[News] The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Apr 20 10:50:47 EDT 2018


  The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of

by LEJ Rachell <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/lej-rachell/> - 
April 20, 2018

Featured in the education display at the Schomburg’s recent Black Power 
50 exhibit were several illustrations done by an artist not identified 
on the display label. A comic strip of his also prominently displayed in 
the martial arts section is mislabeled. There the artist is identified 
as ‘!Jana-Leo-Na-Kesho!’. That is the name of the book it was 
taken from, though – !/Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow/!, its English 
translation from the Swahili.

The correct name of the artist? Jim ‘Seitu’ Dyson 
<http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/301> (1). Although largely 
forgotten, he was one of the most significant graphic artists of the 
Black Power movement.

The easiest way to describe him is as the East Coast equivalent of the 
Black Panther Party’s (BPP) Emory Douglas 
(2), the illustrator whose work was featured prominently in the BPP 
newspaper and the Schomburg’s exhibit. Seitu, a founding member of the 
New York City (NYC) Black Power group, the EAST, was like Douglas the 
epitome of a “revolutionary artist”. Such artists provided us with a 
pathway to artistic responses for issues that are still relevant to the 
current social and political climate for Blacks in America. They gave us 
the tools to fight the current administration. We need the historical 
context of how such artists responded to these same issues during 
the movement.

Founded in 1969, The EAST was part of a larger community of cultural 
nationalist organizations throughout the country. Closely associated 
with Maulana Karenga’s US organization in Los Angeles, Haki Madibuti’s 
Institute of Positive Education in Chicago and Amiri Baraka’s Congress 
of African Peoples in Newark, the EAST was based in the Bedford 
Stuyvesant <http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/320> section of 
Brooklyn (3). One of the largest Black communities in the city, Bed-Stuy 
was second only to Harlem, then the largest Black community in the country.

According to historian Kwasi Konadu <https://muse.jhu.edu/book/12720> 
(4), The EAST was an attempt to put ideas of self-determination into 
action in particular Kawaida, the philosophy which formed the foundation 
of Kwanzaa. The EAST included a bakery and catering business, book 
and clothing store, printing business, nightclub and record label. At 
the heart of its operations though was its school, Uhuru Sasa Shule, one 
of the first Afrocentric independent Black schools in the country.

EAST members also took Africanized names, usually Swahili. “Seitu” for 
example is Swahili for artist. His work was regularly featured in the 
Black News, an in house newspaper similar to that of the BPP’s. For the 
first few years, Seitu did the covers and majority of inside illustrations.

Whereas much of Emory Douglas’s work is influenced by third world poster 
art, Seitu developed a proto-graffiti style heavily influenced by 
American comic books. Blacks are often portrayed in a superheroic 
fashion by using violence. The villains are agents of racism, corrupt 
government and corporate America. This was at a time when it was rare to 
see Blacks portrayed in that format, in the media in general… especially 
those that win.

Seitu himself, at 6’5, had he been in the Army and was an accomplished 
martial artist (karate, aikido and jujitsu). He also functioned as 
security for the EAST in the equivalent of its honor guard.

Maisha Winn is one of the very few historians to have written about 
Seitu in her article “We Are All Prisoners: Privileging Prison Voices in 
Black Print Culture 
5 While she focuses on Dyson’s work pertaining to the EAST’s efforts at 
prison reform, I focus more on his anti-drug work. His illustrations 
often contained unusually militant anti-drug messages such as “Ice the 
Pusher”, “Dope is Death” and “Death to the Pusher”. Blacks are depicted 
as revolutionaries and urban guerrillas fighting against not just Empire 
but these “internal enemies”.

His work speaks to the underground movement among Black Power activists 
in which they physically fought drug dealers as a means of eradicating 
the growing narcotics plague. Most well known are actions by members of 
the Black Liberation Army such as Dhoruba Bin Wahad and Jamal Joseph. 
There were other such groups throughout the country. In NYC, for 
example, there was the Harlem Youth Federation a.k.a. the Harlem 5, the 
United Brothers of Queens, and the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of 
Racial Equality (Brooklyn CORE). The EAST had its own sub group, the 
Black Ass Kicking Brigade, mentioned briefly in the pages of Black News 
where names and locations of dealers would be published as a warning.

Some may refer to such actions as vigilantism, but at the foundation was 
the main principal of Black nationalism – self determination. If Black 
people were to take control of and ultimately be responsible for what 
goes on in their own community then the narcotics problem would have to 
be taken care of by themselves.

This movement resurfaced in the 1980s during the crack epidemic with 
organizations like the Black Men’s Movement Against Crack (BMMAC). Led 
by former Brooklyn CORE head Sonny Carson 
<http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/305> (6), the BMMAC raucously 
demonstrated at several crack houses throughout Brooklyn to shut them 
down. The BMMAC also included several members of the EAST such as Seitu.

Starting his own private security firm in 1992, Seitu was contracted by 
the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to 
protect buildings being rehabilitated in East New York for low income 
residents. One building in particular was on a block notorious for being 
a drug infested area. Within months of accepting the position, Seitu was 
shot and killed <http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/305> trying to 
peacefully resolve a situation with local drug dealers. (7)

While shining a light on a neglected aspect of the Black Power movement, 
Seitu’s story speaks to the role government agencies/agents and big 
business played in the rise of the drug trade and its consequences, in 
particular the increase in mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos.

Black Power activists were among the first to raise questions and build 
awareness about the complicity of corporate America and government 
agencies in the growth and continuation of the drug trade. This can be 
seen in several of the Black News cover illustrations by Seitu. There 
was an emphasis in his work placed on the role of law enforcement. The 
police in the view of activists could not be counted on because 
the police were part of the problem in that officers often supported and 
protected the dealers.

Sonny Carson for example directly implicated local law enforcement 
(specifically the 73rd and 75th precincts) with protecting and assisting 
drug dealers. These charges were verified by the 1994 Mollen Commission 
and the arrests of several officers from those precincts as depicted in 
the documentary The Seven Five 
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Five>. (8) The 75th precinct is 
also the same area where Seitu was murdered.

Even John Ehrlichman 
former domestic policy chief for President Nixon, has admitted that 
Nixon’s war on drugs was really a war on Blacks and the anti-war left. 
By criminalizing drugs heavily, “we could disrupt those communities.” 
“We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their 
meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we 
know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (9)

There is no reason to believe that Seitu’s murder was anything but an 
unintended consequence of such policies. However, the question still 
needs to be asked – what responsibility do government agencies and 
corporate America have in helping to create such an environment? Given 
the role played by law enforcement how should that affect the release of 
many of those in prison on drug charges? How much was the rise of 
the drug trade in the 1970s and 1980s a response to the Black Power 
movement? How much of the decline of the movement was an intended 
consequence or merely a byproduct? Seitu lived his art. In doing so, his 
story allows us to see the bigger picture from a local perspective.

The story of the intersection of Black Power and the drug game is 
complicated and will be difficult to tell. The inclusion of Seitu’s work 
at the Schomburg in such a significant exhibit, regardless of the 
exhibit’s mistake, is a reminder of the need to do the history of this 
aspect of the movement in order to help correct problems of today. We 
have to have access to critical responses. Seitu’s work provides them.

/*L.E.J. Rachell* is pursuing a PhD in History. His work focuses on the 
history of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in New York City, 
specifically the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Much of this 
research can be seen on CORENYC.org <http://www.corenyc.org/>./


1. http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/301

https://books.google.com/books/about/Black_Panther.html?id=Q4_rAAAAMAAJ&sou rce=kp_cover 

3. http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/320

4. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/12720


6. http://www.corenyc.org/omeka/items/show/305

http://www.nytimes.com/1992/10/04/nyregion/on-a-frontier-of-hope-building-homesfor- the-poor-proves-perilous.html 

8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Five


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