Do Not Destroy:
Two massive polaroids of Rodney Barnette dated three years apart hang aside. The first picture shows him in his army decorum, proudly preparing to serve his country in the Vietnam war. The second was taken after realizing his country did not respect his service or his color. By 1969, Barnette replaced his uniformed suit and tie for a black leather jacket, crew collar and beret.
What happened, unbeknownst to Rodney Barnette, at the turn of the decade had been concealed for many years. But his daughter, Sadie Barnette, has bared the truth in her New York City solo exhibition premiere, “Do Not Destroy.” Crisp papers, gemmed in stick-on jewels or spray painted in black and pink, reveal the FBI’s surveillance of her father, not only in their time of observance, but their prying of his past. Governed documentation of birth dates, addresses, occupations of his siblings and interviewing them, interviewing neighbors and employers, tracking his whereabouts – all with hopes of destroying Rodney Barnette’s integrity.
A perturbed family tree, these files allowed Sadie to build her own portrait of her father. “I’m so honored that my dad trusted me to tell this story. I was taught very early the significance of dedicating your life to something bigger than yourself. In one way, I feel this story does that.”
Rodney Barnette made a similar dedication when he chartered the Black Panther Party chapter of Compton, California. Imagine, making a deliberate choice to fight against systematic oppression while J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO and the FBI make every effort to dismantle your voice and your freedom. Hoover was so intimidated by the sound of Barnette and other Panther Party leaders, he assigned many of them to ADEX: a list of “extremists” that could be detained by police at any moment without due processing. Can’t imagine? Take a look at Trump’s mandate of a registry for Muslims, or his immediate construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, or his ban on permitting Syrian refugees into America.
Though Sadie’s exhibition opened on January 18th, the date became even more pressing for curator Alexandra Giniger after realizing America’s gravest mistake would make his inaugural appearance three days later. “As events unfolded, it felt more imperative for us to get our message out as a reminder of what the government is capable of, and how we must be motivated to make a change towards justice and equality,” said Giniger.
Sadie’s precursory feature exhibition, “Power to the People: Black Panters at 50,” in the Oakland Museum of California caters to that knowledge chiefly through the legacy of the Black Panther Party, telling their grassroots origins that go beyond leather jackets. But in “Do Not Destroy,” an individual narrative transitions from personal to political. Throughout the previously classified files, we see a hardworking father, a cherished brother, a civil neighbor. To the writers on his case, they sought a terrorist. “When the government decides they are not here to protect all people, that when heads should raise,” Sadie noted. “It’s in the constitution, and your sole American duty, to hold the government accountable for their actions and errors.”
For many of us, we chalk it up to being easier said than done or allow someone else to take the reins. But time waits for no man, and to see change we must lead by example. When opportune, telling our stories and relating our past critically to our present because, sadly, not much has changed. “It’s shocking to see materials decades old that still ring true. You could read the 10-point program of the Black Panther Party and find it all applies today,” Alexandra urged.
It may not have been taught thoroughly in a classroom, but we must learn and appreciate our history as an act of resistance. Awakening us to ask the questions and demand the answers. “There is a very intentional discrediting of those who came before us by those who want to remain in power. So little has been told to us so we should be critical of the government. Because even if you’re not an enemy now, you could be next,” said Sadie.
Revisiting the past is rarely easy, but walking in the present without its knowledge is dangerous. Can you see a future?
Visit “Do Not Destroy” at the Baxter Street Camera Club NY now through February 18th, 2017.