Oakland Voices correspondent and arts & culture reporter Brandy Collins chatted with sculptor Dana King a few weeks before the unveiling of her latest statue, a bust of Dr. Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Below is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Brandy Collins: I like to use this phrase that the goal is mediocrity. The goal is not to be Black excellence. We can’t always be striving for excellence. Some of us really want to ride the middle and just survive.
Dana King: Because maybe 50 years from now your mediocrity becomes the excellence.
BC: It’s tiring to always have to be twice as good. It is tiring to have to fight every morsel of your creativity. It is exhausting to have to cultivate this culture.
DK: I suppose there’s some rationale for that one because people might up and quit. You got bills to pay. I get it. You got to make sure that [you’re] in it for the long haul, for the love of it. Moments of acclaim and recognition are few and far between and that’s got to be okay. That’s what I’m facing on the 24th with Huey. I love it. Fredrika loves it. That’s the most important thing. But I’m going to unveil him to a thousand people and I hope they do love it.
BC: I’m excited for you. That’s gonna be amazing. Just to have it sit there and stare at it all day long.
DK: He will sit two blocks from where he was murdered. He loved Black folks. He loved West Oakland. Huey loved the Panthers. He loved Black folks enough to, you know, co-create the Panthers, with Bobby Seale. He stepped into that barrage of publicity and limelight and police harassment—
BC: Which was never the goal.
DK: —Never. The goal was to create services for the community that the community wasn’t getting but deserved from the government. Sixty-five programs that went from an accredited school, the breakfast program for kids, to [an] AAA program. Your car broke down, you called the Panthers. They had sickle cell anemia testing. They had medical clinics. They provided everything the government didn’t—medical, housing, education, jobs and you know— freedom.
BC: Just to exist in the bare minimum. To just exist and live your life.
DK: What they wanted was the promise of America and they had to build it themselves. For that they suffered harassment or murder on a daily. But they did and we really need to study what they did.
BC: As I’m looking at that bust and the strength of it and the strength of the lines, I’m wondering which photo did you select? Or was it a composition?
DK: It was a composition and it came from the stories. He’s brown and gold.
BC: Yeah and the Afro is perfect.
DK: Ken Diamond used to cut his hair. He came over to my studio to make sure that it was right. I felt compelled to create him as authentically as I could and as detailed as I could because I want people to look at him. I want them to look into his eyes and I want them to question where did that come from to co-create the Panthers because he was just a man, and if he is just a man [who] could do something so—
DK: —Altruistic on so many levels, then so can you and you and you and so can I. So, what I wanted him to be is as realistic as possible. I don’t want there to be any confusion about him being a man. A human being. I wanted to honor the beauty with which he was sculpted by God.
BC: For you to create that and identify him as a man first, not even just a Black man, just a man, a human being that lived in this body, this vessel, and created something for other human beings in their bodies and vessels and endured abuse to that body and vessel that acknowledgment first is probably the most important of it all.
DK: And that abuse he endured he endured on our behalf. When Fredrika brought these big photographs to me, it took me two weeks to get past his physical beauty, to bring it down and get to who he was. Where is that soul? Where is the man who did all of this?