PHILADELPHIA – A new exhibit created by a University of Pennsylvania professor and host of a popular public television show examines how wartime propaganda has been used to motivate oppressed populations to risk their lives for homelands that considered them second-class citizens.
Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster, opened this month and continues until March 2 at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Lectures, film screenings and other programming will be rolled out over the course of the exhibit’s run.
The exhibit’s 33 posters, dating from the American Civil War to both World Wars and the African independence movements, are part of the personal collection of Tukufu Zuberi, Penn professor of sociology and African studies and a host of the Public Broadcasting Service series History Detectives.
Zuberi began his collection in 2005 and owns 48 posters in all. There are five he said he’s seeking to complete his collection, but he’s not divulging any specifics.
“Oh, I don’t want to go there,” he said with a laugh. “If I say anything, then there’s going to be someone out there with more money and I won’t be able to buy anything again.”
The collection includes posters with affirming messages and images of courageous black soldiers to stir in its intended audience a sense of national belonging and patriotic pride. Also implied was a promise that blacks who served their country in war would return home to America or Europe with the rights and freedoms that their white counterparts enjoyed.
That promise, as history shows, was not kept.
“They go and they fight and they’re victorious, and when all is said and done, they return home,” Zuberi said. “And it’s ‘Go back to your second-class citizen status, democracy is not here for you, you are not civilized and you are not ready for it.”
Conversely, the collection also includes negative posters that used hateful stereotypes to portray Africans and African-Americans as threats to white society. Zuberi’s favorite piece, perhaps surprisingly, is one of the most offensive in his collection.
Made in 1942 by Italian illustrator Gino Boccasile, The Two-Dollar Venus features a caricature of a black U.S. soldier as a brutish character with a buffoonish grin, his arm around the statue of Venus de Milo with “$2” scrawled across the torso.
“It’s beautiful in itself. It has a very ugly, derogatory tone, but it’s done very well,” Zuberi said. “This is saying to the Italian people: `If the U.S. comes here, they’re going to bring these people; they’re going to take a priceless cultural icon and put a price on it.’’’
The exhibit also includes highly stylized posters made in China during the U.S. civil rights era and in Russia during the African independence movements expressing support of oppressed blacks against American and European aggressors.
A group of archival videos demonstrate how the same kinds of messages were communicated on film, including a 1945 Ronald Reagan-narrated recruitment short using the Tuskegee Airmen to claim American racial harmony and a 1944 Frank Capra-produced short that extols black war heroes without making mention of the entrenched segregation in the U.S. and its military.
A 1939 film shows Africans under European colonial rule as wholly benevolent relationships that brought the indigenous peoples “a fuller life, free from fear.”
“It’s a contradictory message given the reality that existed,” Zuberi said, “but it’s a very powerful message.”