War propaganda posters aimed at blacks
The poster had a feel-good aura about it. Maybe it was the bright yellows and reds and greens along with the brown-complexioned people encircling the proud image of an African American soldier neatly pressed for war.
It was the poster for a film called “Our Colored Soldiers,” made around 1918 as a call-out to African Americans to join the U.S. Army. The poster was life imagined and not life real. It was a time when African Americans were living in a world that picked at their being and nibbled away at their dignity. But none of that was apparent in this warm poster that portrayed African Americas as any other American – giving up their sons to war, welcoming them home, celebrating them.
It was the ultimate war propaganda poster. I could easily see black people lulled into thinking that just maybe life could be different. Even the face on the poster was not the distorted image that they were used to seeing of themselves. This soldier looked like a next-door neighbor, somebody just like them who was willing to fight for his country (and maybe freedom for his people?).
The poster is one of 33 in an exhibit titled “Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. They will be on display until March 2, 2014. They are from the collection of Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, a co-host of PBS’ “History Detectives” and a Penn professor.
“I had been on the History Detectives for five years and I decided I needed to collect something,” Zuberi said recently during an interview at an opening reception for the exhibit. Not sure of where to start, he consulted his History Detectives’ co-hosts for advice. They suggested that he find items that were unique, that he enjoyed collecting and that not many others were collecting, he said in a museum pamphlet.
“I decided on poster and first-edition books,” he said, specializing in first editions by African American authors “across centuries.” He started with W.E.B. DuBois, who first published in the 1890s and continued well into the 20th century. Zuberi says he has first editions of all of the books of DuBois, a scholar who was one of the founders of the NAACP and longtime editor of its Crisis magazine.
Zuberi picked up the posters from various sources. To keep his identity a secret, he said, he enlisted associates to bid and buy for him. He has 46 posters in his collection.
The posters in the exhibit span the Civil War in the United States to colonialism in Africa and the civil rights movement in this country. They were used by various countries to engage Africans and Africa Americans in times of war. As Zuberi pointed out, they were not necessarily created by their targets. You could tell that by looking at some of the images.
A French poster by Emile Levy showed a larger-than life Amazon woman executing an African man. It was used to justify colonialism.
A 1942 Italian poster by Gino Boccasile presented a stereotypical image of a grinning black soldier carrying the famous Greek sculpture Venus de Milo with $2 crudely written on its white plaster body to imply the man’s ignorance about art and penchant for looting – actions considered antithetical to everyone except African Americans. Boccasile was a supporter of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and illustrated posters that were both racist and anti-Semitic.
Some of the posters, though, depicted black people as noble and heroic. An 1863 Currier & Ives poster showed battles of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black unit organized during the Civil War. There was also a poster depicting the Buffalo Soldiers’ joining Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders at San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War.
In the 1960s, Mao Tse Tung and the Chinese offered posters of empathy with the civil rights movement, and the Russians presented the teachings of Lenin as a way for black folks to escape racism and colonialism. “Our Colored Heroes” told the story of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, World War I soldiers who fought bravely during an attack by German soldiers. Their story was featured in a History Detectives’ episode in 2012.
One of the most familiar posters for me was “Keep Us Flying,” which used the image of a Tuskegee Airman to spur African Americans to buy war bonds in the 1940s. Other copies have come up for auction at Swann Auction Galleries, the most recent this year.
Zuberi said his favorite poster was “The Two-Dollar Venus,” which he also considered one of the “most offensive.”
“It’s propaganda at its height,” he said in the museum pamphlet. “It’s both beautiful and ugly at the same time. It is giving you two reflections of things that are real but distorted – both of them – to give you a message about African-American participation in WWII in a negative way.”
The film poster, though, spoke to me. The film itself followed the 369th Infantry Regiment, or as the men came to be known – the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The regiment served under French command because an American general would not accept them. Johnson and Roberts were part of the unit.
The 24-minute film was commissioned by President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. government. DuBois urged black men to sign up for the military, much as Frederick Douglass had done 50 years earlier during the Civil War.
It was made by the Downing Films Company of New York, one of several African American companies that distributed or made films about African American soldiers fighting in World War I. The New York Times in 1919 mentioned that Downing distributed the film and others like it produced by the U.S. and French governments. Some of the profits of “Our Colored Soldiers,” according to the Times, were to go to scholarships at Tuskegee Institute in honor of the men.
It was one of two posters for the film, Zuberi said. The posters have the title “Our Colored Fighters,” while several references to the film on the web identified the title as “Our Colored Soldiers.” The exhibit lists the title as “Our Colored Soldiers.”
One of the most interesting things I learned was of a 1939 pro-colonialism film produced by the Harmon Foundation, which starting in the 1920s was a major benefactor of African American artists in the United States. Many well-known artists participated in the Harmon competitions.
The film was titled “How An African Tribe is Ruled Under Colonial Government,” and was shot in what was then Belgium’s colony of Congo (which gained its independence in 1960 and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It was perhaps one of the movies the foundation produced as part of a series about African culture, life and Christian missionaries on the continent in the 1930s.