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 (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 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 (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 (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 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. (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.