Sonoma State University is hosting a reception and panel discussion for "Revolutionary Grain: Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panther Party in Portraits and Stories" in the 2North Gallery in the University Library on Monday, Mar. 27, 4-6 p.m. The panel will feature four former Black Panther Party members and photographer Suzun Lucia Lamaina. Admission is free.
"I think this exhibition is timely and topical," says University Library Dean Karen Schneider. "It addresses misconception about the Panthers and the pivotal role they played in social justice in the '60s and '70s."
In addition to Lamaina, the panel discussion includes former Party members Barbara Easley Cox, Elbert Howard (Big Man), Billy X Jennings and Emory Douglas.
The exhibition is based on Lamaina's book of the same name, published in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party in October, 2016. It runs March 20-May 31 in the 2North Gallery on the second floor of the University Library at Sonoma State.
"It's an honor to have an exhibition of my Black Panther photographs at Sonoma State University," says Lamaina. "My book is to be used as a teaching tool, to engage students and create a dialogue with them about the Black Panther Party."
Though the Panthers believed in and applied the right to bear arms in public, former party members say that often obscures their overall mission. "I think [people] misunderstand quite a few things," Howard told PBS in 2004. "A lot of that is because of the picture that the media painted of us, what the powers that be said about us. People had a tendency to believe that stuff.
"People didn't understand what our survival programs really meant: schoolchildren's breakfasts, feeding the hungry. Those programs helped immediate problems; they were also organizing tools. The Panthers themselves weren't the only ones in those programs; we got the community involved, teaching them how to become self-reliant, whereas the government wouldn't help with problems. It was about us helping ourselves."
"The Black Panther Party was widely misunderstood," says Lamaina. "The media and the U.S. government on the local, national and federal level intentionally discredited them through convert operations such as COINTELPRO. They were feeding hungry children, providing free clothing, free health care, free dental services and may other social programs to the communities in which they lived. Their social programs were established to organize and benefit the people. The social programs are as important and relevant today as they were yesteryear."
Lamaina traveled around the country for five years, photographing former Black Panther Party members and collecting their stories reflecting on their time in the party. Her black and white portraits tell stories on their own, and the accompanying personal reflections bring a sense of intimacy to the exhibit. The beautiful photography was produced on traditional film and developed in a darkroom.
"The stories, written by former Party members -- in their own words -- gives the reader a living history of who they are now, looking back on their youth," says Lamaina. "The stories speak of honesty, an undying love for the people, compassion, community activism, commitment, trust, the social programs and giving all power to the people."
"This is a great example of a working photographer seeing her project to fruition with a self-published book," says Schneider. "It's been exhibited at a number of locations, and there's been a really good energy around the exhibits."
Schneider recently attended a panel discussion for this exhibit in which former party members told fascinating stories that were not included in the book. "I'm really looking forward to going beyond the book and hearing the Panthers talk about their lives, and how it relates to today," she says. "I would love for even just one student to walk out of the panel discussion just a little more dedicated to social justice and activism."
For more information, visit library.sonoma.edu. Parking on campus is $5-$8. For a complimentary parking pass, RSVP by Mar. 24 to email@example.com or by calling (707) 664-2712.
Photo: Clockwise from top left: Barbara Easley Cox, Elbert Howard, Emory Douglas and Billy X Jennings.
Photos courtesy Suzun Lamaina