Seeing Black Women in Power

Politics, Language, Power and Image

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The photography and art of black women in the 1960s and 1970s created a new space of recognition. These images of black women presented an opportunity to both celebrate and immortalize their contributions while making clear the necessity of black women’s voices to movements for equality.

As you walk up the ramp to the Museum’s exhibition, A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond, you can see the raised fists of a group of Black Panther women from Sacramento, California. They are surrounded by the bright orange of the exhibit’s larger Black Power mural.

An image of women with their fists in the air.

Black Panthers from Sacramento, Free Huey Rally, Bobby Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland, Calif., No. 62, Aug. 25, 1968; printed 2010

Photograph by Pirkle Jones

Gift of the Pirkle Jones Foundation, ©2011 Pirkle Jones Foundation

The image captures an intense moment of protest. These women, Mary Ann Carlton, Delores Henderson, Joyce Lee, Joyce Means and Paula Hill, represent black women’s voices at the forefront of sociopolitical movements. They show the intense political participation that women demonstrated during the 1960s and 1970s. This political participation remains strong to this day.

Women’s participation in the Black Panther Party represents one example of this era’s political participation. Women were “tough revolutionaries,” who, by the 1970s, made up nearly two-thirds of the Black Panther Party’s membership. The Black Panther Party embraced gender equality in its organization, but there were still issues with “Panther male chauvinism." However, many women involved in politics during this era demonstrated the growing realization that women’s voices were integral to sociopolitical progress in the continuing campaign for equal rights.

The photograph also represents the power of images in communicating the importance of these women in political movements. The dissemination of this image, and ones like it, created a new cultural memory. Visuals of black women employing language and voice to demonstrate political power and engage in activism are integral to our understanding of not only this era of political change but our current one as well.

The above images represent a fundamental change in gender dynamics during the 1960s and 1970s. These images exemplify the power and position of women who were closely involved with the struggle for black equality during this period. Their style was revolutionary: with their afros and African-inspired dress, they resisted norms of white American beauty. Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Sonia Sanchez exemplified the motif of black women refusing to be silenced.

Each woman achieved this in different ways. Cleaver and Davis opted to work through grassroots and radical organizations, operating within communities where their activism created new educational opportunities and tangible programs for economic change. Sanchez, on the other hand, operated in artistic circles through her poetry which often reflected the unique experiences of black women. Language is one of the strands which binds these three women together. By employing language structured in a variety of forms, they became advocates for both black women and black communities. 

Kathleen Cleaver was a Black Panther and activist who is currently a professor of law at Emory University. As an advocate for political prisoners and a frequent lecturer on Black Panthers issues, she continues to campaign for equality. 

Angela Davis was also closely involved with the Black Panthers, although not as a formal member. In the above image, she is advocating on behalf of prisoners who were on trial for the murder of a guard at Soledad Prison. 

Both women are educators whose work has enabled others to look closely at their worlds, motivating them to take action and change their own worlds. 

I think the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement.

Angela Davis, spring 1977 Frontline Interview

Sanchez’s work, though not political activism like that of Cleaver and Davis, demonstrated the connection between language and politics for black women. As a poet in the early 1960s, Sanchez was an integrationist, supporting the view that African Americans could merge into American society. She then encountered Malcolm X’s philosophy, which maintained that white America would never truly tolerate black presence. Her poetry moved toward appreciating and celebrating black identity as being distinct and independent from white America. Her work is an integral part of the Black Arts Movement, which saw a blossoming of politically motivated literature, drama, music, and art by black individuals. It was also an artistic extension of the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Sanchez use of language, particularly the vernacular speech of African American women, was effective in portraying their unique challenges. Her empowerment of these women was an essential part of the rise of black women’s voices during this era.

All poets, all writers are political. They either maintain the status quo, or they say, ‘Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.’ That’s what my life has really been about.

Sonia Sanchez Conversations with Sonia Sanchez, ed. Joyce A. Joyce (University Press of Mississippi, 2007)

“A Black/Woman/Speaks” from A Sun Lady for All Seasons Reads Her Poetry (1971)

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
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Just as poetry is key to our understanding of black women’s political voice during this era, so too are the visual arts. Revolutionary by Wadsworth Aikens Jarrell Sr. uses Davis’ image to celebrate and immortalize her contributions during this era. Jarrell Sr. created a new image of political iconography by surrounding Davis with words associated with her activism: resist, revolution, black and beautiful. By incorporating these words, the artwork illustrates the rhetoric of the Black Power movement as represented by a black woman. As a reflection on Davis’s life, Jarrell Sr.’s artwork shows that language’s political power can also be demonstrated through visual arts. In the painting, Davis’ shirt reads, “I have given my life to the struggle, if I have to lose my life in the struggle, that’s the way it will have to be.”

Brightly colored image of a woman with words.

Revolutionary, 1972 by Wadsworth Aikens Jarrell Sr.

© Wadsworth Jarrell

Jarrell Sr. was a part of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), founded in 1968 to encourage and support black artists and their varied artistic styles. By creating positive portrayals of black identity, AfriCOBRA complemented the Black Panther and Black Power Movements. Known for their “Kool-Aid” colors, AfriCOBRA artists were unapologetic about the importance of black voices, especially black women’s voices. The examples of Davis, Cleaver, and Sanchez reveal the trend of black women’s political voice as iconography.

This theme continues today within the Black Lives Matter movement, which includes an array of black women at the forefront. It also demonstrates the continuing necessity of movements for equality for African Americans. As part of her #1960Now portfolio, photographer Sheila Pree Bright shows the similarities between modern social-justice movements and justice movements of the Civil Rights era. Bright makes her photography inclusive by incorporating images of movements across the spectrum, including images of protests against the Dakota Pipeline and images of queer and trans activists.

Image of women holding Black Lives Matter signs.

Untitled, 2015 Black Lives Matter rally in Atlanta

From the series #1960Now Atlanta/ Hell Talmbout/ Janelle Monae

Photograph by Sheila Pree Bright

© Sheila Pree Bright

Whether they are photographs or works of art, images create a memory of certain people and places that we may hold with us forever. For black women creating a new space of recognition during the 1960s and 1970s, photography and art presented an opportunity to both celebrate and immortalize their contributions. In addition, the presence of similarly styled photographs in our modern era, such as those by Bright, make clear the continuous presence of black women’s voices in political movements throughout time. Black women’s voices are a necessary and central aspect of these movements, and their images help to inspire and embolden individuals today.

Browse Black Power in the NMAAHC Collection

Written by Meera White, Robert F. Smith Fund intern

Published July 28, 2017

African American women have always been part of the African American struggle for full equality. Early freedom fighters like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Anna Julia Cooper fought against multiple oppressions. In our new YouTube video, scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw explains how the intersections of these oppressions manifest today in the term she coined, "intersectionality."

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