.Portraits of the People

‘Revolutionary Grain’ pictures Black Panthers 50 years on

Documentary photographer Suzun Lucia Lamaina writes in the preface to her book, Revolutionary Grain: Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panthers in Portraits and Stories, “The Black Panthers changed history. Black history, yes, but American history as well. We have all benefited from their dedication, their vision and their hard work. All Power to the People.”

Lamaina grew up “an inner-city kid” in ’60s Philadelphia, where the Black Panther Party had two offices close by. Even as a young person, Lamaina said, “I was aware of what they were doing by serving the community body and soul.” Her life, she said, was “validated and shaped by the cultural, political and musical movements happening during that time, including my opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Later, as a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute, she studied with Pirkle Jones, who, along with creative partner and wife Ruth-Marion Baruch, had photographed BPP members in 1968, resulting in the 1970 book, The Vanguard.

All of this influenced Lamaina’s decision to launch a five-year journey across the U.S., speaking to and creating “contemporary portraits of former Black Panthers now in their wisdom years.” Revolutionary Grain was published in 2016, and its photographs and stories are the subject of an exhibition at Oakland’s Black Panther Party Museum from now through April 2024. Of the book’s 64 silver gelatin prints, 34 are on display in the exhibition.

Lamaina determined to photograph at least one Panther from each chapter across the United States. The book’s photographs represent chapters from Washington, D.C., to Oakland and San Francisco/Marin County, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and also include Philadelphia, Baltimore and Harlem. “It was important [to me] that the book represent an equal number of Panther Sisters and Brothers,” Lamaina said.

One of the first tasks was finding the book’s subjects. “Several Panthers had been my comrades for years before I published the book. They put me in touch with other Panthers,” she said. She wrote letters and emails explaining who she was and what she was doing. 

“For the first time, many of the rank-and-file members would have an opportunity to speak in their own words,” Lamaina said. Once interviews were arranged, she met with the subjects in a variety of settings and under different time constraints. Sometimes she was able to spend an entire day with the subject, sometimes the individual only had half an hour. Once, she said, she met with six Panthers at one time in a Los Angeles restaurant and found ways to make each portrait unique.

In every case, she asked five questions of the subject. The answers became the narratives accompanying the photos, which are also part of the Oakland exhibition. 

These questions were:

1) What year did you join the Black Panther Party/What chapter were you part of?/How old were you? Noted Lamaina, “Some Panthers were as young as 15.”

2) What was your role in the Black Panther Party?/What kind of work did you do?

3) How did your role/work in the Black Panther Party change your life?

4) What are some of your fondest memories (if any) of being in the Black Panther Party?

5)  As a servant of the People, what kind of work have you done since your days as a Party member that reflects your commitment to serving the People body and soul?

She received some provocative and moving answers to these questions. 

Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor and activist, told her, “My memories of our powerful solidarity—as comrades, as revolutionaries, as lovers in the Black Panther Party, are indelible.”

Ronald (Elder) Freeman, who died in 2014, was a field secretary for the BPP. He told her, “My mother, Glathy Ann Flowers, was an extraordinary person; she was part of the Marcus Garvey movement back in the 1920s and ’30s. She raised me to understand right from wrong and that it was wrong to exploit, it was wrong to abuse and that all the injustices that were being put upon Black people were wrong. I wanted to be part of the radical change within the Black community, so that’s why I was ready to join the Party.”

And Clark Bailey, founding member of the legendary BPP singing group the Lumpen, said, “My fondest memories of my days in the Party are of having served my people in the community, and the many hours that I spent with Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. He was the most brilliant person I have ever known, and I learned so much from him! Reflecting back, I see the many changes in our society that I am proud to say that I was part of making; it’s now American history.”

Lamaina asked each of her subjects where they would like to be photographed. She didn’t ask them to wear specific clothing. To relax them, she’d open a conversation, which sometimes “wasn’t even about the BPP,” she said.

In the case of Elbert “Big Man” Howard, a BPP founding member, Lamaina asked about his favorite jazz, knowing it would help break the ice. “I can see the changes in body language,” she said, “so I know when to press the button.”

The current exhibition is the seventh time the photographs have been shown, in various sites across the country. “The reaction to the exhibition currently on view at the [Black Panther Party Museum] in Oakland has been very positive,” Lamaina said. “It’s important that anyone who views the exhibition spend time looking and reading, because the process of viewing is about engaging with each picture.” (Note: Regular viewing days/hours will start in January.)

The book is currently out of print, having sold out its first edition, and Lamaina is seeking another publisher. “I regularly get requests from folks, not just in the U.S. but all over the world, to purchase the book, so a second edition needs to be published,” she said. 


‘Revolutionary Grain: Celebrating the Spirit of the Black Panthers in Portraits and Stories,’ Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation/Black Panther Party Museum, 1427 Broadway, Oakland. Beginning in January, open Wed-Sat,10am to 3pm. Free. To inquire about or purchase prints: email [email protected].

2 COMMENTS

  1. I am happy to see Susanna’s excellent and moving photos of one of the most important groups in America’s history are again on display and not just of the Panther leadership but of rank and file members across the country.

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  2. hi, please let me know if anyone has an extra print copy of this edition, thanks a lot, andrea

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