REVIEW: Power to the People: The World of The Black Panthers by Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale
By Erica McGrath
“We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community. We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.” This is the first point outlined from The Black Panther Party’s “Ten-Point Platform and Program”, created and written in 1966 by the parties’ leaders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Fifty years later photographer Stephen Shames and Black Panther Party founder, Bobby Seale, team up to tell the unequivocal and complex history of The Black Panthers through the juxtaposition of words and images in the photographic book Power to the People: The World of The Black Panthers. In 1967 Shames met Seale, a year after the establishment of The Black Panther Party, at an anti-Vietnam war rally. Since that fateful meeting Seale entrusted Shames with access, and approval, to photographing The Black Panther Party.
The Black Panther Party sprung directly from the civil rights movement seeking to create, “economic justice and power for all people”. Most notoriously known for their self-defense advocacy, and more specifically armed self-defense, Stephen Shames documented the Panthers in all their complexity but portrayed them as who he felt they were; political advocates attempting to end racism.
In Power to the People Shames reveals and publishes in-depth, and politically charged, first hand photographs from inside The Black Panthers. Shames’ states that the book tells the story of, “the heroic men and women of The Black Panther Party who tried to bring a dream of freedom and justice, both political and economic justice, not only African American, but to all Americans-in fact, to all the poor and oppressed people of the world”. Shames’ photographs; 200 black and white and 40 color, serve to inherently highlight the revolutionary main ideas stressed by The Black Panther Party without dismissing their shortcomings. Bobby Seale’s narrative account as being a leader to the party, combined along with voices from other Black Panther comrades such as, but not limited to, Ericka Huggins, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Kathleen Cleaver, Khalid Raheem, and Emory Douglas; dive into an incredible, and politically relevant, struggle against racism and injustice in America.
A particularly strong section of the book depicts the “survival programs” initiated by The Black Panther Party. Stephen Shames stated that he hoped this book would help people learn things about The Black Panthers that they might not have a known. The “survival programs” were a side of the Panthers not often seen in the media. In 1968 Seale initiated the “Free Breakfast for Children Program” and that began as the first of more than sixty community programs started, and run, by The Black Panthers. Shame’s photographs of these programs and the people involved illustrate the help and care provided to black communities by the Panthers.
Power to the People: The World of The Black Panthers is published during a current intersection of a still racially and politically charged present day America. Stephen Shames’ states the intention he and Bobby Seale had for this book was for it to be, “created…with the future in mind. We believe that a look back at the role of The Black Panther Party during the turbulent 1960s will help us better understand the present, and perhaps facilitate a brighter future”. The book concludes with more of Shames’ recent photographs from current Black Lives Matter and police brutality protests. The chilling parallels from the era of The Black Panthers Party to the racial and inequality issues in present day America are expressed through Shames quoting Louis Armstrong saying, “I feel so black and blue because…”, followed by statistics of the social and economic inequality African Americans face daily. Though we have progressively come a long way since the change incited by the civil rights movement and The Black Panthers’ political advocacy, we still have a long way to go to creating social and economic justice for all; and as Shame’s states, “When it comes to eradicating racism, all of us can learn from the example set by the Panthers”.
Article © Erica McGrath