Ericka Huggins and Stephen Shames Team Up on Photographic History of Black Panther WomenBreaking News
tags: African American history, Black Panther Party, radical history
Stephen Shames had just turned 20 when he visited the headquarters of the Black Panther party in Oakland, California, and showed some of his recent photographs to Bobby Seale, co-founder and main spokesman for the organisation. Though Shames was still finding his way as a photographer, Seale liked what he saw and decided to use some of the pictures in the Black Panther newspaper. So it was that a young white guy from Cambridge, Massachusetts became the official chronicler of the Black Panthers from 1967 to 1973, documenting their community programmes, protests, rallies, arrests and funerals at close hand.
“The Panthers were never a black nationalist organisation,” says Shames, now 74. “They formed alliances with many black writers and activists and their whole legal team was white. They were not out to get white people, as the American government insisted. They were a revolutionary organisation who worked with anybody they felt was sincerely trying to change the system to benefit poor people and create a more just society.”
Since that time, Shames has published two photobooks about that struggle – The Black Panthers (2006) and Power to the People: the World of the Black Panthers (2016) – as well as several other titles that attest to a life of activism and deep engagement with his subjects. Next month, he will complete his trilogy on that era with a book that, as he puts it, is “long overdue”. Co-authored with former Black Panther Ericka Huggins, who is now a writer and educator, Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party is a dynamic visual and oral testament to the crucial role played by women in a revolutionary group whose figureheads, with a few exceptions, were men.
In her foreword to the book, the activist and author Angela Davis points out that 66% of the membership of the Black Panthers was female. She writes: “Because the media tended to focus on what could be easily sensationalised … There has been a tendency to forget that the organising work that truly made the Black Panther Party relevant to a new era of struggle for liberation was largely carried out by women.”
The book is a powerful record of an intense period of grassroots activism and political engagement, a counter-narrative to the one propagated by J Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, who called the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. Like the Black Panther men, the women members tended to look both stylish and dramatic, often sporting afros and at times wearing the black leather jackets and berets that were the Panther uniform. “Most young people are photogenic,” says Shames, “but the Panthers were charismatic. It was something to do with the pride they instilled in their people. Rather than treating them as a problem, as the government did, they gave them a sense of faith and pride and I really think that shines through in the photographs.”
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