The Ms. Q&A: Artist Sadie Barnette on the Reclamation and Relevance of the Black Power Movement

Sadie Barnette’s multimedia art exhibition “Dear 1968” started with a thick packet of documents from the FBI. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Barnette’s family obtained the organization’s 500-page file on her father, Rodney; inside of it were intimate details of his life, including testimony from neighbors and community members as well as defecting members of the Black Panther Party, which he joined formally in 1968. Barnette, born in 1984, has been using the documents as a canvas and a launching point for her work for the last year; in the latest iteration, now showing at the Museum for Contemporary Art in San Diego, she connects her father’s part in Civil Rights history to her own life.

“Dear 1968” features printed FBI documents, hanging in a straight line, covered in pink spray paint and embellished with plastic stick-on moons and stars. Framed on blank walls are letters Barnette’s father sent to her mother, Ellen, about his activism and the government’s interference with the Free Angela campaign. A bag of Hello Kitty cotton candy sits in a tiny replica of the wicker chair Huey Newton is sitting in, with a rifle in hand, in an iconic 1967 photograph. Portraits of Barnette’s father—a mug shot and other images in which he wears either a black leather jacket or a military uniform—hang on wallpapers embellished with redaction and classification marks from the FBI files.

Barnette’s work is an attempt to build a bridge between her experiences and her father’s life. In the process, she illustrates the immense challenges that faced civil rights activists and warns viewers about the persistent power of state opposition to racial justice. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Trump administration, the work is a stark reminder of how far we haven’t come—and what impact the struggle for equality takes on individuals, families and entire communities.

Ms. talked to Barnette about the exhibit, the staying power of liberation and how we can make our way to disrupting power by forcing ourselves to observe it.

I always like to start with an inception story, so bear with me. What motivated you to request your father’s FBI file—and what was it like finally reading it?

It really was his idea, something that he wanted to do, and you know I’m not sure why it was that point that it was at that he finally just felt like it was time. But he always wanted to know, I think specifically, what his interaction had been with informants within the party, with agent provocateurs. And so he decided he wanted to file a Freedom of Information Act request, and him and my mom and I sort of worked on it as a family together, and it took about four years of going back and forth— you know, through the bureaucracy, writing letters, filling out more forms and sort of advocating for our rights to this information.

Four years until we finally got it, and then it ended up coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, which was founded in 1986; and now it’s 2018, the 50th anniversary of my dad’s founding of the Compton chapter in 1968. So while it was frustrating that it took so long to get the information, it also arrived at sort of an important moment to return to this history.

I would say the experience of going through all this information, you know, at times it’s very chilling. I realized that I was actually really lucky that my dad was alive—many activists were assassinated at the time or had been locked up and are still in jail, so those things were very sobering. But I was also really impressed with how much my father’s activism and voice of positivity and just what a great a guy he was rang out even through this government document.

Your exhibition is named for this drawing—”Dear 1968, Love 1984″—that marks the year your father started the chapter and formally joined the Black Panther Party and the year you were born, and the works on display, they connect these two time periods and connect your own life to your father’s. What do these works have to say to 2018? If this exhibit is this love letter to your father and your family’s history, what is the PS at the bottom for us now?

I think of that drawing as exactly what you’re saying, a love letter, but it could also be a thank you, or it could be asking some difficult questions of that generation—what are we supposed to do now, or why didn’t we have a revolution, why didn’t everything change, why didn’t racism go away, why didn’t you guys win, why didn’t you tell us what to do next.

It could be that that letter has some unanswered or unanswerable questions, which is why there’s no text between the greeting and the sign-off. There’s all this pencil mark-making, labored over many hours of drawing, that sort of meditates on this whole conversation without knowing the exact words.

1968 is just such an iconic year, nationally as well as internationally. There are moments of dreaming and demanding, all sorts of revolutionary politics and art. Martin Luther King is assassinated. It’s a year that’s a beginning and also an explosion, a culmination, of so many of these important historical intersections. And then 1984, it’s the year that I was born, but it’s also in some ways, like, the beginning of hip-hop—not the very very beginning, but it’s the graffiti generation, this sort of golden era of old school—and thinking of the crack epidemic, the Reagan-era children and all these things that sort of push and pull these two generations together and apart in a way.

I think that’s also sort of wrapped up in that conversation—looking back to figure out where we are now. There’s so many things that keep coming out in the news or in current events that keep on making this project even more relevant.

Yeah, and I was really struck by the conversation that was happening in the exhibit—not just the intergenerational dialogue but even the dialogue that was happening between these two parties, inside of the file. I loved the framed letter that your father wrote about his work with the Free Angela campaign—and you see there that the FBI was tracking your father, and he was acutely aware of government resistance to this movement, and he’s detailing it and he’s witnessing it and unbeknownst to him at the time, in so many ways, it’s playing a role in his employment opportunities and his interactions with his friends and his neighbors.

Obviously, the FBI’s notes are such a different experience of this moment in history than your father’s letters and photographs—and there’s two very different perspectives on the Black Panther Party, too. What do you think is most relevant about this conversation, 50 years later? What do you think activists have to learn from that dialogue?

In recent months we’ve seen this new FBI category exposed, which is the quote-unquote black identity extremists—so again, we have basically the conflating of black activism with violence, as if to suggest that fighting for the rights and safety of the black community is an anti-American or violent act, when in fact it’s the exact opposite. It’s very American to challenge the government if the government isn’t serving all of the people. It’s supposedly what is our responsibility as citizens. But this conflating that—when it’s black folks doing this work, that it’s somehow inherently dangerous, I think, is something really important that we need to all be taking a look at.

Luckily my father is able to share his own personal history with some distance. But for many activists working today, this is still very, very relevant. I think sometimes, for young activists, they may not take themselves so seriously to think they’re under surveillance—many think you have to be, like, a super famous activist—but that’s definitely not the case. That’s hopefully another thing that people can take away from this work.

We’re also seeing, you know, the release of the film Black Panther has also led to a lot of revisiting of this era, and the work of the party, and a lot of writers who covered the film pointed out that it allowed viewers to experience a reality in which black liberation wasn’t a struggle as much as a cultural norm, a dominant narrative in people’s lives. Looking back on your own family’s history and looking around at the current political moment, do you think we’ve gotten any closer to achieving black liberation and disrupting these power structures of whiteness and colonialism? Or do you more find yourself wondering why we’re still here?

I think that materially, we haven’t made much change or progress. I think that if you look at the prison population, the infant mortality rate among black babies; if you look at not only income disparity, but the wealth disparity, which is much larger; if you look at access to healthy food; if you look at the way that police engage with our communities—it would be impossible to see that we’ve made material progress.

Another way that I think about it is—that’s one thing, material advancements. I think the problems are the same and I think there’s a lot of hindrance that makes it more difficult to see those things and see through to a lot of problems, but I do have hope that maybe consciousness has been shifting. I don’t know how long it takes to catch up, but I don’t think that it’s a question of why are we still here.

If you look at the founding of the U.S., it was founded on the principle that only white men who worshipped a christian god and had a certain amount of wealth could even consider land ownership. If you weren’t that person, land that you worked, land that you farmed, land that you took care of, wasn’t yours—because you weren’t a white man worshipping a christian god. Until we really look at that, and undo that, and talk about a new principle that we can organize this society around, I don’t think we’re going to have equity or justice or a reconciliation.

At Ms., we took a moment during the film’s release to revisit the often lost, or purposefully left out, histories of the women of the Black Panther Party, and I was struck when I viewed these pieces by the insurgence of feminine aspects—Hello Kitty accessories, glitter, decals—into your father’s history and, in that way, into the history of the Black Panther Party and the Civil Rights movement at-large. How has feminism shaped this process—your reclamation of your family’s history and this movement’s history and your work?

In regards to a lot of the pink materiality, the glitter, the rhinestones—it really comes from looking back on this from an imagined, revisited perspective of a young girl, daddy’s girl, looking at her father’s history from this place of childlike wonder, and also thinking about much of the work panthers were doing was for children. Now we look back—and some of this has been very purposeful, to paint the panthers in this dangerous light, again thinking of sort of identity extremists, and thinking it was this very macho act—but really, to me, it was a very loving. If you look at the 10-point platform of the Black Panthers, it’s mostly about families and protecting young people. That’s why the free breakfast program was such a central part—and what’s more tender and loving than feeding children before they go to school, right?

Also, in thinking of the counter-intelligence program and J. Edgar Hoover, who was really the architect of the undoing of the Panthers, I always think that glitter and pink would be what would piss him off the most. I feel like lacquering these super important, officious, authoritative, black-and-white documents with pink glitter would just infuriate him. It’s really an act of reclamation in that way.

The best kind, I might say.

And, okay, your father has said that when he first saw some of these pieces, he felt “finally free.” How has this ongoing artistic process and this latest iteration of it—how has it liberated you?

I feel like this work serves as a container to have conversations with my father that I always intended to have, but sometimes we put off, and I really encourage everyone who wonders about their family’s history or family’s experiences in situations, even if there are some difficult or painful memories, to have those conversations as soon as possible. I think that was one thing that sort of was broken up a bit, was the space to have those conversations.

I feel like I’m still learning from the material, still learning from people’s experience and engagement with the work. I feel like there’s always more generosity and rigor that can go into future work. I don’t think of this project as finished; I think of it as this experiment and attempt at understanding that I’m sharing with people. Hopefully it can continue to bring out more about myself, and my relationship to these ideas of liberation and familial love—and glitter.

Photos by Michael Underwood. You can find Sadie on Instagram and learn more about her work at sadiebarnette.com.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. and Contributing Editor and Co-Founder of Argot Magazine; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle, where she was previously Community Director and Feminism Editor. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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