On his visit to Beirut this past week, Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture and artist for the Black Panther Party, repeated a quote to me that he was once told in the early days of the Panthers: “speak in a language that a child can understand.” He told me that he tried to model his art after this idea, and it shows. The message is not hard to find when viewing his work. That isn’t to say it’s overly simplistic, of course not. Emory’s work has been widely celebrated, and since appearing on the front pages of the Panthers’ newspaper it has been exhibited in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums around the globe.
Today, it seems that we artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, etc. generally make our message more complicated than it needs to be. Of course, art changes over time as does society, and the world is a much different place now than it was in the 1960s. Emory was producing his work for the Black Panther Party newspaper. It wasn’t an academic journal, and it certainly wasn’t a publication concerned with presenting itself as “objective” in the way that most media do today. The Panthers had a clear political message that they wanted to share with the world, and that message could not have been more clear than through Emory’s work.
Maybe that’s the problem today: what is our message? And this gets at my bigger problem with most contemporary journalism. It has no message other than to “inform.” It takes no side, or at least it claims not to. But can one really not take a side on any given issue? If anything, by wrapping itself in a cloak of “objectivity” it fails to challenge the status quo, and in that way it has chosen a side.
I think we journalists should mostly strive to be objective in our work, but at the same time not pretend that we’re ever going to reach that phony enlightened state of total objectivity that many Western media often like to award themselves. Why can’t we take a clear position on war, healthcare, education, and other issues? Are we not human beings? When we see any situation, especially one as extreme as war, do we not feel for those who suffer from its results? Why are we allowed to show sympathy for Haitians brutalized by Mother Nature but not for Palestinians in Gaza brutalized by Israel? It seems a contradiction in journalism today, that when an issue is “political” we have to remain on the fence. But let’s face it, everything is political, and it’s impossible to say that the recent earthquake in Haiti is a catastrophe caused merely by nature.
As one commentator writes in the Guardian:
What is already all too clear, however, is the fact that this impact [of the earthquake] will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”. This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.
While Haitians slept on the streets, tried to unearth survivors, find places to bury the dead and waited for aid to be delivered by thousands of armed American soldiers, I walked with Emory around Beirut. “Is the situation today much different than it was in back then?” I asked. “Oh no,” he replied. “It’s the same stuff.” So, I wondered, where is the outrage today like there was around the world in the 1960s? Perhaps we artists and journalist concerned with social justice need to revisit that idea of speaking in a language that a child can understand.
Emory Douglas was invited to Beirut by the Beirut Art Center. A gallery of his work is available on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles’ website.