Akinsanya Kambon, Black Panther Coloring Book author
Akinsanya Kambon says he isn’t surprised by any of the recent killings of black people by police. The turmoil between the black community and law enforcement is all too familiar for the former Marine-turned-Black Panther-turned-art professor, who, in 1968, drew the controversial Black Panther Coloring Book that received national attention for its depiction of children shooting police. SN&R recently talked with Kambon to discuss the provocative book, its oft-confusing history and why its message is still important nearly 50 years later.
What’s the significance behind the coloring book?
What I was doing was trying to—in what’s really a history book—show that all of the bad guys in history are depicted as pigs. Now, it’s called a coloring book, so you can see a pig whichever color you want. It’s not talking about white people, even though there were some Europeans who were involved in slave trade. There were also some Muslims, and there were also some Africans that participated. So however you see the pig, that’s how you color that pig. That’s the reason I called it a coloring book.
There’s a common belief that the coloring book was created by the FBI for Cointelpro, a program aimed to infiltrate and disrupt political organizations. Is that not true?
It’s been like that for years because the [Black] Panther Party said that that’s what the FBI did. But that’s not true. I’m telling you that I did it … I’m the only one who knows that is me because I’m the one who drew it.
This essentially changes the book’s known history.
I’ve always said it was me who did it. I ain’t never said it wasn’t me. I know that I did the book, and when I did it, it was no problem with the Panther party.
What was going on at the time that made you create it?
When I graduated from Sacramento High School, I was semi-illiterate. I could barely read, I read at like a second grade level. I ended up getting drafted into the Marine Corps, and when I got to Vietnam, we used to have these soul sessions, or rap sessions, and we had cats that used to talk about things in history that I never knew. … The things that I experienced in my life is what created that coloring book. I’ve seen how corrupt the police are. I know how they are because I was on their team when I was in the Marine Corps. I was just like a police officer.
Do you think painting and drawing these memories helps your post-traumatic stress disorder?
When we first got back [from Vietnam], they told us don’t talk about it—that’s the therapy. Don’t talk about it, try to forget about it, it’ll go away eventually. Then they changed. They said whenever you have something stressful you need to talk about it write about it, draw about it—you need to get it out. I think that it does help, because I get everything out of me through this artwork. … I’m so much in my work, and it’s kind of like a spiritual walk that I’m doing.
Why reprint it after all these years?
When you have situations going on in this country where the police are killing black people all over the country just like they used to, I think the book needs to come out again and people need to see it.
The lawyers tried to use the coloring book against you in the Oak Park Four case—the 1970 Black Panthers-involved killing of a police officer. How so?
They tried to introduce it into evidence and the only way they could’ve done that, their key witness, Lamont “Buster” Rose, would have had to have seen me draw it. Well, he didn’t see me draw it, because I drew it when I was at city college. When I was in my art classes, I’d take a break, go to the cafeteria and sit down and I’d have my drawings with me. The judge rejected it when the lawyers tried to present it.
You left Sacramento after that. Why come back?
Well, because there’s a lot of stuff going on up here in Sacramento and Oakland, and there’s a lot of places where people want to talk about this book. They want to talk to me about certain things, and I came up here because this is where I grew up. I know people, and my whole life is here.
You’re making a follow-up book at some point, too, yes?
I’m coming out with another one after this, but it’s going to be more in-depth. There won’t be any children, and it’s gonna start with [Pope Nicholas V’s authorization of slavery in Portugal in 1452]. I got a lot the drawings already done. … It’s going to be a lot more comprehensive, because what I’m trying to do is get an understanding of how people can subjugate another people and enslave them.
Will you be adding stuff about the more recent police killings of black people?
I thought about doing a lot of the more recent stuff, but, man, they’re just killing too much.