Sadie Barnette Reclaims Her Father’s Black Panther FBI File As Art
Uniting the personal and the political
Images: Sadie Barnette
Artist Sadie Barnette’s family tree includes a 500-page FBI file. In 1968, the United States government placed her father, Rodney Barnette, under surveillance. For decades, his every daily detail was logged and noted. Family members, employers, even his former high school teachers were interrogated. The reason for the target on his back: Rodney was a founding member of the Compton, California chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
In an era where J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI sought to actively, though covertly, criminalize and destroy the Panthers—and arguably any prominent or rising Black political leader—the elder Barnette was of hundreds of activists subject to state-sanctioned harassment and intimidation, their organizations infiltrated and discredited. Other revolutionaries were incarcerated; some were assassinated.
Growing up, Sadie Barnette’s father’s history was never a secret. It seems almost inevitable that the young artist whose work is dedicated to excavating the constructs of identity would turn her gaze to his FBI file, newly available through a Freedom of Information Act request. For Do Not Destroy, her first solo exhibition in New York City, Barnette reframes the pages of the dossier as a father-daughter conversation. With the intervention of her own visual presence—through unapologetically girly embellishments and abstractions—she subverts the government’s narrative with her own. The spurts of hot pink spray paint on black-and-white pages restore a sense of sinew and blood, returning a dignity of wholeness to the life described therein. And so, it is from an inheritance of being targeted and surveilled, that Barnette has grown a garden of reclamation.
Mass Appeal sat down with the Oakland-born artist to learn more.
Mass Appeal: Your family knows what it is like to be targeted, to be painted as a “terrorist.” What are some of your thoughts on the current administration’s rhetoric and actions in dehumanizing and criminalizing believers of Islam, refugees and the undocumented?
Sadie Barnette: One of the things that was really striking about my dad’s file was that my dad was fired from his job at the Post Office because of his involvement with the Panthers. But, the law used to get him fired was something that President Truman had put on the books. It was an Executive Order that talked about behavior unbecoming to a government employee. That’s what they used to get my dad fired because he was cohabitating with a woman who he wasn’t married to… That was behavior that was unbecoming of a government employee. But, the reason that law was put on the books was to get gay people out of government jobs. So it’s another one of those examples where people think “Oh, this law doesn’t affect me. I’m not Muslim. I’m not an immigrant. I’m not trans. This has nothing to do with me.” But a similar law or laws can be used to target whoever the government is considering inconvenient at the time or whoever is questioning things or fighting for their rights. That’s definitely something that we have to keep in mind today.
Was activism and an awareness beyond self-interest part of your birthright or did you come into your own political awakening?
It was always something I held in my heart… I looked at situations with systemic analysis. If the police beat someone up or say if somebody in the family didn’t have access to something that they needed, I would always see it through a lens of systemic problems in our country. When I was in high school, I was very aware that students were being criminalized and were being shuttled along this school-to-prison pipeline. So those things were always on my mind. And growing up in the Bay area, there is a lot of activism and systemic analysis.
How did that activism and analysis start to factor in or feed your artistic growth?
I think they definitely go hand-in-hand. All art is political even when it’s not. Because it’s still a political choice if you are choosing to ignore politics. Often times, just the act of making art or changing the way people think even if its meant as an act of poetry is inherently political. People need escape and fantasy and fiction and need to feel beautiful and seen and heard. So for me even in my work that isn’t directly talking about the FBI file, it is still a commitment to… The act of making art is still a commitment to humanity.
What prompted your dad to want to look at your father’s file, and then what prompted you to want to work with the material?
My dad always wondered what experiences were tied to his FBI surveillance, harassment and intimidation. He wanted the file and so filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get it. It took about four years to get the file. I’m not sure what at that exact moment made him want to really face what a lot of people don’t want to look at. It can be too painful. But, he knows that it is bigger than himself. He also was very lucky that he wasn’t assassinated at the time or thrown in jail. He really is a strong person that survived a lot and still is able to see the value in sharing his experiences. I’ve always been interested in telling the story of my parents and also the activism and the cultural outpourings of that time period. This just seemed like the perfect way to do that—using this file for good and reclaiming it.
Did you wrestle with how much of the file you should work with or alter or how much you should let it speak for itself?
I definitely had to wrestle with it. The fact that the project’s first debut was at the Oakland Museum for the Black Panther exhibit, All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 really helped give me confidence that this could be framed and contextualized properly because the show is really dedicated to talking about the full complexities of the Black Panthers, not just like the cool image or that kind of thing. So being included in the Oakland Museum exhibition was what really made me excited about making the final decisions as to how to use this material.
I think it will be the type of project that’ll be ongoing. I’m not the kind of artist that thinks this is the like the ultimate or some kind of end. It’s no [laughs] magnum opus—it’s ongoing. One of the things I value about being an artist is that you can be unsure. You can question and try things. I’m sure I will work in many ways with this file. At some point, I’d like to make a book project with it. My intention often when I’m making art is not about making things; it’s about seeing things. So, the re-framing, the juxtaposing of these files and just a few gesture on my part was really what I wanted to do to allow the pages to speak for themselves and then for the viewer to bring something new to it.
The work also calls into the conversation the political activists that were murdered. Others were arrested and some still incarcerated to this day. Is it imperative to you as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Panthers?
Absolutely. It is hugely important. And I think it is something that we still don’t know enough about. There are a ton of names of people in my dad’s file who he knew, who were his mentors who were killed. John Huggins. Bunchy Carter. They were murdered at UCLA. It is a double tragedy if their lives were not only stolen and taken away from their families but that they are also not remembered in the historical consciousness.
Have you become a student of the era as a result?
Definitely. I’ve been reading several books. One is called The Burglary by Betty Medsger. She basically was one of the reporters to receive the first batch of stolen FBI files around 1972 from this small FBI office in Pittsburgh. These anti-war activists realized that the movement was being surveilled so heavily that the only way to expose what the FBI was actually doing was to break into this office. I’ve been learning a ton about J. Edgar Hoover. It’s amazing to think that these activists were just regular, hard-working people. They weren’t criminals, they were actually repelled by [the thought of] breaking into this office, but they knew it would be worse to let Hoover run the FBI unchecked and run democracy into the ground. The other book is Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of The Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr.
What did working with this file teach or surprise you about your dad or by extension about yourself?
Well, it’s hard to say. I’m pretty close to my dad so most of the things I knew already. I definitely learned more about our government than I did about my family. Questioning the government, dissent, is legal. It is written into the Constitution. If the government isn’t working properly, then the people are to change it. But people who are in power want to protect their power. As a descendent of slaves and Native Americans in this country, I have never felt like we are included when they say “We the People.” I’ve never felt like this country was mine. My ancestors built this country, but it was never for them either. I’ve always felt that if this country was actually going to be for everyone, then we would have to first really face some things that people don’t want to talk about.