On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Aissata Bah ’20 pulled up the Google Image search results for “the black panther party” on the screen in Kemper Auditorium and urged the audience to think about what themes were prominently featured in the Google results. After allowing the audience to talk for a few minutes, Bah pointed out the strong presence of guns, violence, and masculinity in the first several rows of the results page, as well as the distinct lack of black women in the photos. [a]
“When I say that the media image of the Black Panther Party is hypermasculine, I mean that the media image of the Black Panthers is one that emphasizes an exaggerated masculinity with particular emphasis on depicting aggression. So when you think of what guns epitomize, we think of violence and aggression. And the fact that all of our pictures of the Black Panther Party contain a gun, what does that say about what society and the media wants us to think about the Black Panther Party?” said Bah.
Bah made these observations in her Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) presentation entitled “Disempowered in Black Power? Black Women’s Contributions to Activist Movements,” which focused on providing a fuller history of black activist and civil rights movements. Bah is one of several CAMD Scholars this year, a program sponsored by the CAMD office that allows selected students to research topics of diversity and multiculturalism. Bah has the distinction of being this year’s Barbara Landis Chase CAMD Scholar and presented her talk, per tradition, on Monday, January 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Throughout her presentation, Bah explained her research on black women’s dynamic roles in activism by presenting historic visual artwork and analyzing portrayals of black women in both the Black Panther and contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.
“Within [the Google] images [of the Black Panther Party], you see that women aren’t really portrayed at all—it’s predominantly men…. It makes it seem as if there weren’t women involved at all, and that’s something that I wanted to kind of question and unpack in my research…. I think with Black Lives Matter, there’s kind of a similar thing with women being excluded from the conversation surrounding who’s a victim of state violence,” said Bah.
Bah attributed her inspiration for her research to what she felt was an inadequate representation of the Black Panther Party and other black civil rights movements in her History classes. Bah sought to dig deeper into the narrative of the Party and connect that history with her own experiences and understanding of the modern Black Lives Movement.
“Even in the history textbooks that I was looking at and the curriculum that was being taught to me and presented to me, I just didn’t see any women. What I saw was the criminalization of the [Black Panther Party] movement—there are textbooks that will blatantly call it black nationalist…. I think the impact of me living in this era of Black Lives Matter also had an impact on my desire to really critically assess what the Black Panther Party was and who it was. I wanted to see and compare the ways in which Black Lives Matter was similarly criminalized and combated in the media,” said Bah.
Bridget Tsemo, Instructor in English, advised and challenged Bah through her process as a CAMD Scholar by questioning her research and guiding her towards further success by unveiling the nuances in Bah’s research and presentation.
“I know that Aissata is more than capable of doing something spectacular. In the beginning it was great, but I knew we could be spectacular. So I would push her and ask her questions that would get her to think a little bit deeper about the project very early on… I think my role was one of helping her to think of this as [a] scholarship and being a scholar and being a researcher,” said Tsemo.
Bah inspired her proctee, Chi Igbokwe ’21, with her presentation and work as a CAMD Scholar. She thought the presentation benefitted from elaboration on the work of the Black Panther Party with the Oakland County Day School in Oakland, Calif.
“[Bah] talked about the Oakland County Day Schools and how those kids were exposed to black activism in the city, and I was just thinking about [how] Angela Davis is coming to our school next month. I think it’s interesting how time has changed and now the only real way to get exposure to icons like that is through higher education that people have to pay for, as opposed to those people just being people in your community that these more inner city schools like had access to,” said Igbokwe.
Leverett Wilson ’23, an audience member at Bah’s talk, also found that attending CAMD scholar presentations like Bah’s are approachable ways to become more informed about and involved with the community.
“I think it was really interesting to be informed about culture and history. And I’m not always the biggest history buff in history class, but going to a presentation is just great to learn more and really feel like you’re being involved. I always come out of there learning more,” said Wilson.
Tsemo highlighted Bah’s connections of the past, present, and the future in her presentation and emphasis on how the nature of activism has evolved over time. The relationship between these different times give her presentation strength, according to Tsemo.
“What I like about her presentation is that she’s saying this Black Lives Matter movement didn’t just come out of the air, these issues around female representation didn’t just happen—where we are with representation isn’t something that happened in the 20th century or the 21st century. We have this [as] an evolution, and so some things have stayed the same, and some things have changed, even if in a small way. We can use what we know from the past to inform what we need to understand about the future,” said Tsemo.
Bah hopes her presentation will motivate audience members to reflect on their internal biases and critique simplistic narratives of history in favor of a more representative history.
“I think another really important thing that we need to do is recognize the mass media as an enforcer of systemic oppression, and not exclude that from a conversation of what oppression can look like…. We have to undergo, I think, a revolution of our minds and also in practice so that black women can finally start getting the representation that they deserve.”
Editor’s Note: Aissata Bah ’20 is the Chief Financial Officer of The Phillipian.