When Black People's Images Are Used to Fight Colonial, Chinese, and Soviet Wars

A new University of Pennsylvania exhibit reveals the ironies embedded in heroic portrayals of Africans and African-Americans in mass propaganda over the years.

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"True Sons of Freedom," chromolithograph created by Charles Gustrine, United States, 1918.

Black people endured insulting caricatures and cartoons in the mainstream American press, advertisements, comics, and books for adults and children for centuries, continuing (at least) well into the second half of the 20th century. Heroic depiction was far more rare. But for certain cases, establishment artists found the image of black heroism useful, as evidenced in the exhibition Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster currently on view at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology through March 2, 2014. Penn professor and PBS History Detectives host Tukufu Zuberi selected 33 posters that sparked patriotism and enthusiasm for war in people who otherwise suffered discrimination.

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"Belgium Fights On," United States, 1939-1945. / "United We Win," United States, Washington D.C., 1942.

Interestingly, Zuberi chose only works that were made made by non-black designers, so as to examine how "difference" was expressed through mass art using what he calls "The Black Body," which he says is "is one of the most curious images in the modern mind. It conjures up images of enslavement, rebellion, heroism, brilliance, and savagery, all at the same time." The posters, which are not limited to ones produced in the United States, reveal various ways that race has been perceived and used. "In Africa we find black bodies being used to portray the exotic other in need of colonial domination," he says. Many of the posters that portray Africans and African Americans in heroic roles, he adds, were aimed at African and African American audiences.

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"Keep Us Flying," United States, 1943. / "Honor and Justice to All," United States, 1918.

A recruitment poster for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen targeted African Americans through a sensitive portrait of Robert W. Deiz, one of the first Tuskegee graduates, who downed two enemy planes in 1944. A 1917 French poster sought to recruit colonial Algerians into the French army by invoking the pictorial reference to Emir Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine , a 19th century enemy of France who was nonetheless a nationalist hero among Algerians. Zuberi explains the fascinating dynamic at play in Emir Abdelkader's story: "After his defeat in a war for Algerian independence, he was relocated to France. After his relocation to France, he was moved to Damascus. In 1860 he saved a group of Christians from attack by a group of armed Muslims. This group of Christians went on to move and settle in the United States. Emir Abdelkader's actions had such an impression on these individuals that they named their city Elkader, located in Iowa.* For this effort, he also received much praise from the United States and France. President Abraham Lincoln gave him a prized set of pistols for his courageous act and the French increased his stipend substantially for what, in their eyes, was his heroism. So this 19th century enemy became a symbol of friendship and courage and as an iconic image in the Algerian national imagination."

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"People of the World, Unite," (translated from Chinese), China, 1968.

The exhibit's oldest poster, from 1861, was produced by abolitionists who sought to convince the American public and politicians that the Civil War provided an opportunity for the United States to live up to the Declaration of Independence by abolishing the scourge of slavery. The newest poster, from 1968, extols the legitimacy of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by crediting Mao Zedong's rhetoric as an inspiration to the African Independence movement. Likewise, a Soviet poster attributes the ideological reasons for African Independence to Lenin's oratory. "Both the Chinese and Russian posters use African bodies to legitimate the socialist ideologies," says Zuberi. "The use of living individuals to articulate the military message in stunningly beautiful graphic display helped me appreciate the power of the image."

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"The Great Lenin Illuminated Our Path," (translated from Russian), Russia, ca. 1930s.

By selecting these particular examples of propaganda, Zuberi wants visitors to leave the exhibit reflecting on the idea "that often the black bodies portrayed were individuals who showed great courage and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for ideals that had not yet been achieved in the nations for which they fought. African Americans were fighting for democracy, freedom, justice, and equality while they suffered the indignities of Jim Crow segregation at home. Africans fought in World War I and II for their British, Belgian, and French colonial masters, only to return after the war to confront the brutalities of colonialism." These posters vividly illustrate this story.

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"Our Colored Heroes," United States, 1918.

* This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Zuberi says he meant to refer to Elkader, Iowa instead of Kader City, Utah.