Collection Explore
Essay
Amon Emeka
on the Black Panther Party Archive
A light-skinned woman smiles, facing a dark-skinned man in front of a dark blue wall with Black Panther posters and pamphlets hung in two rows.

Amon Emeka
Associate Professor of Sociology
Skidmore College

What a joy it is to behold bits and pieces of my people’s history. What an honor it is to be asked to contribute to our understanding of those bits and pieces. I am referring here to the recently acquired collection of Black Panther objects now housed at the Tang Teaching Museum. Neither I nor my parents, brothers, or cousins were members of the Black Panther Party. Still, I count the Panthers among my people and I take comfort in their objects. They remind me of the power and potential of my people. At the same time, I am struck by how similar their fifty-year-old yearnings are to my own. We want Black Power: the power to dream our own dreams and pursue them unmolested by racist strictures of the past or present, the power to make our own futures.

As a practicing sociologist, I am in the habit of thinking more about what is than what ought to be in society. I teach classes and carry out studies to impress upon my students and compatriots just how hard it is to be Black in the United States … still. I am dispassionate—even cold—in my measurement, interpretation, and presentation of Black disadvantage to the audiences I address. The sociological patterns I shed light on are terrible—they are hard to explain and even harder to swallow—but when I am doing my job, they are just facts, evidence. I share what I know, less often what I think, and least often what I want. The Panther collection tugs at my heart and my head because I, too, want Black Power.

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Emory Douglas (born Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1943)
Warning to America, 1970
silkscreen on paper
Gift of Jack Shear
2017.45.4

The objects in the collection embody what I admire most about the Black Panthers. They seemed to know exactly what they wanted—what the people needed—and they were not afraid to tell anyone. They had done the analysis, developed a plan, and proceeded to carry it out. No pretenses, no niceties, just action! Emory Douglas’s iconic Warning to America (1970) gripped me from the moment I laid eyes on it. The image speaks a thousand words, and the two written lines that head it speak thousands more.

WE ARE FROM 25 TO 30 MILLION STRONG, AND WE ARE ARMED. AND WE ARE CONSCIOUS OF OUR SITUATION. AND WE ARE DETERMINED TO CHANGE IT. AND WE ARE UNAFRAID.

The subtext of these lines is open to interpretation, but it seems clear to me: we are a century removed from our bondage but still not free; it has been made clear that our freedom fight will be met with deadly force—that soul force may only go so far when we are faced with physical force—and we must proceed with that knowledge if we are to get our people free.

Look at this warrior! She is upright and forthright in her conviction to protect herself and us. We want freedom! She is unflinching and unflagging. We want full employment! She will not be outgunned. We want education!

2017 45 12 pr w02
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Stephen Shames (born Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1947)
Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland, July 28, 1968
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum
2017.45.12

In Stephen Shames’s photograph of Panthers lined up at a Free Huey rally in Oakland: Look at those soldiers! They will be neither deterred nor denied. Black Panthers, Black Power, circa 1968. On April 4 of that year my father woke to celebrate his twenty-seventh birthday, but before he could get to it everything changed; Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated—our prince of peace gunned down in broad daylight. For my family, as for many, it was a year of consternation and soul searching. I was born late that year to a mother and father whose marriage across the most intractable of racial divides was not recognized in a third of the states at the time it was consummated. Days after my birth, my father—one of the most gentle men I know—wrote a letter to his favorite auntie announcing my birth. The tone was characteristically appreciative and celebratory but veered in a different direction as the letter ended. Pop wrote:

… I’m not too hot on organized religion anymore. Too long religion has tended to discourage us as a people from fighting to win our freedom. We figured that Christ would make the White man take his foot off our necks, and as long as we figured he would do it for us we could endure the rough times and continue slaving for the man. But I believe that religion should serve as a source of inspiration to cause us to struggle for our freedom while we’re right here on Earth instead of waiting to tell it all to the Father when this life is over …

In my forty-plus years, I never heard him voice exasperation in quite this way. He must have just swallowed it and “pushed on” like so many of us do. He finished that letter by explaining that he and my mother had taken an African (Ibo) surname that is now mine, and my children’s and my nieces’ and nephews’.

… I made this change because I want my last name to be African, therefore reflecting the fact that I am of African descent. I feel strongly about this, as it is an attempt to in a small way identify with my past …

Black Power! You will call me by a name that I wish to be called! You will call me by a name that I have chosen: a name that lifts up a history that I want to recall every time I hear it and I want you to wonder about every time you hear it. In this act, my parents seized a bit of Black Power for me. But they knew, the Panthers knew, as I now know, that our Black Power is not without its limits. It affords me a priceless sense of self-worth that is rooted in an enhanced self-knowledge but does not provide me perfect protection out in the world, nor does it provide my daughter perfect protection on her school playground.

I still long for Black Power for my community, my family, and myself as the Panthers did. That’s why the Panther archive pulls so hard at my heart and my head. Some may see these objects as relics, but they are not. They are material reminders of what we need, what we want, and how to get it—Black Power, Black Liberation, Black Resolve. Their presence in the Tang Teaching Museum is an inspiration to me and a gift to the entire Skidmore College community.

Cite this page

Emeka, Amon. “Amon Emeka on the Black Panther Party Archive.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/explore/212-amon-emeka. First published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at the Tang Teaching Museum 2 (2018).

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Give a damn.
Exhibition
Black Panther Party Archive
Collection
Emory Douglas
Artist
2017 45 4 pr w01
Warning to America
Artwork
Stephen Shames
Artist
2017 45 12 pr w02
Panthers line up at a Free Huey rally in DeFremery Park, Oakland
Artwork
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