At OMCA, ‘Black Power’ reminds community of Oakland’s history of activism, prejudice

Rectangles showing a black panther and the text "Black Power"
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On Friday Feb. 8, the Oakland Museum of California opened “Black Power,” a new permanent installation in its Gallery of California History. The display comes on at the heels of the popularity of the museum’s exhibit “All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50.

Hard to miss, “Black Power” is represented by a large, proudly raised Black fist — an icon of the Black Power movement. The exhibit is configured in a way that showcases the core ideologies of Black Power, with pieces on display ranging from paintings of contemporary artists celebrating Black pride, to keepsakes of notable figures of the movement, to records of activism like that of the Black Panthers’.

Much of the exhibit explores Oakland’s own place in the history of the Black Power movement. The collection showcases the complex ways Oakland — as both the birthplace of the Black Panthers and the site of an incredibly active network of Ku Klux Klan members — is situated within Black Power.

The exhibit articulates this double occupancy of Oakland through juxtaposition, positioning the words “Black Power” bold and high above relics of Oakland’s own problematic history. These include racist cartoons (an example of the simultaneous commodification and disparaging of Black culture) as well as a Klansman’s dingy hood.

In choosing to situate these two sides of Oakland’s history in direct opposition to one other, “Black Power” gives a face to the impossibility and impracticality of isolating one from the other. The exhibit at once acknowledges efforts to overcome racist ideology and reminds viewers not to conflate the celebration of Black identity with the racism that has so often marred it.

It also asserts that the two will always be linked.

“Black Power” illustrates the way racism, like a parasite, wrenches itself into the seams of Black pride — because Black Power was a result of racism, a product of it. The exhibit demands that viewers reflect on the history of the Black Power movement and the necessity for it even today.

The walls of the gallery are lined with quotes from key figures of the movement. Above a selection of postcards OMCA implores visitors to take, the museum has printed a quote from Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza. It reads, “Today’s black power is transforming democracy, but we can’t do it alone.” Garza’s words — paired with those printed on the postcards, like, “The US has 5% of the world’s population, 25% of its prisoners” and “Circulate your dollar in the black community” is a call to action. It entreats visitors to become more cognizant about the oppression of the Black community — and less complacent in it.

In this way, “Black Power” doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Black history and the Black Power movement have always been deeply entrenched in California’s history and “Black Power” makes an active effort to acknowledge that.

In the center of the exhibition, a video showcases various activists and poets offering accounts of the Black Power movement. In the video, former Black Panther Party member Billy X Jennings (who hosted a Black Panther archive presentation just this past week), recalled what the movement felt like and what it meant. The video is full of people giving life to the ideology that the spirit of the movement is alive and well.

As if to corroborate this notion of active community recognition and participation, Jennings himself showed up to the opening of the exhibit. His presence there was a nod to the way that Oakland’s place in the movement is inseparable from its history.

At “Black Power,” the exhibition space is far from large, but it’s dense with meaning and significance. Its refusal to shy away from difficult truths is telling of the respect and care put into the curation of the installation.

“Black Power” is a permanent installation at the Gallery of California History in the Oakland Museum of California.

Contact Areyon Jolivette at [email protected].