Inside, an Exhibit on the Black Panthers. Outside, Protests Against Racial Bias
Police brutality, under-resourced schools, and economic inequality—those are some of the injustices that the Black Panther Party fought against generations ago. Sure, America has made racial and social progress since the group was founded in Oakland, California, in 1966. Blacks voted at a higher rate than whites did in 2012, and the amount of black legislators is increasing. Overall, segregation and discrimination have declined. But at a time when high school dropout rates skew along racial lines, the names of black people killed by law enforcement officers are turned into hashtags, and the racial wage gap is widening, the issues the Panthers organized around remain as relevant as they were 50 years ago.
That’s why a pair of exhibits—It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice and Silos—at the American University Museum in Washington, D.C., are connecting the legacy of the Panthers to modern protest movements. The displays are timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Panthers’ founding, according to Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the museum.
“[The Panthers] pushed back against the violence that was besetting the African American population. It was really a self-defense organization,” Rasmussen said in an interview with TakePart. “I think that young people today are also trying to figure out a way to push back.”
It Takes a Nation features artwork created in the 1960s by Black Panther artist Emory Douglas and five members of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a Chicago art collective. The exhibit juxtaposes the older works with creations by contemporary artists that reflect the socioeconomic situation black people are in today. Silos shows work from eight artists examining the “marginalization, absence, and exclusion” that occurs when people self-segregate, resulting in a perception of people from different cultures as “other.”
The exhibit’s relevance was highlighted this week as hundreds of American University students protested on campus in the wake of several racially motivated incidents, including rotten bananas being thrown at female black students or placed in front of their dorm rooms.
“[The protesting] is political. It’s exactly why I made this work. It happened in the midst of a show about social justice, about the nature of blacks in this country, on a campus called American University, at that. You couldn’t need more potent evidence,” Wesley Clark, whose piece Black Don’t Crack is featured in Silos, told TakePart.
Rasmussen, who attended a town hall on campus on Tuesday where students could air their grievances with administrators, said that the protests highlight how much more work has to be done.
“I grew up in the ’60s. It looked awfully familiar, which is another depressing thing,” Rasmussen said.
But he sees a silver lining in the situation: It’s bringing the exhibits to the attention of a new generation.
“We don’t always get students in here but sure have for this show,” he said. “The role of the museum was to show how people their own age were responding to a very similar situation and how artists responded right here in Washington over the next 50 years.”