Alondra Nelson, Sociology professor at Columbia University. (Credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn)
Alondra Nelson, author of the much-anticipated book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press 2011) talks to me about The Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program, one of the organization’s many community programs. Nelson’s book, which Henry Louis Gates calls “a revelation” and Evelynn Hammonds describes as “indispensable” for understanding “how healthcare and citizenship have become so intertwined,” deftly recovers a lesser-known aspect of the BPP: its broader struggles for social justice through health activism.
On a more personal note, I’m utterly thrilled to be introducing Threadbared readers to Alondra Nelson! She’s an intellectual powerhouse of the first order whose research stands as far and away some of the most exciting and relevant stuff I’ve encountered in critical race and gender studies in some time. In addition to her intellectual capaciousness (follow her on Twitter to see what I mean!), she is unsparingly generous in her willingness to share knowledge, support, and tips for the best mascara a drugstore budget can buy. And she’s agreed to sign copies of her book which 3 (three!) lucky readers will win – keep reading to find out how!
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MP: Alondra, as you know I’ve been dying to talk to you about this photo of the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program by Stephen Shames. It’s one of my favorite fashion photos because it captures so well what I can only describe as a state of sartorial joy – that happy feeling I get sometimes when I’m wearing a favorite outfit or trying on new clothes (even if only new to me). I mean, this kid is seriously feeling his look and himself – and I absolutely love it! What are your reactions to this photo?
Black Panther Party Free Clothing Program. A boy tries on a coat at a party office in Toledo, Ohio, 1971. Credit: Stephen Shames.
AN: This Shames photograph is striking and wonderful. There is definitely “sartorial joy” there. And, pure unadulterated happiness, too! The boy in the photo—his smile, his pose, his evident pride—conveys the thrill I think we’ve all felt during some especially successful shopping venture at a sample sale, thrift shop or department store. We unfortunately learn to dim our delight as we get older. This image is a welcome reminder to savor life’s little pleasures.
The photo also prompts a less cheery reading. The boy is wearing many layers of clothes and here he is adding yet another layer. He’s stocking up. Maybe he is in great need of clothing. Perhaps his enthusiasm is not the thrill of consumption, but the satisfaction of having this very basic need met.
The Black Panther Party’s 1966 founding manifesto stated “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Helping disadvantaged communities to meet these needs was one of the activists’ main goals. To do this, the Party established a wide array of community service or “survival” initiatives, including the People’s Free Clothing Program depicted here.
Then there are the images within the picture; the images on the wall. There is the iconic poster of Huey Newton seated in a wicker chair brandishing both a sword and a rifle. There are several pieces of art that appear to be the work of Emory Douglas, the Party’s Minister of Culture. There’s also a familiar portrait of Eldridge Cleaver floating just above the boy’s head. This “gallery” links the boy’s sartorial joy and practical needs to the Black Panthers’ style and their politics.
MP: I love that. It really articulates my sense of the significance of the Black Panther Party’s health-based programs, which I think go beyond physical survival. That Eldridge Cleaver’s iconic image is part of this scene of sartorial joy really suggests to me that the BPP understood the political and psychic significance of clothing, that “health activism” for the BPP had much broader implications than physical health. Can you elaborate on this?
AN: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The Party appreciated that clothing could be both a basic need and a form of self-expression.
Also, the Black Panthers had a broad and politicized understanding of well-being that I describe as “social health.” Social health was their vision of the good society. The Party drew a connection between the physical health of individuals and social conditions in the U.S. They believed that achieving healthy bodies and communities required a just and equitable society.
The Black Panthers took a similarly holistic approach with their health activities. They provided basic health care services at their People’s Free Medical Clinics, for example. At these clinics one could also get free groceries or clothing, or advice on how to deal with a difficult landlord or help finding a job. For the Panthers, all of these issues were interconnected.
MP: Do you think it’d be fair to say that in the popular imaginary, it isn’t the group’s community programs for which they’re best remembered but their distinctive look? I’m thinking about the circulation and consumption of the BPP’s fashion practices and styles (e.g., Afros, berets, and military jackets) today in fashion magazines (under the sign of “radical chic”) and in the Internet (one blogger offers advice on how to “recreate the Panther look”). How important was the distinctive look of the BPP to its political mission and legacy then and now?
AN: The Black Panther Party emerged during a golden age of mass media: at a time when artists like John Lennon and Yoko Ono were pioneering some of the earliest music videos, when Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming the “medium” as “the message,” and when racially stereotypical television shows such as “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (which ran in syndication until the late 1960s) were giving way to integrated dramas like “The Mod Squad” and “Star Trek” (the latter of which was the setting for American TV’s first interracial kiss). Media mattered; image mattered.
Given this context, the fact that the Black Panthers were not only bold, but also beautiful, definitely contributed to their association with style in the popular imagination up to today. And, what the Shames photo of the boy captures so well is the fact that the Party’s image and its mission could overlap.
At the same time, we shouldn’t let our collective memory of the Party be so preoccupied with its imagery that we lose site of the activists’ urgent critique of racial and economic inequality and their efforts to imagine a better society. As Angela Davis stressed in her stirring 1994 article “Afro Images: Politics, Fashion, and Nostalgia” (a MUST read!), we shouldn’t reduce a “politics of liberation to a politics of fashion.”
MP: Stephen Shames, the photographer responsible for the above photo, is also responsible for many of the photographs that serve as visual references for “radical chic”. Can you talk about his relationship to and role in the BPP?
AN: Because of his evocative photographs, Shames has been one of the most important historians of the BPP. Many familiar, iconic images of the Party reflect Shames’ unique vision and talents. He also photographed aspects of the BPP’s work and organizational culture that are less well-known, whether it was decpicting hundreds of bags of groceries spread out like a lawn in an Oakland park or capturing blood being drawn from a child’s finger during at one of the Panthers’ sickle cell anemia screening programs. I am honored that he allowed me to use one of his photographs for the cover of Body and Soul.
MP: Thanks, Alondra! I can’t wait to read the book!
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Body and Soul will be available for purchase on November 1 but you can claim your FREE copy before then! In the comments section below, tell us about your favorite book/film/image of the Black Panther Party to win one of the three autographed copies of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. The drawing will take place one week from today on Monday, October 24.