How the Radical Graphic Design of the Black Panthers Influences the Movement for Black Lives

Vanessa Newman can remember exactly where they were when they first saw Emory Douglas’s work. They remember the sound of ’60s jazz vinyls playing before heading to the grocery store with their dad—an embodiment of their love for Black people as a Black queer kid navigating the world. Douglas’s work was integral to the music and, really, every day of their childhood.

A revolutionary artist and the former minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, Emory Douglas was a formerly incarcerated youth who fell in love with graphic design in trade school and after attending San Francisco City College connected with the likes of party cofounder Bobby Seale. Together, they created The Black Panther in 1967, the newspaper reaching its peak with a 200,000+ weekly circulation. Also a living vessel of Black radical history and visioning, Douglas used printmaking and graphic design to best articulate the Black liberatory politics of the Black Panther Party via comics, illustrations, and visual propaganda.

It’s fitting that Newman was so drawn to Douglas’s work. This current iteration of young Black queer people building a new visual statement through the Movement for Black Lives looks to the Black Panther Party as a starting point. Designers like Newman and Fresco Steez, the former minister of culture at BYP100, uses the poetics of adornment, a clarity of political values, and a hunger for a new world that many deem impossible. These designers are melding together past, future, and current realities to make revolution irresistible. Douglas and his work have provided the blueprint for that liberatory design.

Anyone dedicated to a future that requires Black liberation must use all the tools available to make the fight visually, linguistically, and spiritually appealing to those invested in their own freedom. As Douglas stated in 1967 of his mission in helping to create the Panthers’ newspaper, also with Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver, “We were creating a culture, a culture of resistance, a culture of defiance and self-determination.”

Like Newman, Steez is a designer dedicated to creating the visual language of this social moment. Born in Chicago, the community organizer is deeply involved with BYP100, a chapter-based organization founded in 2013 in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal. Dedicated to advancing the Black community’s economic, social, political, and educational freedoms, BYP100 sees the future through a Black queer feminist lens. Throughout her time there, she designed all the merchandise for the organization, from hockey jerseys donning Lucille Clifton quotes to “Unapologetically Black” T-shirts inspired by Kanye West’s GOOD Friday music drops.

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Steez is also the former lead digital strategist at the Movement for Black Lives (or M4BL), where she recently designed bomber jackets, sweatsuits, and full regalia for fellows that speak to the continued defunding of the police campaign work. Further, she is currently working with Levi’s for its Black History Month capsule due out this month.

Steez began her design work at BYP100 as a reflection of two vital aspects of her life: community organizing and hip-hop. She thinks critically about what hip-hop culture means for organizing internally and externally. “As a teenager doing organizing work, I was required to study the five elements of hip-hop (tagging, beatboxing, break dancing, emceeing, deejaying) and streetwear culture. … And while we know that streetwear culture is Black culture, it has been commodified by all different identities of folks in order to build profit. This exploitation is compounded by luxury brands at the expense of Black and third-world people.”

Steez’s mother, Sheila Rollins, was a teacher by trade and matriarch of design by craft in Chicago. Steez follows a legacy of Black feminist ingenuity that keeps her rooted in the liberatory needs of Black people. “My early understanding of how Black folks use visuals, fashion, aesthetics as a culture to resist poverty; to say, ‘Despite the conditions we live in in this country, we’re gonna adorn ourselves in ways that glorify our experiences,'” Steez says. “We know that our clothes can be a vision for what our lives can be around beauty and around the full and expansive life that we deserve.”

She continues, “The thing that has inspired me in all the work that I do are the political histories and movements. What were the visuals? What was the culture behind them that was intentional? What gave them a visual identity to the community that they were working within?”

The type of intentionality and care that Steez puts into her work is a deep nod to Douglas’s work in developing a visual culture for the Black Panthers. As the party grew in notoriety and political acclaim in the late ’60s, so did the surveillance of its leadership, namely the creation of COINTELPRO, a counterintelligence program focused on monitoring and dismantling the radical organizing work of the Black Panther Party by the federal government. These acts of intentional upheaval through COINTELPRO included everything from disrupting newspaper distribution to destroying the children’s breakfast program. These tactics of destruction are still ever present in the FBI’s more recent creation of the Black Identity Extremists designation and the policing of Black activists across the country amid protests against police violence. The legacy of the suppression of Black liberatory struggle continues to this day.

We know that our clothes can be a vision for what our lives can be around beauty and around the full and expansive life that we deserve.

There is a cold eye of intimidation being used now to quell the fight for Black liberation—a similar intimidation that killed and nearly wiped out the Black Panther Party—because of the radicalization power that can happen with visual art. At the height of the uprisings this summer, there was a need for personal protective equipment, or PPE, which many didn’t know how to fill. Steez and the digital team at M4BL knew that they could show up and keep people safe with masks, while also getting their bold statement across. “These are new conditions to be organizing under, so we really thought about what piece actually supports their organizing work and clearly articulates their values, and the most relevant canvas in this moment was the face mask.”

M4BL began sending out needed PPE to activists on the ground in seven major cities during the peak of the George Floyd uprisings, in early June. Masks with the phrases, “Stop Killing Black People” and “Defund Police,” were sent out nationwide. However, after shipping the masks, Steez was told that they allegedly had been seized by the federal government and were delayed until further notice. It wasn’t until Steez and M4BL took to social media to spread awareness of the supposed PPE steal that the masks were returned to them.

“If you have the grounds to seize these masks, then what grounds do you have to seize me? Right, in all seriousness.”

The bold black-and-yellow masks were everywhere during the protests. Representative Ilhan Omar was seen wearing one, and former president Barack Obama even reposted an image of the masks on social media. But Steez is remaining focused on her core values of creating political timepieces that have clear principles.

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A post shared by vanessa (van) newman (@fiveboi)

Like Steez, Newman is dedicated to tracing the connection between the history and principles of design to organized movements. As head of product at Somewhere Good, a digital platform from the same team behind Ethel’s Club, they are dedicated to creating a social media app that prioritizes a new way of being online.

Newman credits their precision in graphic design and the ability to gain access to resources to the strength of community organizing. “I began to see that space making and community organizing are all design systems. … Most of the Internet is not meant to build community; it was built to monetize people,” they say. “The past two years of building brands, dreaming of flyers, and getting into the nerdiest details of typography always come back to finding what’s been lost. I feel like I’m always trying to reclaim a history that already exists.”

The biggest lesson in a year of isolation has been that the vision for liberation is a collective work. In the midst of the months-long protests over the summer, Newman along with other Black designers began Design to Divest, “a Black-led collective of designers, artists, technologists, and strategists designing equitable futures by divesting from inequitable institutions,” as stated on its website.

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However, Newman has no illusions about the visceral labor of dreaming. “When you’re Black and queer, you have to always be imagining.” Explaining further, Newman says, “I protect my brain at all costs. How do you do that in this world where you are supposed to stay disconnected from yourself, from your body, and from this world. … All of these things are designed to distract us from our imagination.”

Radical graphic design, whether it be through merchandise or visual aesthetics, has always been about writing a love letter to marginalized people—to say without words or dialogue who you are, what you stand for, and how you are showing up for the next fight. It is a call to action after a year of grief and surface-level platitudes. Because of this struggle, Black queer designers like Steez and Newman are dreaming of what our movements must look like for a better world that many refuse to see.

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