The Black Power Movement, and the Black Arts Movement,

The term ‘typography’, in its early
days, was used to refer to “the technique to produce printed texts with movable
type (as opposed to woodcut, lithography, etc.)” (Spitzmuller,2016) . Later it
was defined as “the visual attributes of written, and especially printed,
language” and is “…concerned with how letterforms … are organized visually regardless
of how the letters are produced.”(Walker, 2001). Today, the concept of
typography, as a whole, refers to an indexical system that provides the
interpretant with a set of symbols and structures referring to an
interpretative framework that is contextual, making it an exclusive arrangement
that allows individuals, concerned with the signs being represented, to feel a
communal sense of belonging. This automatically encourages typesetting to be an
integral aspect of identity politics and protests. An example of this is the
Protestant movement in Germany that was represented by the symbolic use of the
Blackletter typeface in significant canonical texts like the Luther Bible.

 

In the contemporary political landscape,
the use of particular typefaces and fonts has become integral in protest
cultures due to the extensive exposure that tools like social media provide. An
example of this phenomenon is the Black Lives Matter movement. This paper will explore
the importance of aesthetics in the contemporary understanding of protests by
focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States of America.
This movement, focused on combating systematic racism and violence against
black individuals, can be seen as a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement,
the Black Power Movement, and the Black Arts Movement, not just due to the largely
similar political concerns but also due to the focus on the concept of creating
a particular aesthetic consciousness as an intrinsic aspect of the struggle
against unjust structures of oppression. This paper is concerned with the
incorporation of the history of Black liberation struggles in the present day
Black Lives Matter movement through the use of typefaces and poster
design.  Another important aspect of this
paper is regarding the importance of typefaces to the ‘branding’ of social
movements across time and mediums (especially social media). The overarching
theme that the research is focused on is the intertwined nature of design and
activism in today’s technologically driven, socio-political climate.

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The concept of art and aesthetics as
being relevant to politics has been an integral part of political philosophy
due to the fact that both of these concepts, in theory, are focused on the idea
of imagining and creating a mass culture. Jacques Rancière, the French
structuralist philosopher, in his work The
Politics of Aesthetics addresses this relationship between these two
significant aspects of culture generation. He
explains the psychology of protest politics as being based on the struggle of
an unrecognized party for equal recognition in the state and its various
institutions. The construction of an aesthetic consciousness automatically
becomes important in this confrontation due to the fact that the conflict is
mainly about the mass perception of society; what is considered as being
acceptable in terms of dialogue and, visual language and communication. Jacques
Rancière argues that art is one way through which society determines its own
sense of inclusivity and exclusivity is by regulating language, deciding what
enters it and what does not, as well as who has access to it and who produces
it. All in all, art, as a whole, conveys a ‘distribution of the sensible’. He
explains that art “…is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and
the invisible, of speech and noise that simultaneously determines the place and
the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what
is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and
the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of
time” (13). Art has its own structure of production and perception, and any
sort of evolution in aesthetics causes an epochal change in the way people
understand and reflect on society and its various institutions. .

In a way, art and literature become a
tool in the hands of both the oppressed and the oppressor used to address their
discord in the public sphere thus ‘creating’ a sense of exclusivity in their
respective circles. This occurs when those perceived as the ‘other’ to the
state’s Self contest the mainstream ideologies. Politics, in this sense, is
‘created’ when the actors concerned raise awareness of the concepts, spaces and
subjectivities that were “not previously identifiable within a given field of
experience, whose identification is thus a part of the reconfiguration of the
field of experience” (35). Today, the field of visual culture and semiotics
provide an understanding of how these political and cultural messages, both
direct and subliminal, are communicated through the visual medium.

This understanding of the constant
interaction of politics and arts is integral to the contemporary view of how
social movements have been constructed over time. According to Fanon in his
text The Wretched of the Earth,
dehumanization of the oppressed occurs when the subjugated group ends up
imitating the dominant body resulting in alienation due to cultural imperialism
and assimilation. In this sense, Fanon states: “The oppressor, through the
inclusive and frightening character of his authority, manages to impose on the
native new ways of seeing, and in particular, a pejorative judgment with
respect to his original forms of existing” (Fanon, 1964). In order to
‘regain’ a sense of history and cultural identity, the oppressed look to the
modes of artistic production as a tool in generating a distinct community with
its own set of ideologies and principles that directly oppose the dominant
narrative. This conscious construction of identities is one that has been
employed by activists time and again.  

The Black Panther party, active in the
United States from 1966 to 1982, can be taken as an example of an alternative
aesthetic. The politics of the Black Panther Party was one that was focused on
the idea of being visible in society. This rigorous struggle to be “seen” and recognized
was the main motivation behind the creation of the image and rhetoric used by
the Black Panthers. According to Bederman, the mainstream society is so
entrenched in the dominant and established cultural and political paradigm that
only “certain types of truths” and “certain possibilities for action” are
“imaginable,”, however,  possibilities
for “dissent and resistance always remain” (24). The Black Panthers focused on
creating an alternative culture opposing the dominant paradigm of White society,
conveying a sense of vibrancy of Black culture through the use of its own
language thus taking power over their representation politically and socially.
This language was articulated both visually and textually in the pages of the
Black Panther newspaper which was regarded by the Black Panthers as an
“instrument of political education” for the main purpose of “countering
misinformation,” as it was “free from the distortion, bias, and lies of the
oppressor controlled mass media.” The paper comprised of information concerning
the Party’s ideologies, news, and political editorials. The layout of the paper
was encoded with cultural signs and various visual images that were
accommodating towards a community that was not literate in the Western
education system and communicated in a language that was not universal.
However, the African American visual and linguistic vernacular can be easily
deduced. A May 1968 article from the newspaper describes the significance of
having a visual narrative as far as conveying their ideological message is
concerned and explains, “The Black Panther Party calls it revolutionary art-this
kind of art enlightens the party to continue its vigorous attack against the
enemy, as well as educate the

masses of black people- we do this by
showing them through pictures” (Foner,1995). The most significant pieces
published in the Black Panther newspaper were designed by its primary artist
and Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas. The encoded visual signs and text in
the images of Emory Douglas led to an important cultural discourse within the
African American community of the time. His artwork illustrated the ‘myth’ of
the party, paying tribute to the signifying tradition of Black figurative
linguistic use. The use of traditional signifiers of the African American
visual paradigm and techniques such as parody and role-reversal were portrayed in
his artwork. The use of visual iconography and art as a way of conveying the
Panther ideology was a direct attack on the concept of the white man’s knowledge
systems that relied on a standardized system of language, script and
vocabulary. This also served as a way to reach the Black community, most of
which was not very well versed in the linguistic traditions of the dominant
social group. Most of the visuals depicted in the newspaper were focused on a conscious
reconstruction of black masculinity as being one that was aggressive and
portrayed a sense of revolutionary rage as opposed to the previously regarded
notions of passivity and non-violence that Martin Luther King Jr. supported. This
visual nature of the Black Panthers’ ideology can be seen as a precursor to the
contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, most of which has been focused on
photography and art as this medium provides them with the means to convey their
message directly to the public all over the world without getting into the trap
of language and translation that automatically places limitations on their
audience.

There is a blatant effort on part of the
Black Lives Matter activists concerned with the movement to relate it to the
historical tradition of demonstrations undertaken by Black campaigners in the
20th Century. An example of this can be seen in the reclamation of
banners and slogans by the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, which were first
used during the 1900s. A banner used by the NAACP during the protests against
black lynching in the 1920s was used again by the artist Dread Scott to
demonstrate against the murders of black individuals by the police. The use of
the same font, color scheme and almost the same content drives the message home
that the threat that lingered over the black community regarding unwarranted
murders that remained unaccounted for during the Jim Crow era, still exists and
is more intimidating due to the evolution of the systematic nature of violence
against people of color.

The construction of an aesthetic
narrative is concerned with the field of visual activism, a form of street
protest that is directly influenced by visual mediums of communication and is
focused on transmitting meaning through visual means. This particular term
‘visual activism’ is borrowed from Zanele Muholi who was the first one to use “…this
phrase as a flexible, spacious rubric to describe her own practice, which
documents and makes visible black lesbian communities in South Africa”
(Bryan-Wilson et al, 2016). Furthermore, the framework of ‘visual activism’ and
the relationship between political art and activism is conveyed through scenes
where the idea of political dissent is portrayed through the use of images and
performance arts that point out direct and subliminal meanings.

An important aspect
of this ‘visual activism’ is the use of text within the images used in
structuring protest movements. Most of the messages used in protest banners and
online are abstract ideas narrowed down to graspable phrases.