On the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program: Q&A with Alondra Nelson

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.




27 responses to “On the Black Panther Party’s Free Clothing Program: Q&A with Alondra Nelson

  1. Thanks Alondra for emphasizing Angela Davis’s essay! Davis’s insight about how her revolutionary practice was glamorized and the history of the other revolutionary women working with her ignored as a result of the glamorization of the Afro and black jacket helps us to think about how we make meaning of politics. I think it’s especially helpful in light of the continuing, and I think somewhat pointless, debate about whether black women’s natural or relaxed hairstyles reflect their level of consciousness. Davis also helps us to think about how not to romanticize revolutionary practice, especially when work still needs doing. Davis’s essay is one of my favorite analyses of what it meant to be in the Black Panther Party. I expect that Alondra’s book will also be a favorite!

  2. The world of perception is of such importance when trying to win the minds of man.

    As much as I anticipate reading Nelson’s work on healthcare, your discussion on “looks” cooks! One of my favorite books on the Black Panthers is Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic and Mau Mauing the Flak Catchers”. The dichotomy of NYC’s upper echelon alongside the black and leathered Panthers is portrayed with great humor and irony. Wolfe touches on that dangerous sexiness that intrigued a wide gamut of listeners.

  3. Daniel Nguyen

    Great article – I think health – especially personal health – can often take the back burner in a lot of current social movements. Often times, I think we find ourselves at a crossroads – especially with things such as diet and food access in low-income communities of color which has largely been co-opted and turned into something of a yuppie movement.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that how do we return the ‘green’ movement back to something relevant such as what the BPP was doing?

    My favorite BPP movie is The Murder of Fred Hamption, which has an incredible amount of amazing footage of the BPP and its programs. It also heavily exposes the incredible amount of repression faced by the BPP by COINTELPRO.

  4. I often to see Alondra Nelson’s name/work within afrofuturist scholarship/discussions. I’m so excited about this book. What a great interview. I love the attention paid to how deliberate the BPP was in their “look,” but also reminding us that they wanted us to “look” at very real issues. My favorite BPP piece is the segment on Fred Hampton from the Eyes on the Prize series. It never fails to make me cry and get me mad.

  5. Che

    A piece of BBP history that I’m fascinated by and writing about is the revolutionary convention at Temple in 1970 where third world gay liberationist groups, encouraged by Huey’s (problematic but sincere) letter to women’s and gay lib movements, organized and attended. Queer and/or transgender radical activists at the conference included Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Sylvia Rivera, a remarkable convergence of black radicalism, queer and/or trans resistance.

  6. This is fabulous – I am excited for this book!

    My favorite documentary about the Black Panthers isn’t exactly ABOUT the Black Panthers – it’s Bastards of the Party, a documentary about the ways that gang culture in LA coincided with and then was the follow-up after the Panthers in LA. An amazing narrative of experiences of being poor, black, and in inner-city LA over the course of seven decades.

  7. Che

    Like other commenters I’m excited about this book, spotlight BPP radical politics of health and social well being in the face of catastrophic and anti-black bio and necro policies, FBI/COINTELPRO infiltration and murder of Fred Hampton, police violence, malign neglect. I’m inspired by the BPP legacy and creation of community clinics as alternatives to the medical industrial complex. Really necessary and timely scholarly contribution to Af-Am/Am Studies, hist/sociology of science and bioethics!

  8. This was a great interview that highlighted the lesser known work of the BPP. One of my favorite books that discussed the BPP was Angela Davis’s autobiography. It presented the good, the bad and the complicated parts of the organization without romanticizing it.

  9. I can’t wait to get a copy of the book. There is so much about the BP’s work that I need to educate myself about, particularly around community-based solutions.

    Emory Douglas’ art work is moving and breathtaking. He really set a standard for effective and stirring revolutionary art. He managed to weave intricacy into his work and come out with a bold and catching product, which I don’t think is often seen in political posters these days. The details, the lines, the layers attest to the struggles and resiliency of the BP.

    – Teresa

  10. K.

    One of the most striking books I’ve read related to the Black Panther Party in recent years is Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, the story of three sisters sent to live with their estranged mother in Oakland, CA in the summer of 1968. Delphine, the novel’s narrator, finds a second home in a community center run by Black Panthers and Williams-Garcia writes deftly about both political and family turmoil in the late 1960’s. As an adult with a passion for books written with younger readers in mind, it’s exciting to see Williams-Garcia’s book being met with widespread critical praise (it was a 2011 Newbery Honor book!), opening the door for serious and powerful discussion in middle-grade classrooms about the role that the Black Panther Party played with regard to community building/critical community services.

    Thank you for posting this interview, I don’t know that I would have heard about Alondra’s book otherwise (I’m so far out of the academic literature loop!) I’m looking forward to hunting down a copy when it’s officially on the market.

  11. H

    Black Power Mixtape is a new documentary about the BPP from footage taken by Swedish journalists. Sad and inspiring.

  12. Kassandra Lee

    The emory douglas image of a woman with an Afro that reads, “Afro-American solidarity with the oppressed people of the world.” Saw his exhibit at the new museum a few years ago and it was great!

  13. mabel

    This book looks really great and so incredibly relevant right now with all the debates about health care. I think one of the most valuable and best things history can do is connect the past to the present… something that fashion and style and images also do really well.

    One of my favorite books on the panthers is Hassan Jeffries’ Bloody Lowndes about the original black panther party in Lowndes County, Alabama. In addition to being an amazing addition to the literature on the civil rights and black power movements, it includes really amazing photographs. It seems like we’re seeing this more and more in academic monographs these days, but that book was one of the first that really struck me not only as historical analysis but as a kind of publication of a visual archive that invites a whole other set of questions and narratives to be told.

  14. Juanita

    My favorite images is the picture of the young Black Panther girls with their fists up. It takes me back to my youth . These girls are probably now women by age ( 50) or older. I was fortunate to have teachers in elementary school who were former SNCC members and they taught us about the importance of Black history, Black culture and Black thought. This informs the work I do today as an administrator at a collegiate Black Cultural Center. As I encounter students this picture and any pictures of youth who attended BPP schools, centers and programming, continue to motivate me in being a keeper and educator of our culture.

  15. Gregory

    I feel like we (Gen X and mostly Gen Y people) are getting a 2nd wave of the dissemination of historical information regarding Black sovereignty, Black power, and general radical efforts by Black people to live. I really appreciate this article and can’t wait to get the book for my mother’s birthday. A movie that I really appreciated (as a 25 year old Black man from the Detroit area) was the movie “Night Catches Us” which I saw in Seattle. This movie, like the article, helps to disambiguate some of the general negativity that is attributed to the Black Panther party and provide a clearer understanding of the positive impacts that the efforts of the Black Panthers have had and continue to have on our society for Black people and as a whole.

  16. conductress

    That photograph is really wonderful. I wonder what happened to the boy. I’d love to hear from kids who participated in the Free Clothing Program, or the Panthers’ breakfast program, etc. I hope there’s a bit of that in the book, but either way, I’m looking forward to reading it!

    My favorite book about the BPP is Assata Shakur’s autobiography. Reading it was a real ‘click’ moment for me. The way Shakur writes so powerfully demonstrates the way that race, gender, class and capitalism influence life in ‘small,’ daily ways that add up to something larger and much heavier than they appear at first glance. Shakur doesn’t shy away from the chaos surrounding the movement, but shows how it coexisted with the Panthers’ bravery and determination in the face of so much nastiness. That the US is still trying to extradite Shakur from Cuba and *upped* the bounty on her head in 2005, appalling as it is, goes to show how successful the BPP was and how threatened the US gov’t still feels by their politics.

  17. L.

    Thank you for this amazing and insightful article! My favorite BPP documentary is 41st and Central. I had the privilege of watching one of the early cuts of the film during my first year of college when the filmmaker came out to meet with our organization.

  18. Anna

    My favourite BPP film is a short clip in “On Strike! Ethnic Studies 1969-1999” that showed women in the Panthers marching and singing “The Revolution has come… (Pop a Pig!) Time to pick up a gun… (Pop a pig!).” Seeing that totally revolutionised me, for life!
    I also loved “Night Catches Us,” which was a powerful emotional look at the aftermath of the Panthers, and also a reminder that the fight continues.

  19. Yael

    Thanks do much for this fantastic interview! My own favorite BPP text is also Assata’s autobiography, likely because it was my first exposure to do much of her amazing work.

  20. My first experience reading about the BPP was the Huey P. Newton reader. I have Revolutionary Suicide, also by Newton, on my TBR pile and I’m looking forward to learning more about him. It’s just amazing what they don’t teach us in school.

  21. My favorite BPP story arises from a search for a copy of Cleaver’s memoir “Memories of Love and War” for a book club meeting. I remember that the book was a tough find, I believe we shared copies. I do recall the thrill of reading her candid storytelling especially her intimate relationships. The book touched my soul. Our group had a tough time with the book selection revealing the complexity and diversity of black women’s perspectives.

    I appreciated her fascinating journey as a black woman navigating love and life. It reminds me that we should tell our stories because they so inform history with significance. As I write this I’m listening to Cleaver’s 2000 talk on C-SPAN about BPP at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/162985-1 and the New York Times book review. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/17/books/memories-of-a-proper-girl-who-was-a-panther.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

    I’m glad for the sister in our group who pushed us to take on the reading outside of the classroom and in a living room. So excited for your book and perhaps I can convince the group to take on “Body and Soul.”

  22. Zephi

    As an undergraduate student, I was able to take numerous art history courses and I came across the art of Emory Douglas. He is a former Minister of the Black Panther Party. One of his art pieces that stood out was My Mama Told Me. “There are some people who are really servants of the people.” In the drawing, we a little Black girl with a spoon and fork in her hand looking at an advertisement that features another little Black girl eating food and above the advertisement it says “Serving the People Body and Soul.” This drawing highlights one of the various types of community programs the Black Panther Party was involved in.

  23. This article/interview was very nice. The BPP have such a profound legacy on revolutionary history and people. I know they have been very instrumental in my own analysis and forming my own ideology about the best way to approach this system. They were all influenced by serious truth bearers, who all need to be studied as well. One of the things I have always appreciated about the BPP was its true revolutionary attitude, the beginnings of a serious understanding of intersectionality. They were in solidarity with many other people struggles, I remember seeing brown and yellow folks who were part of the Bpp and I felt that was so important. They went to the core of issues and came with simple solutions, and thats all that was needed to bring on full wrath of the system. Like so many cases before hand when people of color try to become autonomous and self sovereign in response to their exploitation only to be brutally attacked. This book likes like another great, and important insight into what this whole thing was about. I was always appreciate an analysis from a radical woman of color.
    Picking my FAVORITE BPP related thing is very difficult, there is soo much great material that highlights and demonstrates what they were about, not to mention powerful words straight from the revolutionaries themselves. I lean to want to pick the Auto-Biography of Assata Shakur, but seeing how she was more involved in the BLA , I will pass. I think I would have to pick Soledad Brother by George Jackson. His other book Blood in my eye was very important, and a serious tactical theory, but just did not mean the same thing to me. Soledad Brother was so eloquent, and so moving, in portraying the evolution of a warrior and a freed soul. You could see nothing but the utmost integrity in his words and ideas, so much that you feel absolutely compelled to follow in the same footsteps. He understood the situation so well, of the human condition, of the streets, of the system and global oppression, from both self education and first hand experience; it would be hard to leave this book without gaining some real insight. It is a book I will read again and again. One of those real pieces of art that flows between poetry, theory, philosophy, a narrative, and science. That is what Soledad Brother meant to me.
    RIP George and Jonothan Jackson, Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, Free All Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War.

  24. Like a lot of young Black kids just forming their own opinions and realizations about what it means to be Black in this society, I was drawn to the BPP movement. I had a cursory knowledge of the party’s politics and works. I read Elaine Brown’s book around 16 or 17 years old and was in awe of just what the party accomplished in a short amount of time. But what really shocked me were her recollections of the deeply misogynistic views of a lot of the male members. Even though I considered myself a feminist and somewhat militant (ha!), it forced me to think about intersecting identities and the discrimination that are unique those identities.

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