May 1, 2019; Hyperallergic
It only took 53 years, but the Oakland Museum has decided that the history museum in the birthplace of the Black Panthers merits a standing (“permanent”) exhibit on black power.
The museum came to this perhaps obvious realization after witnessing the wild popularity of its 2016 exhibit, All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50, which spotlighted the political organization that Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded in Oakland in 1966. Emily Wilson writes in Hyperallergic, “That exhibition was so popular that some visitors were turned away because the galleries were full.
Associate history curator Erendina Delgadillo was hired at the Oakland Museum in November 2017 and designed the exhibit along with her colleague Lisa Silberstein. In doing so, Degadillo aimed to tell not only the story of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, but also of the white supremacist forces that opposed them. Despite the Bay Area’s “progressive” reputation, these forces were not hard to find.
NPQ has written about how (with the groans and aches of any large machinery beginning to turn), white museums are coming to terms with the lack of diversity among their managerial and curatorial staff. Oakland Museum of Art has hired a few people of color in leadership roles over the past few years, including Delgadillo, and begun an “equitable and inclusive internship program.” The museum, which describes itself as “the museum of us,” also underwent a renovation to make it “a more welcoming, accessible, and relevant cultural facility for a very broad and diverse community.”
The Oakland community has shown it is eager for content like All Power to the People, so much so that the museum felt a permanent installation was warranted. The collection publicly recognizes the racism, both explicit and systemic, that pervades even “liberal enclaves” like the Bay Area.
As Wilson explains,
The first section of the show, “This Happened Here,” features a display case containing a Ku Klux Klan hood. We are told that the state had several chapters of the Klan, with 2,000 members in Oakland. There’s a photo from 1970 of a man in blackface at a party in the suburban Bay Area city of Livermore, and there are racist caricatures, including a postcard with the caption “One of the good things grown in California” and a picture of an older Black woman wearing a headscarf and eating watermelon. There’s a menu from Topsy’s Roost, a popular chicken restaurant and nightclub named after a character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that had paintings of Black people in plantation scenes and advertised its food as “Southern Mammy cooked dishes.”
Silberstein added, “Sometimes people think of racism [as] being something in the South…We need to acknowledge that racism is endemic to this place.”
It is hard to overstate the cultural influence of the Black Panthers in the Bay Area. One year after their founding, in 1967, the country’s first Black Studies department was founded at Oakland’s Merritt College. Across the Bay, San Francisco State University followed suite one year later.
It was the Panthers’ organizing success—at one point, the group’s free breakfast program fed tens of thousands of hungry children, which led to vastly improved academic performance—that led the Federal Bureau of Investigation to name them the “single greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Wilson notes that some items from the museum’s Black Panthers exhibit are included in the standing exhibit, such as the Panthers’ 10-Point Platform, which begins, “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black community.”
The exhibit also shows the impact of the Black Power movement nationally. Part of the exhibit examines the movement’s impact on gay liberation, Chicano rights, and the American Indian Movement.
“Black power activists served as a source of inspiration for other marginalized groups,” Delgadillo told Wilson. “There was deep resonance for movements looking for a way to empower themselves. And the Black Panthers were deeply intersectional champions for all oppressed people across the world.”
A famous photo of Newton shows him in a wicker throne chair, wearing a beret and a leather jacket, holding a spear and a gun. A bronze model of the chair (also a part of the previous exhibition) sits in front of a large copy of the Ten Point Platform. Visitors are invited to sit in it and think about what the platform means today. There’s a video about the Panthers’ legacy, and a soundtrack featuring Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
Near the end of the exhibit is a collection of postcards that encourage museum-goers to actively participate in dismantling systemic racism; suggestions include joining a credit union, reading or talking to older people about history, and supporting Black-owned businesses. Some of these suggestions come from groups working today on housing, food, and employment. The Black Power exhibit, Wilson concludes, “inspires visitors to keep thinking about this legacy and what they can do to contribute.”—Steve Dubb