“Someone to claim us, someone to follow
Someone to shame us, some brave Apollo
Someone to fool us, someone like you
We want you, Big Brother
–David Bowie “Big Brother”
“Dear 1968…From 1984,” reads a graphite drawing in Sadie Barnette’s current exhibition Do Not Destroy at Baxter Street at CCNY. The drawing appears as if written as a warning or a love letter from George Orwell’s dystopian (and, increasingly documentary) novel 1984. Orwell’s 1984, even though published in 1949, could not feel more prescient today. Or in 1968, for that matter. The drawing, which resembles a print with its flawless script, refers to the FBI surveillance of Barnette’s father–Rodney Barnette–who founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968.
This ongoing narrative of the surveillance of people of color, deemed radical by the state, just proves the United States’ perpetual suffering from sociopolitical amnesia. They say, history is written by its victors, and unfortunately, these victors frequently wield institutional control. As a whole, Do Not Destroy takes aim at this politics of memory by forcing viewers to confront the surveillance of black (and queer) activists, as well as reclaims this narrative for a new generation. The exhibition also presents a family story–if the collective American consciousness forgets about the institutional surveillance of the Black Panther Party, their families won’t–and they’ll talk back.
Curated by Alexandra Giniger, Do Not Destroy centers around a 500-page document, revealing the FBI’s surveillance of Rodney Barnette, acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. In a father/daughter conversation for the Oakland Museum of California’s blog, in honor of the museum’s inclusion of the artist’s first installation using this official material in their show All Power To The People: Black Panthers At 50, Rodney Barnette explains his motivation to see the file: “I wanted to learn what role FBI informants had in trying to destroy the Black Panther Party and what personal contact I may have had with these different agents. I was surprised at how many informants they had within the Party itself. At least eight informants were mentioned in my files alone.”
Part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a covert program started in the 1950’s, these papers chillingly trace the years-long surveillance of Barnette by J. Edgar Hoover’s forces. Hoover’s name appears several times in the documents, along with several redacted informants and interviews with Barnette’s employers, neighbors and almost everyone he came into contact with.
It should be said the Black Panther Party continues to hold a fearsome place in the (white) American imaginary. Naturally, this is as racist as it is unfair and connected to the manipulation of the Black Panthers’ public image by the government. Many forget that the Black Panthers were founded, much like Black Lives Matter, to protect a community under siege by police violence.
In her article “LGBT Rights and the Black Panthers: The Queer Revolution Begins With Self Love,” for Queer Women of Color Media Wire, Carolyn writes, “To this day it, is still so shocking to me that so many negative words were attached to the Black Panthers for having the gall to love their community enough to make it their job to protect it. Imagine that. The original BPP believed it was their job to make sure children had food to eat, were properly tested for diseases, had affordable housing, and so on. They also believed it was their job to educate members of the black community on their rights, and arm them with resources that would enable them to thrive in America.”
Two enlarged photographs in Do Not Destroy trace Rodney Barnette’s personal transition into the Black Panther Party, conflating his desire to protect his community with his military service. In fact, it’s a downright American story. In their conversation for the Oakland Museum’s blog, Rodney Barnette recalls, “I was in Vietnam for 13 months. I got wounded in Vietnam and saw a lot of bloodshed. People died around me and in my arms. I returned to the United States to attend my nephew’s funeral who got killed in Vietnam. I went to LA and was horrified to see how the police were treating people in the Black community. There were unjustified shootings; police were conducting the same kind of military operations that we were conducting in Vietnam. As a soldier, it was not acceptable to just take that. Fortunately, I found the Black Panther Party, and they had a lot of community activity and programs for kids. I said, ‘Well, this is the way I’ll fight back—I’ll join the Black Panthers,’ and I did…”
Hung side by side, one photograph depicts a young Barnette adorned in his military uniform, standing bold straight and a little awkward in his family living room. Nearby, the second photograph of Barnette reveals his transformation into another uniform–the Black Panther’s trademark leather jacket and black cap. By showing these two photographs together, Sadie Barnette not only traces the increased activism of her father, but also the close relationship between his military service and his service to protect his community as a Black Panther.
Opposite these photographs, Do Not Destroy’s central–and most breath-taking–installation is My Father’s FBI File, Project II, which consists of rows upon rows of papers from the 500-page FBI file. Rather than merely appropriating these papers, Barnette scattered glittery girlie decals and rhinestones on a selection of documents, as well as sprayed bursts of pink aerosol paint in random splashes and splotches. More than just adding a feminine touch to these bureaucratic documents, giving some indication of her artistic hand and reclaiming her family’s history, this intervention also protects the clarity of the document’s original content. This is a deft move, considering the historical importance of these papers and their risk of suppression.
The text of the FBI file unmistakably captivated viewers. The day I visited the gallery, the handful of other viewers squatted, strained and slowly maneuvered their way through the text on the wall. I can’t recall another occasion in which so many gallery-goers were reading the entirety of an installation. Being confronted with the surveillance of an American citizen by the American government, obviously, struck a nerve.
And I know why. While I knew the Black Panther Party members, along with others like John Lennon and James Baldwin, were put under surveillance by the FBI, it’s a completely different experience when you’re looking at direct evidence of this spying firsthand. This becomes even more striking when realizing that not only did the FBI watch Barnette, they also directly intervened in his life. For example, one document refers to Barnette living with a woman who was not his wife. This was used to get him fired from his Post Office job, classifying his living situation as “unbecoming of a government employee.” Scary.
This level of surveillance isn’t Michel Foucault’s panopticon from Discipline and Punish, nor is it solely Frantz Fanon’s “Look, a Negro!” interpellation from Black Skin, White Masks. It is a tactical, sanctioned governmental surveillance against activists, namely activists of color. This racialized aspect of surveillance was recently taken up by Simone Browne in her book Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness.
Dark Matters investigates how blackness acts as “as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated and enacted” (9). Not only analyzing blackness as a site of surveillance, Browne also explores how surveillance reifies (and polices) the boundaries of race.
Citing John Fiske, Simone Browne observes in Dark Matter: “John Fiske argues that although Michel Foucault and George Orwell both conceptualized surveillance as integral to modernity, surveillance ‘has been racialized in a manner that they did not foresee: today’s seeing eye is white’” (17). This becomes quite clear when confronted with the wall of FBI documents at Baxter St at CCNY, as well as Barnette’s collage Untitled (Dad on black dot). The collage represents a tiny cut-out photograph of Sadie Barnette’s father on top of a circular spray of black aerosol paint on a large white pictorial field. The formal black-and-white juxtaposition in both the documents and reflects the white regulatory gaze on black radicality and activism. These eyes are, in fact, white.
And straight. The FBI’s surveillance and interference not only dealt with the boundaries of race, but also sexuality. One document in My Father’s FBI File, Project II states: “In 1972, he held a leadership position in the Angela Davis Defense Committee. [redacted] on 1/10/72 stated Barnette is a homosexual and frequently associates with Mardi Buddy Clark, a member of the CP in Sonoma and also is homosexual.” These phrases were not merely included, but they were also underlined as if understood as incredibly important. It’s an eerie inclusion that shows how sexuality was policed, along with race. (It is important to note that Rodney Barnette went on to open the first black-owned gay bar in San Francisco in the 1990s–as if he wasn’t already a role model).
By her kitschy feminine accents and bursts of neon color, Sadie Barnette emphasizes that these documents are being put forth to the public by a daughter. Tracing how these histories are passed down through generations, My Father’s FBI File, Project II presents an essential reminder to viewers of an American history that lies buried in the archives. And if we don’t recall these narratives, well, then, we’ll be doomed to repeat them. By asserting her own and her family’s history, Sadie Barnette breathes new life into the old activist standby “the personal is political.” As she said to her father in the Oakland Museum of Art conversation, “Our family history is African American history is American history.”
And looking forward to four long years of the Trump/Pence administration, Do Not Destroy presents an important reminder–not only the reality that the government will closely watch any dissent, but also that, as one drawing in Do Not Destroy states, “We all we got.”