Images of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense need no captioning. Black men and women in leather, perfectly rounded afros, guns crossing the torso — the organization’s aesthetics dominate public consciousness. Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party, co-authored by Stephen Shames and Ericka Huggins, presents these photographs as well as more intimate ones of women coordinating free grocery drives, free ambulatory services, or political education classes.
Published last October, Comrade Sisters focuses on the women who made up over two-thirds of the Black Panther Party. Shames’s many portraits, candids, and landscape shots appear alongside first and second-hand accounts; Huggins, an activist and leader in the party, coordinated interviews and tributes that speak to the Panthers’ sense of purpose and community.
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“I had a dream about saying the names of the women of the Black Panther Party, some of whom have never been thanked,” Huggins said during a panel at the Columbia University Institute for Research in African-American Studies last October.
Shames spent seven years taking pictures of the Black Panther Party and was one of the few outside photographers given access to its inner workings. He was a student at the University of California, Berkley, and came into contact with Bobby Seale and the Panthers through his involvement with and photography of student activist groups and anti-war organizing.
The co-founder of the party expressed interest in Shames’s work and the pair developed a working relationship. He photographed the 60 “Community Survival Programs” organized by the party as well as meetings and rallies, many of which were attended, staffed, and run by women.
The words “purpose,” “family,” and “love” come up frequently in their testimonies. “You have to love people to serve them. I was so loved,” said Barbara Easley-Cox of the Philadelphia and International Chapters. “So blessed on this earth because of my sisters, all of us, who came into the Party.” This sentiment, that the Panthers were a family who fueled their service with love for the community, appears in some form across the many recollections.
“The women of the Black Panther Party are not special in some way that separates them from others,” writes Huggins in her introductory remarks for Comrade Sisters. “They are simply women who, whether at 12, 14, 16, 18, or 21, decided that there had to be ‘a way out of no way’ for Black and poor people.”
There are photos of women coordinating sickle cell anemia testing, teaching at freedom schools, and registering Black residents to vote. These programs filled basic needs for Black people across the country and became prototypes for future national- and state-funded efforts. For the Panthers, the goal wasn’t to run a charity organization. Shames notes that the so-called “survival programs” were models for a beloved community. Bags of food distributed at drives were filled with whole chickens and fresh fruits and vegetables as opposed to poor-quality “government cheese.” A photo shows children at a Free Shoe Program opening boxes of brand-new sneakers and shiny leather sandals.
However, the book doesn’t only represent women’s influence in domestic or caregiving roles. Black women can be seen alongside men in courtrooms, at podiums, and in positions of power.
Photos of Communications Secretary Kathleen Cleaver speaking at “Free Huey” rallies in Oakland show the women on the national leadership team. There is a portrait of Afeni Shakur, mother of rapper Tupac Shakur, during the New York 21 trial where she was charged with conspiracy to kill police officers (she was eventually acquitted.) Another photo shows Assata Shakur in her early 20s, several years before she was convicted and escaped to Cuba.
The women in the interviews were there for it all, including the incredible violence enacted on the Panthers by local and state police, the FBI, and the federal government. Cheryl Dawson from the Berkeley Chapter remembers driving by the FBI every morning on her way to feed kids at the Free Breakfast for School Children Program — the program that prompted FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to describe the Panthers as “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.” A photo shows a community center in LA that distributed free breakfast after a police raid.
An account by Lynn French from an Illinois Chapter describes the trauma the Illinois Panther community experienced when Fred Hampton was assassinated on December 4, 1969. “It’s something that never leaves you,” French says.
Connecting past violence and organizing to the present, the women interviewed in the book offer advice to the younger women of today. They urge them to find their community and a way to serve it, but also “encourage girls and women to take care of themselves,” as Cynthia Norwood of the Winston-Salem chapter says. With a preface by Angela Davis and afterword by Alicia Garza, co-founder of the international Black Lives Matter movement, Comrade Sisters highlights the Panther women whose platforms and efforts continue to resonate more than five decades later.