In December, GQ magazine named former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick “Citizen of the Year.” The player-turned-philanthropist — who started an NFL movement when he took a knee in September 2016 during the pregame National Anthem to protest police violence against the African American community — is pictured on the cover, staring into the camera, his Afro occupying much of the frame. The lapels on his black blazer came to sharp peaks. His black turtleneck was accented with a gold chain and pendant.
Inside the magazine, Kaepernick swapped the cloth blazer for a leather one, driving home the comparison to the Black Panther Party even more powerfully. From his natural hairstyle to the leather blazer (and in the Panther logo T-shirts he’s worn in public), the black power iconography was unmistakable.
The cover image symbolically united two eras of activism — especially for Bay Area residents old enough to remember the 1960s and ’70s.
The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in response to the police violence of the civil rights era. The group’s core work initially was forming armed patrols of uniformed citizens who would monitor Oakland police activity. By 1969, it had expanded its focus and created social programs like community clinics, food giveaways and schools.
The Panthers wore a dress uniform of black pants, a powder-blue button-up shirt, black leather jacket and black military beret, which has become one of the aesthetic signatures of the party, along with the well-known feline logo. But some are quick to point out that the outfit was mostly a means to an end.
“We were truly promoting revolution,” says former Black Panther Party Chairwoman Elaine Brown, who led the party from 1974 to 1977. “We had everything from free food to free education and were armed for self-defense. We didn’t concern ourselves with iconography or the look except when it moved the agenda.”
Still, the Panthers’ distinctive look was not accidental.
“As far as the creation of the iconic uniform, Bobby Seale was very conscious,” says René de Guzman, senior curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California. In 2017, de Guzman curated “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50,” one of the most-attended exhibitions in the museum’s history. “He had a military background. The symbolism was that the Panthers weren’t a mob, they were organized. The show of militancy through clothing showed the organization; Bobby was very specific.”
Wearing the uniform was reserved for patrols and public events like rallies and marches, de Guzman says. Brown points out that it wasn’t only men in the party who wore the look.
“All of us wore that uniform; we’re there at the rallies,” Brown says of female Panthers. “For events beyond the rallies, too, you see women in many of the same outfits sometimes worn with skirts. If (the perception is) that the uniform was worn mostly by men, it’s because there were more men than women.”
It’s not just Kaepernick recently borrowing optics from the Black Panthers. This month Marvel Studios debuts the film adaption of the comic book Black Panther. Although the African superhero debuted in print three months before the founding of the party and is set in a fictional nation, the movie references the movement via both the character’s name and the series’ black empowerment ethos. And one of the film’s stars, Michael P. Jordan, like Kaepernick, appears on the March cover of the British GQ (with the headline “Rise Up”) in a beret and leather jacket.
And in what became the pop culture visual of 2016, Beyoncé outfitted her backup dancers in cropped-leather jackets, gold harnesses and black berets over afros (the entertainer was dressed similarly, sans beret) as she debuted her song “Formation” at the Super Bowl half-time show at Levi’s Stadium. The Black Lives Matter movement has also drawn comparisons to the Panthers, not just in its message and goals, but also in some demonstrators’ use of the Panther black power raised-fist salute at marches.
I. Breaking down the uniform
The choice of the black beret was meant as an obvious visual nod to the Panthers’ political nature.
Brown says the beret specifically references “Huey Newton’s embrace of the global revolutionary struggle and specifically, Che Guevara,” the Argentine Marxist revolutionary who also became famous via a well-known Alberto Korda photo later turned into a popular poster in 1967 by artist Jim Fitzpatrick.
“People were identifying with revolutionary movements throughout the world — that was the beret,” said Judy Juanita, who served as editor in chief of the Black Panther, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party, starting as a student at San Francisco State in 1967. Although Juanita herself did not wear the Panther dress uniform, she remembers, “For the marches, rallies, the uniform was effective.”
The powder-blue shirts, de Guzman says, were the kind of dress shirts men in the Panther community would typically wear for special occasions like church.
Black leather jackets were included in the uniform because of their easy availability. “The jacket was a common look for urban blacks,” Brown says.
“It was a find-your-own-leather jacket thing,” says de Guzman. Photos from the period show a variety of styles of leather jackets. The point of the uniform wasn’t exact replication: “It was about the impression made en masse,” he says.
For college student Juanita, seeing the Panthers in the uniform made a strong impact.
“I used to live on Potomac by the San Francisco safe house, and I’d open my window and see the Panther guys out there in formation doing the drills” in Duboce Park, she says. “It was an incredible sight. They’d be in uniform, ready for
“All of us wore that uniform we’re there at the rallies For events beyond the rallies , too, you see women in many of the same outfits sometime worn with skirts.” Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party Chairwoman
a protest and practice.”
The Black Panther symbol was another important visual emblem that was used on T-shirts, the official party newspaper and other materials. Artist Dolores Davis Huffman, who was not a member of the Panther Party, was “a friend of Bobby and Huey” and marched with the Panthers and many other causes, according to her son, David Huffman. She created a variation of the Panther logo for a Free Huey flag following Newton’s 1968 arrest.
“There was the flag, and there was also a dashiki-style dress with the panther printed all over it that was featured in the Oakland exhibition,” David Huffman says. “She also made T-shirts that people wore to rallies; Mom made them for whoever wanted them,” Huffman says of his mother, 85, who declined to be interviewed. He and his sister both had dashikis and grew up going to protests. “Mom really loved pattern and African art then; I think that was part of what inspired it.”
II. Embracing Africa
Another strong visual theme in the Panther movement was the embrace of African aesthetics. De Guzman says that it was common in the movement for women especially to embrace African-pattern dresses, headpieces and prints “as part of this conversation about reclaiming American blackness and their African roots. It was part of legitimizing it. They were brave and conscious about the references they pulled.”
Brown partially contradicts this, saying, “We did not embrace African clothing or changing our names. We were not a cultural organization — we didn’t dismiss it, but it wasn’t part of the culture of the party.”
For editor Juanita, the Black Is Beautiful aspect of Panther culture, popularized by the movement, was an equally important theme of the era, both aesthetically and philosophically. She mentions party leader Kathleen Cleaver’s call for African American women to embrace their naturally curly hair instead of straightening it as being an especially meaningful message to receive as a young woman.
“Changing our feeling about our kinky hair was an important outward step that either led to or led from internal change,” Juanita says. “Several interviewers have asked, ‘Was Black Is Beautiful that important?’ As if to say the political act of protest was more important. Africa from Hollywood depictions had a negative connotation in the black community. The Black Is Beautiful movement restored our appreciation at the beauty and resources of Africa.”
III. The legacy
But how do surviving Panthers feel about these symbols of revolutionary ideology being referenced now in popular culture?
“I feel reassured and vindicated,” Juanita says. “It’s been 50 years. For many of those years the Panther movement was underground; it was not celebrated — it was ignored. For young generations to wear those symbols has a lot of meaning; it means they’re ‘woke,’ as they say. For Beyoncé of all people giving that tribute at such an all-American venue like the Super Bowl said, ‘It’s important, it’s current, there’s still a reason for us to salute this movement.’ ”
For David Huffman, an artist in his own right participating in the NFL protesttheme show “Sidelined” at Galerie Lelong & Co. in New York, it’s positive that the Panthers are being acknowledged in 2018 for their activism. However, he worries that pop figures’ use of these symbols might “evaporate the real intentions of the movement by being associated without the hard work. But when a light shines, it’s hard to complain about the light itself. I just hope people respect the originators.”
It’s more important to former party chairwoman Brown, however, that the goals and accomplishments of the party remain part of the conversation and are not overshadowed by the iconography. Wearing the uniform made a statement and could have serious consequences.
“Everyone loved the look in the beginning, but after people started getting killed, people wouldn’t come out on the street in the jacket and beret,” she says. “We were not just a ‘look’ — we were about substance.”
“Changing our feeling about our kinky hair was an important outward step that either led to or led from internal change.” Judy Juanita, editor in chief of the Black Panther, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party
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