The Black Panther Party (BPP) was an essential piece of the Black Power movement that allowed members in to advocate for the African American race on social and political issues. One of the first things you’d notice about members of the BPP was their standard uniform: a black leather jacket, black pants, powder-blue shirts black beret, an afro, dark sunglasses, a fist in the air, and and militant-like feel. This full uniform was established in 1996, but a uniform was still in place before but only using the sunglasses and leather jackets. Each member adorned the uniform at events, rallies, and in everyday life. Very few strayed from the basics, but some added personal pieces such as necklaces or other jewelry that was usually part of African culture. Even the symbol of the black panther itself adorned to most of the leather jackets worn by members brings in symbolism of the power that a panther has.
However, one thing that was not necessary in this uniform was to be
black. There were mem-
bers of other races in the BPP like Mike Tagawa (seen left), he recalls first seeing them saying, “We noticed a bunch of black brothers marching around in black leather jackets, black pants, blue shirts, and berets.” He was asked to join and was confused as he was Japanese, but the member replied with, “But you ain’t white either.”
The uniform was described by others who saw it as “urban militant”. This idea of military was maintained when they were seen marching in order at rallies and carrying weapons around. They originally took advantage of California law to openly carry firearms around to create empowerment in the black community by appearing strong and militant. The beret especially became a symbol for militancy throughout the country at the time.
The beret was one of the most important and the most influential piece that the BPP wore. When asked what the beret meant, a BPP member said “Because they were used by just about every struggler in the third world. They’re sort of an international hat for the revolutionary.” “Because they were used by just about every struggler in the third world. They’re sort of an international hat for the revolutionary.” The beret moved to many other groups at the time and became a major part of the uniform for many other groups and extensions of the BPP like the BPP schools.
The BPP schools that were set up for a short time. Even the young children enrolled in these schools are wearing a version of this uniform with a beret and a nice powder-blue shirt and a skirt or pants. These schools were an extension of the BPP that gave an alternative to young African American children to teach them about their African heritage, history, and culture away from the white hegemony.
The militant and vaguely aggressive uniform is not what those involved in black power previously adorned. Before, they adorned nice suits and were put together to overcome any prejudice against black people. However, with the adoption of the new uniform came along the rebranding of this movement to the more militant style. This not only gave them a new image, but also a new sense of how they would do things. They went from peaceful acts of protest and religion to more forward protests and riots. The uniform confirmed their new goals and ideas.
This uniform also had an influence on other racial power groups as well including the Brown Berets, The Young Lords, and The Rainbow Coalition. These groups pull different combinations from the BPP such as the beret (BB, YLO, and RC) and the sunglasses (RC). This use of the same style uniform shows how each group wants to support the BPP and be a part of the same movement.
The BPP used this iconic uniform to their advantage and created an intentional image of themselves to the public. Emory Douglas, the primary artist of the BPP, had a huge part in this. Her topics were all different, but, “[She] crafted a protest aesthetic aimed at convincing audiences of black power (Doss).” Douglas’s goal was to raise awareness for this topic by producing revolutionary. This art through images was often depicting men, even though women comprised just as much of the BPP as men at some points in its existence, but it was done for a reason to put forth more ideas of the power associated with masculinity. This projection of revolutionary ideas, masculinity, and militant nature was very important to the BPP’s image.
The most important thing about this uniform is that it made the BPP noticeable in society and gave them an iconic look that still lasts today in our memory and society. Even now if you conduct a search for the iconic BPP leather jacket you get links to shop for one similar. You see fashion designers and those involved in the Black Power movement today still using the original ideas of this uniform. The full uniform may eventually make a re-emergence as the black power movement is rising again.
Lazerow, Jama. “Brown Power to Brown People.” In Search of the Black Panther Party: New Perspectives on a Revolutionary Movement. Durham, NC: Duke U, 2007. 256. Print.
Younge, Gary. “Friday Review: BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY: In 1965, Black Leaders in the US Marched Serenely in Smart Suits, Quoting the Bible. Two Years Later, they Strutted Defiantly in Leather Jackets and Berets – Brandishing Guns. Gary Younge on a Film Festival Remembering the Black Panthers.” The Guardian, Aug 08, 2003, pp. 8, ProQuest Central, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/246022584?accountid=14244.
Cleaver, Kathleen, and George Katsiaficas. “Revolutionary Art Is a Tool for Liberation.”Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party: A New Political Science Reader. London: Routledge, 2000. 175-87. Print.
Shih, Bryan, and Yohuru R. Williams. “Mike Tagawa.” The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution. New York: Nation, 2016. 28-32. Print.
Stephan Shames (BPP school and Urban militants)
Emory Douglas (artwork)
Photo of Mike Tagawa from “The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution”