then-majority-black neighborhoods of North and West Oakland. But, as the episode notes, the Panther platform also included political education, self-defense, legal aid, and free breakfast for children as well as the right to bear arms.

At the time, it’s stated, OPD was “almost exclusively-white.” The lack of integration in the department, as well as its practice of recruiting officers from the Deep South who were less likely to have tolerant attitudes toward black people, put the Panthers on a collision course which culminated in the shooting death of Officer John Frye, allegedly at the hands of Newton, who’d been pulled over for a traffic stop after OPD identified his vehicle as a Panther car. Even today, the details are sketchy: there was a shootout, and Frye was mortally wounded. But ballistics later revealed that all the bullets fired came from OPD weapons. Newton was sentenced to jail, where he spent months in solitary confinement and wrote the book “Revolutionary Suicide.” Although his conviction was later overturned, his arrest and incarceration succeeded in neutralizing the Panther leadership and fermenting dissent and internal conflict among the organization.

The episode also traces the story of how Seale came to be one of the Chicago 8, and his trial, during which he was chained, shackled, and gagged, and eventually sentenced to four years in prison for contempt of court.

With Newton and Seale off the streets and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program infiltrating and assassinating Panther members, a climate of paranoia began to infuse what remained of the Panthers. “I remember the sense of not being able to trust people,” former Panther Joan Tarika Lewis is quoted as saying. A Panther member suspected of being an informant is murdered, as is another man suspected of having an affair with Seale’s wife while he was in prison. The murder of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter by a rival organization (later found to have been on the FBI payroll) is also recounted by Huggins’ widow Ericka.

Elaine Brown and P-Frank Williams

Elaine Brown and P-Frank Williams

While the first part of the episode strikes a note of contemporary relevance around Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and Oscar Grant, the second half is much more somber, as it recounts how Newton changed after being released from prison and how in Brown’s words, “unrealistic expectations” were placed on him. “You felt he was a superhero,” Wiggins says at one point. Newton’s activities became less revolutionary and more criminal; he surrounded himself with thuggish bodyguards and developed a bad cocaine habit. Author Rickey Vincent (“Party Music”) describes how doing blow with Newton in the backroom of Oakland bars became a bragging right for those inclined toward “radical chic.” Newton’s continuing legal issues, which included being accused of the murder of a prostitute and embezzlement from a Panther school accelerated the decline of the organization, which finally disbanded in the early 80s. Newton is portrayed as an increasingly tragic figure, who comes to an ignoble end in 1989, murdered in a dispute over crack cocaine.

By that time, Seale was long gone, having fallen out with Newton years past. The episode highlights his run for Mayor of Oakland in 1973 as one of the last high points of the Panthers—he finished second, but the political base he helped to build led to the election of Oakland’s first African American mayor, Lionel Wilson, in 1977.

The use of archival footage and testimonial interviews with surviving former Panthers makes the show a compelling, eye-opening watch. During the screening, all the side conversations in the restaurant ceased while the episode played. And even though the subject matter is heavily weighted toward examining the Panthers’ legal and criminal history, it strikes a balance between describing police and government actions against the Panthers, and alleged crimes committed by the group. The end result is more revolutionary than perhaps one might expect from a nationally-syndicated TV program, and a show which qualifies as must-see viewing, whether one is a Panther historian, or a neophyte who simply wants to learn more about what’s behind their leather-jackets-and-beret mystique — and why it has endured for 45+ years.

(Full disclosure: the author appears in the episode, but received no compensation; David Roach is a board member of Urban Releaf, an organization for which the author serves as Communications Director.)