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Power, Fists, Guns, Books: Black Power & Book Cover Design

by Josh MacPhee

I must have been nineteen when I was first handed a copy of Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s Black Power (1), a book which was already 25 years old at that point. As a white kid from small town New England, the politics were striking, and challenging. As someone with an eye towards aesthetics, the cover was simple yet profound: a white field, the center crowded—almost to exploding—with the giant words “Black Power” in a thick, slab-serifed type. The authors’ names and book subtitle stack above and below, in a more elegant, thin sans-serif. That’s it. No images, no frills. The ten big black letters of the title completely dominate the white background, as if to say “That’s all, folks!”

1. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1967). Cover design by Lawrence Ratzkin.

Since I started designing book covers myself in the early 2000s, I’ve been collecting covers I like and trying to sort out and understand why some are so much more effective than others.

The cover to Black Power is surprisingly successful, such a simple treatment—almost elegant—for a text that caused massive conflict and defines the transition from the non-violent Civil Rights Movement to the much more militant Black Power Movement in the United States. The initial 1967 Random House first edition dust jacket was created by Larry Ratzkin, a well-known graphic designer who turned out upwards of a thousand book covers. Ratzkin passed away in 2011, and in all of the easily accessible material about him and his work I could find—including multiple Flickr groups, other online image collections, and obituaries—there is not a single mention of his cover for Black Power.

This is a bit odd, since all US editions of Black Power in the almost fifty years since its initial publishing—including the mass market paperback that following quickly on the heels of the cloth first edition, and the new trade paperback published in 1992 (on which Carmichael’s name has been changed to his taken name of Kwame Ture)(2)—have used facsimile recreations of Ratzkin’s original design. It’s almost impossible to find out how many copies a popular book have sold—and my calls and emails to Random House asking about it have gone unanswered—but my guess is that for Black Power, that number is close to a million. It is still being assigned to dozens of high school and university classes as a textbook. This has to be the most seen and trafficked cover of Ratzkin’s long career, yet it is never associated with him.

2. Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992). Cover design based on original by Lawrence Ratzkin.

This lack of recognition gets to the crux of why this cover is so interesting. It is completely ubiquitous, yet in today’s field of full color, photographic covers and unique hand-designed type treatments, it is understated and almost unremarkable. While I was so struck by the cover as a kid, I’ve asked a group of friends what they think about it; while all of them can recall the design, none have had any particularly sharp memory of or thoughts about it. It does exactly what design professionals argue “good design” should do: it communicates a simple message in an unassuming way, doing its work without drawing attention to itself. Yet at the same time, it has none of the individual and creative flair that designers secretly, and not so secretly, truly love.

For me, the efficiency of the cover appears so natural that any other cover is hard to imagine. This design has come to embody the political moment in the late 1960s when Black people en masse decided to take their struggle for liberation to the next level. But like the changes in the Movement, Ratzkin’s cover didn’t come out of nowhere. Designers of varying degrees of skill had been attempting to articulate the Civil Rights Movement on book covers since the 1950s and the early 60s.

Designing Civil Rights

As we trace the history of graphic representations of the Civil Rights Movement, we see The earliest use of a contemporary sense of the term “Black Power” in book publishing is likely with the 1954 release of Richard Wright’s book of that title (3), a journalistic account of his travels to the Gold Coast—which would a few years later decolonize and rename itself Ghana. The dust jacket of the hardback (a paperback wasn’t published until 1995) is an interesting document of transition. Contra the title itself, the words are in white, and sit not on a black background, but a field of earthen stripes. The cover is decidedly pre-Civil Rights Movement, as Black Power is fundamentally not represented as a struggle between Black and White—as it would be clearly defined only a couple years later.

3. Richard Wright, Black Power (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954). Cover design unattributed.

As the Movement develops, and the conflict between Black and White Southerners becomes more acute, the representation of the struggle begins to look more monochromatic. Ten years later, Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography Black Boy (4) is released in a mass market edition with a cover dominated by an illustration of a large black fist. The cover simultaneously illustrates Wright’s youthful rebellion and association with the organized resistance of the Communist Party, but it also connects this earlier era of Black resistance to the then-contemporary Civil Rights Movement, in which the raised fist was fast becoming a popular symbol. But even on this cover the transition to black and white binaries isn’t complete, as the fist is actually a rich purple, combining a lines of many colors to compose the blackness of the hand.

4. Richard Wright, Black Boy (New York: Signet, 1964). Cover design unattributed.

On the cover to The Angry Black South (5), we see an early design articulation of the starkness of the Southern conflict. It is almost an inverse of the cover of Carmichael’s Black Power—the black background encloses the title, rendering it weak, and strangely leaving the Black South articulating itself in white. While the words “Black Power” are clearly the active subject of Ratzkin’s cover, here the title acts more as an object, adrift in the background. There is a conflict between the politics of the book and the design concept: the black and white binary pits the title and the background against each other, yet we are supposed to identify both with the Black protagonists. This confusion weakens the design. This tension between black and white is better rendered and further developed in the cover for C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow (6). This design structures whiteness as a tear into the black background, more effectively making a visual argument about the violence of Jim Crow and legal segregation.

5. Glenford E. Mitchell and William H. Peace III, eds., The Angry Black South: Southern Negroes Tell Their Own Story (New York: Corinth Books, 1962). Cover design unattributed.

6. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957). Cover design by David Lyons.

Janet Halverson’s design for the cover of Lerone Bennett, Jr.’s Confrontation: Black and White (7) is strong example of the increasing codification of the visual binary of black and white, but also absence and presence. Here abstract shapes coalesce into a white and black head, with eyes suspiciously looking towards each other. The white shape is placed in front of the black one, simultaneously defining the outline of a white head, but also cutting into—or erasing—a portion of the black one. The distrustful eyes reject all possibility of a middle ground, their brown and blue colors just as polarized as black and white. We see the same distrustful eye on the cover of Bennett, Jr.’s epic history of Black America, Before the Mayflower (8).

7. Lerone Bennett, Jr., Confrontation: Black and White (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1966). Cover design by Janet Halverson. Cover design unattributed.

8. Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1966). Cover design by Janet Halverson.

All of these early covers avoid any sort of direct representation of the effects of white racism. This changes with the design of James Peck’s Freedom Ride (9). The giant words “Freedom Ride” share the cover with a photograph of a bus on fire.

9. James Peck, Freedom Ride (New York: Grove, 1962). Cover design by Roy Kuhlman Associates.

The photograph, by an unknown photographer, is one of the most well-known images of mass violence committed against the Civil Rights Movement, a firebombing of a bus filled with Freedom Riders in Alabama. Rather than support each other, the image and text compete for attention. They are not only equally compelling visually, but are incongruous politically: the title claims “Freedom,” while the image illustrates setback and temporary defeat. This might make a strong political point—quite possibly unintentional—but it also detracts from the import of both visual elements on their own. In addition, no matter how big you make the words Freedom Ride, as a phrase it can’t compete with the sheer weight of the term Black Power.

Louis E. Lomax’s The Negro Revolt (10) seems a bridge between Peck’s and Carmichael’s book covers. The same bus from the former cover has shrunk even further, and rather than competing with title, leads us into it. The title, on the other hand, has a similar problem as Freedom Ride—Lomax wants to say “Black Power,” but the phrase hasn’t been coined yet in its Civil Rights usage, the words have yet to rise to meaning. And maybe because of this, the letters can’t simply be bold and black. They need the red and yellow underlays that make them pop and stand out from the rest of the text on the cover.

10. Louis E. Lomax, The Negro Revolt (New York: Signet Books, 1963). Cover design unattributed.

By the mid-1960s, images of Black bodies being beaten by white police in the South were saturating the covers of newspapers and demanding the attention of television viewers. Today when Civil Rights is evoked, many minds go right to these images of ruthless cops water-hosing marchers, or letting dogs loose on young Black men. It’s fascinating that this visual language is conspicuously absent on the book covers of the day. It is the image of an attack on a bus—not bodies—that is prominently featured. The closest representation of the more abject violence I’ve found is on the cover of the very early Revolt in the South, published by Target Books, a short-lived imprint of Grove Press (11). And even here, the image is heavily obscured by the title and cover text.

11. Dan Wakefield, Revolt in the South (New York: Grove Press/Target Books, 1960). Cover design unattributed; cover photo c/o United Press International.

Black Power on a World Stage

All of this brings us back to the visual power of Ratzkin’s original design. It was so strong that not only has it consistently been used on all editions in the U.S., variations of it have been used on a number of foreign editions, including an almost exact copy on the 1968 West German edition (15).

The UK editions of the book also evolve from Ratzkin’s basic design, but don’t have the same simplicity and power—possibly because the phrase Black Power meant something slightly divergent there, where the Movement is demographically different and motivated by unique social conditions. The hardback dust jacket (12) uses big, bold black letters, but rather than seeming to break off the page, by being trimmed on all sides they instead appear caged. The red block on the bottom sits on top of the title, again pushing it backwards, and the authors’ names float inert in the field of red. The 1969 paperback (13) moves even further from the U.S. design. The title is still imposing and in black, but it floats on an American flag, something wholly unnecessary on the U.S. edition. While effective, it is much less efficient. The black that fills the rest of the cover also confounds. While it makes sense for the design in the abstract, in terms of content it undermines the power of the words on the flag. Rather than Black Power standing up to the overwhelming power of U.S. white society, here it is the U.S. that appears small, weak, and threatened by a sea of Black. In contrast, Black Power U.S.A. (14)—another Penguin book published the same year—replaces the white in the flag with black, hastily colored-in as if with a grease pen. This reads as more evocative, as it is a much more integral change to a dominant symbol of U.S. power, but it also makes that change feel hasty, raw, unprocessed.

12. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968). Cover design by Timothy Jacques.

13. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969). Cover design by Patrick McCreeth.

14. Lerone Bennett, Jr., Black Power U.S.A. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969). Cover design by George Klauber/Blumenstock.

15. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (Berlin: Günther Verlag, 1968). Cover design based on U.S. original.

An early French edition (17) is simply black text on a light grey background, but I suspect it owes more to the standards of continental book design than any specific affection for the Ratzkin cover. The same seems true for the Mexican edition (18), which appears to have a cover dictated by an ongoing series design rather than the specifics of the title. But it does recap—likely unintentionally—the problems with placing Black Power in white on a black background. A new French reprint (16) takes a completely different tact, building the cover around a representation of a political button. This makes some sense in the contemporary context because it evokes a nostalgia for the 60s, something absent from the other covers—but likely absolutely necessary to sell a book about a half-century-old moment in the U.S. history to a French audience. As an aside, the fist featured on the mock button was designed in 1968 by the California Bay Area artist Frank Cieciorka, so it actually post-dates the publication and political strategy of the original book.

16. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Le Black Power (Paris: Payot, 2009). Cover design unattributed.

17. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Le Black Power (Paris: Payot, 1968). Cover design unattributed.

18. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Poder Negro (D.F., Mexico: Siglo Veintiunho Editores S.A., 1967). Cover design by Leopoldo Lozano.

The cover of the Italian edition (19) can only be described as bizarre. The design is strong and solidly modernist, with a set of horizontal stripes holding the authors’ names, book title, image, and publisher info. But the image is more than strange—in the back left we have an odd photo of Carmichael, seemingly shocked—or even horrified—by a mirrored cluster of reaching black hands that dominate the foreground. Is there some sort of critique going on here—is the design suggesting Black Power is a Frankenstein’s monster that Carmichael created but can’t control?

19. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Strategia del Potere Negro (Bari, Italy: Tempi nuovi/Laterza, 1968). Cover design by Castellano.

The individual black fist is a symbol of power, but this cluster of open hands instead evokes zombie hoards. Another early German edition (20) is similarly inscrutable. The image is some sort of logo version of the phrase Black Power—distorted and warped so that the central image appears to be a large black eye with a white pupil. The overall effect recalls a neighborhood watch program far more than a social movement.

20. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: Die Politik der Befreiung in Amrika (Frankfurt: Fischer Bücherei, 1969). Cover design by Hans-Jürgen Spohn.

A Swedish edition (21) sports a hand drawn title and an image of a Black man in revolt. This torch-bearing figure is ambiguous: he could be bringing the light of Black Power to the world, or threatening to burn the shit down. The latter interpretation—and the decision to have the man holding a torch rather than a rifle—directly connects the Black Power revolt to slave revolts two hundred years earlier. While this connection to the history of slavery was omnipresent in the Civil Rights Movement, it is almost entirely absent from the covers of books documenting the Movement. The only overt reference I’ve found is on Alton Hornsby, Jr.’s The Black Almanac (22) which was not only published later, but is an explicitly historical book directly connecting the two periods.

21. Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (Stockholm: Tema, 1968). Cover design by Willy Ytter.

22. Alton Hornsby, Jr., The Black Almanac (Woodbury, NY: Barron’s Education Series, 1972). Cover design unattributed.

The final cover I’ve found is from Barcelona-based publisher Ediciones Peninsula (23). This is my favorite outside of the original. The main element is a purple cityscape, which is dominated by a cascading series of Black Panther Party logos. The design strongly evokes the period, even if the specifics are a bit hazy. Carmichael was briefly in the Black Panthers, but this is hardly a book about them. Then again, this is not exactly a straight translation of the original book, but rather an Italian edition edited by the sociologist Roberto Giammanco and then translated again into Spanish.

23. Roberto Giammanco, ed., Black Power/Poder Negro (Barcelona: Ediciones Peninsula, 1970). Cover design unattributed.

The Black Power Industry

The popularity of Black Power quickly led to a spree of like-minded titles from the publishing industry. Like the original, most of these were produced in mass market editions—modest and cheap paperbacks which would be sold via newsstands and racks at groceries, pharmacies and corner stores as much as through the traditional book trade. Major paperback publishers like Vintage (owned by Random House), Bantam, Dell, and Colliers churned out dozens of titles related to the Black Liberation Movement, as well as reprints of earlier generations of Black intellectuals and popular histories of Black struggles. More aligned with the actual movements, “underground” presses like Grove tried to keep up, publishing non-fiction by Movement authors like Julius Lester as well as novels by Amiri Baraka. 1969 saw the release of two books by Lester, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! and Revolutionary Notes.

When I first discovered Look Out, Whitey! in the mid-1990s, the title alone knocked me out. It was a decade of increasingly intense political correctness, and this raw and direct communication was a lightning bolt. Yet while Look Out, Whitey! (24) has the much cooler title, Revolutionary Notes (25) has a more interesting cover. In its own way, it is an attempt to take the design of Freedom Ride and bring it into a post-Black Power era. The overly tall and lanky sans serif type is the only design element, and while Blackness is present, it’s almost an afterthought. Rather than solid background, the black simply exists as the negative space, the container that holds the title Revolutionary Notes—black is now the default. It’s 1969 and the Black Liberation movement has grown and diversified. Simple words in black can no longer contain it—the new Black is orange, and yellow, and pink.

24. Julius Lester, Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! (New York: Grove Press, 1969). Cover design by Roy Kuhlman Associates.

25. Julius Lester, Revolutionary Notes (New York: Grove Press, 1969). Cover design by Roy Kuhlman Associates.

The design of the updated edition of Louis E. Lomax’s The Negro Revolt (26) attempts the same to less successful effect. The title is still rendered in black and white, but embedded in a strong purple frame. The type references the Mexico 68 Olympics—and thus the Black Power fist event—but also pop culture hip, something reaching outside of a strict Movement context. Yet the decision to not change the title to “Black” hampers the “revolt” part of the equation, since by 1970 issues of rhetoric (the linguistic change from Civil Rights to Black Power) and aesthetics (Black is Beautiful) are so central to the Movement that I can only imagine that to many the maintenance of the word Negro was seen as backward and anachronistic.

26. Louis E. Lomax, The Negro Revolt, Revised Ed. (New York: Perennial Library, 1971). Cover design by Vincent Scotti.

Dozens of mass market paperbacks were released on the heels of Black Power, all trying to ride the success of that book and the power of an idea that rocked U.S. society (27, 28, 31).

27. Floyd B. Barbour, ed., The Black Power Revolt (New York: Collier, 1968). Cover design unattributed.

28. Floyd B. Barbour, ed., The Black Power Revolt (New York: Collier, 1968). Cover design unattributed.

29. William H. Grier and Price M. Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1969). Cover design unattributed.

I’ve collected many, with Bryan Fulks’s The Black Struggle (30) and William Grier and Price Cobb’s Black Rage (29) having two of the more interesting covers. Fulks’ is noteworthy because it images the Black rebel, but illustrates a wide-range of Black identities within him, from Martin Luther King to Sojourner Truth, an African villager to a Civil War soldier. The cover of Black Rage, on the other hand, can be read as the anti-Black Power. A young Black man stands alone on the page, bare-chested and fists clenched. The anger and tension is palpable, but the figure is small, swallowed up by the whiteness of the visual field. While the title is large, bold, and black, it is also in Cooper Black italic, which gives it a playful feel incongruous with the subject. But then again, maybe this design is just a retro-casualty of contemporary American Apparel aesthetics.

30. Brian Fulks, Black Struggle: A History of the Negro in America (New York: Laurel Leaf/Dell, 1969). Cover design unattributed.

31. Bradford Chambers, ed., Chronicles of Black Protest (New York: Mentor, 1969). Cover design unattributed.

The Raising of the Fist

The fist-adorned cover of Black Boy I discussed earlier had its own resonances, and by the late 1960s the Black fist had become a powerful visual trope, adding to the linguistic coup of “Black Power.” In fact, the fist became a stand-in for the term, with more ingenious designers letting the image speak instead of the words. The most powerful example is Nathan Wright, Jr.’s Ready to Riot (32). The front of the dust jacket designed by Ronald Faber does away with words altogether.

32. Nathan Wright, Jr., Ready to Riot (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968). Cover design by Allan Peckolick/Herb Lubalin, Inc.; photo by Hugh Bell.

When I found it at a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon, I pulled it out by the spine and BAM, a fist in the face. The black and white photograph is rich with texture on the fingers tightening into the fist; all other details fade into the black background. It’s hard to imagine a more confrontational design at the time. Wright, Jr. was an Episcopal minister who supported Black Power and rose to prominence when he chaired the 1967 National Conference on Black Power in Newark. His role as the radical voice of his congregation is illustrated by the back cover, with a similarly black and white photo, but in this one Wright shakes his fist at the viewer while immersed in a giant pile of wreckage that appears to be a trash heap in the center of a public housing project (34). R.C. Cohen’s biography of Black Power progenitor Robert F. Williams, Black Crusader (33) also contains little but a giant black fist. Here it is in color, and has to share the visual field with the title and author’s name, which makes the overall cover less efficient—and less compelling—than the genius of Ready to Riot.

33. Robert Carl Cohen, Black Crusader: A Biography of Robert Franklin Williams (Secaucus, New Jersey: Lyle Stuart, 1972). Cover design by Nick Frank; photograph by Frederick S. Smith.

34. Nathan Wright, Jr., Ready to Riot (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968). Back cover.

Like Black Power, Wright Jr.’s cover has a prehistory. In the early 1960s a series of books about Black history are released in paperback which feature Black hands. The cover design for the paperback of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America (36) features a stack of Black hands—rendered in a woodblock print—all open and reaching for the sky. Around the same time Herbert Aptheker edited a collection entitled A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (37) with an introduction by Du Bois, and a cover by none other than Larry Ratzkin. The design features three black hands again, all roughly drawn, with one forming a fist.

35. John B. Duff and Peter M. Mitchell, eds., The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). Cover design unattributed.

36. W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (Cleveland: Meridian Books, 1964). Cover design unattributed.

37. Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States (New York: Citadel, 1962). Cover design by Lawrence Ratzkin.

Black history seems to have been a comfortable place to deploy the fist. Bernard Sternsher’s The Negro in Depression and War (38) has a cover designed by Robert Lipman with an insurgent fist which shares the space with an open hand, palm up. The Nat Turner Rebellion: Event and the Modern Controversy (35) attempts to take the fist one step further, photographing it punching through the paper of the cover—the implication being that this book is literally a fist in the face.

38. Bernard Sternsher, ed., The Negro In Depression and War (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969). Cover design by Robert Lipman.

In the aftermath of the shift from the Civil Rights Movement to the Black Power, the Black Panthers emerged as the most visible and media savvy of the new political groupings. They hit the national stage when they paraded on the California State Capital steps in uniform and armed with rifles. With the dissolution of SNCC, Stokely Carmichael briefly joined the Panthers, passing on the torch of Black Power militancy. Yet not a single fist graces the cover of any of the U.S. editions of books by prominent Black Panthers Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, or George Jackson (39-41, 46, 47). The only fist to be found in the Panther pantheon is on the cover of a UK edition of Seale’s autobiography Seize the Time (42). Panther leader David Hilliard uses a fist on his auto-biography, but it isn’t published until 1993 (44). The only gun can be seen on the dust jacket of Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide (39), which features a photo of the Oakland Black Panther offices shot up by the police: but in the smashed window is a photo of Newton holding a gun. For the mass market paperback this image is eschewed for an attractive profile photo of the author (40). Even the cover for Jackson’s Blood in My Eye (47)—basically a manual for urban guerrilla warfare in letter form—eschews guns for smiling photos of the author.

39. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973). Cover design unattributed.

40. Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Ballantine, 1974). Cover design by James Ramage; photograph by Stephen Shames.

41. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time (New York: Vintage, 1970). Cover design by Bob Antler; illustration by Howard Brodie.

42. Bobby Seale, Seize the Time (London: Arrow, 1970). Cover design unattributed.

43. Earl Anthony, Picking Up The Gun (New York: Pyramid, 1971). Cover design unattributed.

44. David Hilliard and Lewis Cole, This Side of Glory (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1993). Cover design unattributed.

Yet both the fist and gun are evoked on the cover of FBI informant Earl Anthony’s “tell-all” book about the Panthers, Picking Up the Gun (43). The marketing of the book takes full advantage of the mystique of Black radicalism, from the big black fist to the evocation of the gun, yet the content is deeply right-wing, a government funded smear campaign supposedly “exposing the truth” about the Panthers. The use of the fist feels more honest on the cover of The Black Panthers by Gene Marine (45). Marine was a senior editor at the left-leaning Ramparts magazine, and his account of the Panthers is far more balanced, nuanced, and sympathetic than Anthony’s. The title on the cover is almost invisible, while a Black figure at the bottom of the frame emerges and raises his arm, moving from rough strokes to a hyper-realist fist in the top left. The Black arm diagonally bisects the cover, and feels awkwardly contained by it—possibly capturing the sense of containment felt by Black people in the U.S.

45. Gene Marine, The Black Panthers (New York: Signet, 1969). Cover design unattributed; illustration by “Hofmann.”

46. George Jackson, Soledad Brother (New York: Bantam, 1970). Cover photographs by Vaughn Covington.

47. George Jackson, Blood in My Eye (New York: Bantam, 1972). Cover photographs by Camilla Smith.

Picking Up the Gun

As militants on the ground began to arm themselves, it was inevitable that those guns would show up on book covers from and about the movement. Stokely Carmichael followed-up on Black Power with a collection of essays entitled Stokely Speaks: Black Power Black to Pan-Africanism (48). The cover—designed by Robert Cuevas—features a photo of Stokely holding a rifle high above his head, his mouth closed and decidedly not speaking—which makes it perfectly clear what is intended to do the talking. The photo is also fully saturated in red, giving the entire ensemble an even more intense vibe.

48. Stokely Carmichael, Stokely Speaks: Black Power to Pan-Africanism (New York: Vintage, 1971). Cover design by Robert Cuevas.

White fear of Black Power is palpable on book covers of the late 60s, early 70s. An image of a shotgun-toting Huey Newton is featured on the cover of Don A. Schanche’s The Panther Paradox (50), as if to illustrate the book’s subtitle, “A Liberal’s Dilemma.” The reality is that although the phase of Panthers roaming the streets shouldering firearms was short-lived, the image was deeply burned into the white psyche. Even a UK edition of Black novelist John A. Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (51) is covered with a stoic Black militant.

49. Fletcher Knebel, Trespass (New York: Pocket books, 1970). Cover art by Lou Marchetti.

50. Don A. Schanche, The Panther Paradox (New York: Paperback Library, 1971). Cover design unattributed; illustration by “Leigh.”

In 1970, a mass market of pop-novelist Fletcher Knebel’s Trespass (49) came out, sporting a Lou Marchetti painting of a crew of rifle-toting Black militants on the cover. From the back cover, “In one swift, coordinated action, armed black militants had occupied the homes of white citizens across the country.” Even more provocative is the cover of Ralph Ginzburg’s 100 Years of Lynchings (52). While the book is a sobering documentary of the history of lynching and white terror through archival newspaper articles, the cover image is a staged photo of a Afro-wearing, leather jacketclad Black militant bearing a rifle and a bandolier of bullets. The implication of the design is made even more direct on the back cover: “Look Out, Whitey…” (53).

51. John A. Williams, Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973). Cover photograph by Humphrey Sutton.

52. Ralph Ginzburg, ed., 100 Years of Lynchings (New York: Lancer, 1969). “Cover posed by professional model.”

53. Ralph Ginzburg, ed., 100 Years of Lynchings (New York: Lancer, 1969). Back cover.

While rifles might have sold some books, they ended up being much less successful to the movement itself. Black groups which armed themselves in earnest were forced underground, and once there, were both hunted by the government and lost connection with people’s everyday struggles in Black communities. Guns would show up again wholesale in Black neighborhoods during the drug war of the 1980s and 90s, with most of them being used to kill Black people, not liberate them.

Blaxsploitation or Black Power

While the political rhetoric of today’s struggles plays out privately on Twitter and Facebook feeds, forty years ago it took place in public, in part on the covers of mass market paperbacks. In the 1960s and 70s, the country was awash in them—available for anywhere from 50¢ to $1.95 on a rotating wire rack at your neighborhood grocery or drug store. These books were bought in the hundreds of thousands, and their covers shaped the opinions of those that bought them—many too busy to ever read the entirety of the book.

The retrieval of these covers from the thrift stores and dumpsters they currently inhabit lets us see just how public and popular these political ideas were. Black Power is even still in print. Many titles of Movement analysis (and sometimes exploitation) are long out of circulation, but their sheer bulk tells us this was middle-of-the-road stuff, popular enough to keep printing well into the 1970s. Black liberation was in the hearts of many, on the tongues of most, and was scaring the shit out of the rest.

As the movement on the ground began to retreat, both from intense government repression and internal struggles and contradictions, the market filled the void. Representations of Black Power overshadowed the people organizing for the real thing. The Panthers were replaced by Blaxsploitation heroes like Shaft and Superfly, and these films spun off book series’ of the same titles, with covers that aped the original Black Liberation mass markets (54).

54. Ernest Tidyman, Shaft’s Big Score (New York: Bantam, 1972).

I look at these book covers and struggle with the feeling that they are a footnote on a history itself seen as insignificant. But given the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rapid spread of broad-based protests against police brutality and murder of young Black people, analyzing the representation of Black militancy in the not-so-distant past might not be such a marginal pursuit. Maybe we can retrieve these images and ideas from the clutches of market-driven postmodernism, and use them to better understand past victories and failures, as well as shape the design of our current efforts.

Josh MacPhee is a designer, artist, and archivist. He is a founding member of both the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative and Interference Archive, a public collection of cultural materials produced by social movements based in Brooklyn, NY (InterferenceArchive.org). MacPhee is the author and editor of numerous publications, including Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Nowand Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics and Culture. He has organized the Celebrate People’s History poster series since 1998 and has been designing book covers for many publishers for the past decade (AntumbraDesign.org).

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