Book Review: Palante: Young Lords Party by Michael Abramson with the Young Lords Party

Initially published in 1971 and reprinted in 2011, Palante tells the story, in words and pictures, of the New York City chapter of the Young Lords Party.

Inspired by the Black Panthers, the Young Lords Party was an organization of Puerto Rican activists and community organizers, many of whom were first-generation college students at the time. The movement’s heyday lasted a little under two years, from 1969 to 1971. During that time, its members were on the frontlines of the struggle for social, racial, and economic justice. They were self-described socialist revolutionaries who took a strong stand against police violence, systemic racism, and colonialist policies. Not surprisingly, they constantly found themselves subjected to arrest, surveillance, and harassment by the powers-that-be.

Along the way, a young photographer named Michael Abramson documented the work that they were doing. Abramson’s traditional black-and-white photo essay doesn’t appear until the second half of the book, however. The first half is comprised of short essays by Young Lords Party members. In this way, it’s structurally similar to Walker Evans and James Agee’s classic portrait of rural Depression-era poverty, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

To say that the essays are powerful is an understatement. They document systemic racism and oppression from the perspective of those living through it. Perhaps the most eye-opening is lawyer and activist Iris Morales’s heart-wrenchingly personal account of what it was like growing up in a family confined to the housing projects of the Bronx. Juan Gonzales (a former member and investigative journalist who spent time as a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News and currently co-hosts the Pacifica Radio show “Democracy Now!”) contributes a strongly written piece that functions as a people’s history of Puerto Rico and a cogently written overview of the colonialist policies that have negatively impacted the island ever since its discovery by Europeans. Other essays tackle different topics such as the founding of the Young Lords Party, the inhumane living conditions within the prison system, and a deconstruction of machismo and the patriarchal system within Puerto Rican culture.

The 75 or so black-and-white photographs that comprise the latter half of the book take viewers inside the Young Lords’ headquarters and in the middle of their street actions, which they termed “offensives.” A former Time-Life photographer, Abramson adheres strongly to the classic documentary rules: Get close, shoot wide, and be as unobtrusive as possible. He spent a great deal of time with the Young Lords over a period of several years while working on the project, and as a result, he has captured moments of intimacy and intensity with clarity and a poetic heart.

Granted, that approach may be familiar to social documentary photographers. What makes Abramson’s photo essay unique is that he entrusted the Young Lords with editing and sequencing his photos. The result is a truly genuine collaboration. It’s also worth noting that, by publishing his photo essay independent of the text, the Young Lords trusted in his ability as a photographer to preserve historically significant moments, communicate important truths, and raise awareness.

Presented in a fairly traditional layout and accompanied by short journalistic captions and quotes, the photographs are given space to breathe and allowed to stand on their own. Granted, the photo-essay could be more clearly sequenced, and at times it’s a little redundant—a full six pages are devoted to pictures of members selling their underground newspaper, for instance. But it’s understandable that both photographer and subject would be distrustful of the more sensationalistic and less humane edit that a professional publication might assemble. Conversely, interesting juxtapositions that would never occur in a more “professional” edit help bring about an increased depth of understanding here. 

To that point, the opening pages contrast the impoverished conditions of sugar cane workers in Puerto Rico with the impoverished conditions of families living in the housing projects in the Bronx. In just two photos, racial and economic divisions are quickly established. The next images transition to the Young Lords engaged in direct action: clothing drives, protests against police brutality, and a free breakfast program for youth. Most of the pictures taken at the East Harlem office have a behind-the-scenes intimacy to them. The closing pages show the Young Lords smiling, kissing, and laughing.

In the concerned photography world, Palante is something of an anomaly: an inspirational story. Taken as a whole, the photos depict those involved in the struggle against oppression, standing up for their rights, and striving towards a solution, with joy and purpose. “Palante” means “onward,” and throughout the book, there is a sense of moving forward towards a real and lasting solution, and of making strides in the struggle against racism and oppression.

Palante succeeds in raising awareness about an issue and functions as an effective call to action. It’s inspiring and empowering, with strong, clear parallels to current events. Highly recommended.

(Originally reviewed for the Halide Project.)

Palante: Young Lords Party by Michael Abramson with the Young Lords Party. Haymarket Books, 2011. 160 pages. Paperback. $24.95.

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