This article is based on the episode “Women of the Black Panther Party Mural (Side A)” from Assata’s Chant and Other Histories anthology and the first original series by multipurpose production house Nello, founded by MIP contributor Weyland McKenzie-Witter. The series can be found on all podcast streaming apps (Apple, Spotify, Google, and YouTube via Black Power Media) and for more background on the anthology, read the editor’s introduction on MIP or visit Nello’s website.
In this episode of Assata’s Chant and Other Histories, Nello goes to the West Oakland Mural Project, California, and talks with the project’s “conduit” and curator Jilchristina Vest, about the Black Panther Women and Party Mural and its history. Weyland McKenzie-Witter, Nello’s founder, lived on that same street a month before they did the interview.
Weyland recalls: “I stayed in West Oakland (approximately 1 min walk from the Mural House) while conducting research and producing episodes for series two of Assata’s Chant and Other Histories. I selected that neighborhood specifically because it was close to the bust of Dr. Huey P Newton and West Oaklands ties to the party, but I was not aware of the existence of the Mural House or that the street I was staying on was where Huey was assassinated. I was told this a couple of weeks into my stay after striking up a conversation with a Black woman who had lived in the neighborhood for years. The Mural House was something I saw every day on my way to the BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] station, and the powerful images stood strong in an area battling poverty and gentrification. My first proper look at the house revealed to me Assata’s Chant on the wall, and already having selected the name for this series, I was compelled to arrange an interview with the woman behind the house.”
In 2000, Jilchristina bought the building and her home located in the heart of Black Panther Country. It took two and a half years to renovate – with her friends tearing down walls and pulling out toilets – because she did not have much money.
The 2020 BLM summer was such a deep and dark, depressing time, with the Whitestream media rinsing the George Floyd lynching video ad nauseam. “It’s so easy for Black people to be reminded of our oppression. It’s everywhere,” says Jilchristina. “And I think that is a tool of oppression that we either accept or deny.”
She felt compelled to show up in a way that was healing for her and her community. That translated to doing something that celebrated Black joy and demonstrated Black excellence. “I, like many people living in black bodies, was suffering from a lot of grief and a lot of rage. And I needed something to balance that,” says Jichristina. Instead of being “reminded of my oppression,” says Jilchristina, “let me do something that reminds myself of my greatness. And if I’m reminded that, my community will be reminded as well.” Out of that came the mural and mini museum.
The Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) has a rich history that was born in Oakland in October 1966. “Prior to this mural, there was nothing in Oakland that celebrated them. Nothing, that memorialized their greatness, and what it was that they were doing,” says Jilchristina. “So the mural then became an expression of what the Panthers were doing versus a place to come and find out what was done to the Panthers.”
The mural focuses exclusively on the Women of the Black Panther Party (WBPP), who made up the largest proportion of BPP membership, and the party’s darker-skinned sisters. “So, this actually is just a mural for the Black Panther Party when you think about it, even though it is dedicated to the women; and it’s dedicated to the women because they were invisible,” Jilchristina affirms.
“I was looking for visibility for myself, as a Black woman, and trying to combat the constant and ongoing invisibility of Black women, that’s perpetuated by everybody… And women made up 70% of the Black Panther Party… during the Panther reign, these women and the men have told me – they knew they were predominantly women. They understood that the majority of the comrades were women, that it wasn’t ‘oh, women over there, go do this. And men over here, go do that.’ They did everything together. But what I have said in response to that, why doesn’t anybody else know that?
These facts are not widely known and echo past concerns of women regarding retelling the WBPP and BPP history. In the essay, Women, Power, and Revolution (1998), Kathleen Neal Cleaver (law professor and former communications secretary for the Panthers) writes that “according to a survey Bobby Seale did in 1969, two-thirds of the members of the Black Panther Party were women. I am sure you are wondering why isn’t this the image that you have of the Black Panther Party? Did you read those articles planted by the FBI in the newspaper? Did you listen to the newscasters who announced what they decided was significant, usually, how many Panthers got arrested or killed? How many photographs of women Panthers have you seen?”
For Jilchristina, the mural becomes a mural for the Black Panther Party and not just the women, even though it is dedicated to women. As Angela Davis points out in the foreword to the book Comrade Sisters: Women of the Black Panther Party: “There has been a tendency to forget that the organizing work that truly made the Black Panther Party relevant to a new era of struggle for liberation was largely carried out by women.”
While the project was Jilchristina’s vision, she said it became very clear soon into the process that this was driven by something way bigger than she was. So she turned to two other Black women to co-create the project.
The first person she contacted was Ericka Huggins, the party’s longest-serving female Panther member and leader.
Jilchristina recalls: “She is somebody that I’ve shared community with for many years. And as a Black Panther, she was somebody that I had to reach out to because this isn’t my story. So I had to ask permission to tell it and highlight it. And in order for it to be told accurately, and respectfully, it had to be told by the women who were there… And then her then reaching out to all of her comrades and getting their okay and coming back and saying, yes, it’s a go. And then her walking side by side with me during the entire process to make sure that it never became about me; I wanted these women’s names, these women’s voices, these women’s stories, and these women’s histories to be at the forefront.”
The trio’s third member is archivist, collector, curator and publisher Lisbet Tellefsen.
“I called Lisbet Tellefsen, who’s Ericka’s partner. And everything here in the museum that you see is hers. She produced all of this; she framed these photographs and laminated these posters and created these banners. And when the museum idea kind of solidified, I called her and asked her for her help, and she’s like, absolutely. I have everything that you need to create a museum. And so the three of us have been, you know, the minds and the mavens behind this. Yeah. All three of us.”
The mural displays names of Women in the BPP (WPP) – nearly 300 names – the “most comprehensive collection of names ever cataloged.” When the project started, it was called the #SayHerName Women of the Black Panther Party Mural. In honor of the #SayHerName movement in dedication to Sandra Bland.
“The whole project started out of the invisibility of Breonna Taylor; she was murdered two and a half months before George Floyd. Nobody took to the streets for her outside Louisville, Kentucky. She eventually became the name of the rebellions of 2020. But as a Black woman, experiencing that delay over and over again is really devastating. The murder of Sandra Bland gave birth to say her name movement when she was murdered in 2015,” says Jilchristina as she began crying. “And that was the beginning of this process. For me, Sandra Bland,#SayHerName and invisibility of Black women, all of that.”
“And it’s the importance of these women… whether sometimes it’s their daughter that walks up and sees their mother’s name on the wall, it’s an, you know, a niece that says, ‘That’s my auntie.’ Again, it’s the reinforcement that these women who’ve been invisible for all this time – they existed, their stories matter, their names matter – and to be able to walk up to the house, and read a name out loud, recognize the name, speaks them into existence.
Jilchristina talked with her neighbors before and during the Mural House creation process, going door to door in the Black community. She intended to create something beautiful that people would talk about when talking about West Oakland.
“it used to be ‘oh, wow, you live in West Oakland; are you afraid to get shot?’ Eye roll, and now it’s like, ‘oh, you live in West Oakland. Do you know where the Mural House is? Have you been, have you been? ‘So it’s a complete shift in tone and a complete shift in demeanor? And it’s, you know, brought a lot of joy. In the fundraising and the food giveaways, the community, the immediate community, benefits from that every time. So it’s a, it’s a project for West Oakland. Everybody is experiencing it, and everybody is coming to see it.”
Assata’s Chant features on the wall of the Mural House. Jilchristina, whose known the Chant for so long, made a protest sign with the Chant on, a tattered, worn, rained-on placard that she’s taken to countless protests. The Chant speaks to her as a responsibility, and she hopes it speaks to everybody in that way.
“It’s all about holding yourself accountable for how it is that you’re participating in your oppression, how you’re participating in your liberation, and how that resonates and has a butterfly effect to your entire community.”
“So what it means to me is it’s like the purest expression of what’s real. There’s nothing, there’s nothing missing from that Chant. Everything that we need to know to get free is in that Chant… It’s the simplest thing, yet a most complex, and I think that, you know, that’s why it resonates with people so much as the simplicity of it. Um. But it’s so deep at the same time.”
The West Oakland Mural Project is located at the corner of Center Street and Dr. Huey P. Newton Way in Oakland, California.
Assata’s Chant and Other Histories is also an installation based on the audio series at Roundhouse Bar and Cafe in London from Sunday, 6 November – Monday, 5 December.