Letter to the Editor

Letter to the Editor

In an essay titled “By Any Means Necessary: From the Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas to the Art Activism of Jackie Sumell,” published in Afterimage 38:5 (2011), I wrote the following paragraph, which discusses an essay by Colette Gaiter:

Two of the essays in Durant’s catalog allow us to consider the basic opposition between a political struggle that involves cultural production and culturalized politics. Emblematic of the latter is artist and theorist Colette Gaiter’s “What Revolution Looks Like: The Work of Black Panther Artist Emory Douglas.” Although Gaiter has a deep appreciation of Douglas’ illustrations of the harsh reality of the life of the disenfranchised, she assumes the revolutionary ambitions of the Black Panthers have been accomplished, and places black liberation in the context of other minority struggles led by students, women, the disabled, gays, and lesbians. She writes: “The fact that we now take these changes for granted is a paradox. Activists and revolutionaries like the Black Panthers worked to make ideas that were once believed to be extreme – like equal opportunity for all Americans – seem like the natural order of things.” Gaiter’s use of the past tense and her suggestion that the major struggles of the ‘60s were over by 1970 assumes a great deal about the current state of world politics, especially as the U.S. is involved in imperialist wars of aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and as it condones the right-wing politics of oligarchic and corporate control in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. (10)

I then compare her words to those of Kathleen Cleaver in the same catalogue on Douglas’ work (Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas, edited by Sam Durant and published by Rizzoli in 2007) and state that Cleaver’s words are more actual and pertinent, “decrying the American military behemoth and declaring solidarity with those involved in revolutionary guerrilla battles and fighting imperialism.” (10)

In an email dated January 4, 2014, Colette Gaiter contacted me to express her dismay at what she considers to be a misinterpretation of her essay, in particular, the suggestion that she thinks that liberation struggles were over by the 1970s. Ms. Gaiter would like it to be acknowledged that I did not provide the proper context for her words, which should be known to be in accord with rather than in contrast to those of Kathleen Cleaver. Gaiter’s essay included illustrations of international liberation posters made by artists working concurrently with Emory Douglas and pointed out the solidarity and shared mission. Gaiter, who teaches Visual Communications in the Art Department at the University of Delaware, sought to provide an art and design perspective on Emory’s work and situate it in the context of international liberation art. She points out that in her essay for the 2011 book West of Center: Art and the Countercultural Experiment in America, 1985-1977, she wrote that “Emory Douglas’s lasting influence on art and artists is easier to assess than the Panthers’ influence on black consciousness. Douglas and other protest artists of the 1960s initiated the contemporary practice of activist art, which remains a strong element of black visual culture.” This is further evidence, she insists, that she in no way has ever suggested that the struggle for liberation is a fait accompli. I myself might have taken the time and care to mention that Gaiter states in her essay: “As the U.S. persists in another controversial war in Iraq, it seems an appropriate time to take another look at Douglas’ provocative work.”

Colette Gaiter would like it to be acknowledged that my words have misinformed readers on her views concerning the legacy of Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers, and other social justice movements of the 1960s. Gaiter wrote to me: “I would never say that any of the struggles of the 1960s are over. They are just being fought differently and some progress has been made. I believe it is important that activists are hopeful and take time to look at achievements and battles won, even if the war is not over.” In the interest of clarification and correction, and also of solidarity, I want to thank Colette Gaiter for writing to me and for adding an important perspective on what I described in my essay as the shift “From the Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas to the Art Activism of Jackie Sumell.”

Most of the readers of Afterimage will know that Herman Wallace died a free man on October 4, 2013, just after being released from solitary confinement. Albert Woodfox, however, whose conviction has been overturned three times over, remains in solitary and is now, as vengeance for the federal judge’s release of Wallace, subjected to worse conditions. You can help Albert by signing the Amnesty International petition at http://takeaction.amnestyusa.org/siteapps/advocacy/ActionItem.aspx?c=6oJCLQPAJiJUG&b=6645049&aid=520358, by following Jackie Sumell’s work at http://hermanshouse.org, or by writing to him directly at Albert Woodfox, #72148, David Wade Correctional Center, N1A3, 670 Bell Hill Rd., Homer, LA, 71040, USA.


Marc James Léger

January 8, 2014


Posted in Letters


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