Richard Aoki (1938-2009) at a 1969 protest in Oakland, CA (source: Basics Community News Service)
In 2012, FBI officials shook generations of activists when they claimed that Richard Aoki, Japanese American Black Panther revolutionary, was a long-time FBI informant (Basics, UMN Press Blog). Those who remembered Aoki’s legacy, including those who knew of his role in founding the revolutionary ideology of the Black Panther Party, hotly contested this defamation. For them, the FBI’s reveal was an age-old tactic of “snitch jacketing”: a Cold War practice of naming individuals in radical organizations as government informants, in order to weaken their efforts with distrust and fear.
Despite the adamant defense of Aoki, his possible disloyalty to the Black Panther movement summoned a sharp question about sartorially articulated, radical politics. Could the Black Panther uniform have been so overtly political, that its fixed meaning was taken for granted? Kobena Mercer calls attention to the volatility of racial meaning behind the Panthers’ “urban guerrilla attire” – polo-necks, leather jackets, dark glasses, and berets like Aoki’s –by tracing it to both white rebellious subcultures of the 1950s and American black bebop and rock’n’roll. These aesthetic lineages, Mercer argues, were inseparable from the militancy and protest of the 1970s. He proposes a complex cultural process at work through the uniform:
“The movement back and forth [of the Panthers’ look] indicates an underlying dynamic of struggle as different discourses compete for the same signs… to make the point from another point of view would amount to saying that the Afro engaged in a critical ‘dialogue’ between black and white Americans, not one between black Americans and Africans.” (Mercer 42)
The unresolved truth of Aoki’s politics compels us to take Mercer’s proposal further and consider, how did the Panthers’ jacket implicate Asian Americans in this dialogue? There is no doubt that underlying the FBI’s accusations is the widespread suspicion of Asian American racial allegiance. As an ambiguously “foreign” and “domesticated” racial body, Asian America appears to step into the public eye as decidedly pro-black when wearing the Panthers’ jacket. bell hooks helps us understand that if the Panthers’ jacket was an ethnic signifier of solidarity (the ‘Other’) then the “dominant culture demands that the Other be offered as sign that progressive political change is taking place” (hooks 26). Through its semiotics, then, the Panthers’ jacket legitimizes the place of Aoki in American politics, correcting his foreignness, and asserts cultural dissidence, refuting his domestication. The Panthers’ jacket may have been in danger of cooptation as an activist accessory, but the intentions behind its use did not undermine its potential to make an indistinguishably racialized body more recognizable.
At the same time, it is only the histories of people like Richard Aoki that give the Panthers’ jacket its racial meaning. So what did Aoki and the Asian American movement do for the black radical politics of the jacket? Perhaps it was precisely the uncertain geopolitical space of Asian America that made the Panthers’ jacket emerge as a consciously anti-colonial and anti-imperial icon; without them, the Black Panther’s claims to a Third World struggle would appear far too abstract. In a stylized space where Asian Americans, too, could articulate their genuine resonance with black radical critique, the jacket allows us to trace a multiplicity of discourses that collided during the height of American cultural nationalism.
bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” in Black Looks: Race and Represenation (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” new formations 3 (1987): 33-54.