Throughout the years, propaganda has been used to influence public opinion, maybe most notoriously in order to mobilize populations for war. The Gilcrease museum is hosting a special exhibition on propaganda meant to mobilize people of color, entitled “Black Bodies in Propaganda: the Art of the War Poster.” The exhibition features 33 posters from the collection of Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Last Saturday, Dr. Zuberi visited the museum to lead a talk.
The collection of posters spans from the American Civil War to World War II, but non-American posters are also featured. Stylised posters created by the Soviet Union and China to support African independence, as well as posters produced by European nations in relation to their colonies, are featured as well.
Dr. Zuberi noted how the posters spotlighted the hypocrisy of the US and courage and bravery of African-American soldiers. Each war promised African-Americans the chance to be equal citizens, but failed to deliver; yet young men signed up with a “pure concern for freedom, for democracy.”
Two posters from Italy during World War II used black bodies in a negative way. They portrayed Americans as African-American savages, ready to destroy civilization and unable to be properly integrated into Western achievement. Posters from the Soviet Union and China, by contrast, promised freedom for Africans if they embraced the theories of Lenin and Mao Zedong. There were also posters from the Vietnam war, issued by the Vietnamese to encourage black soldiers to reconsider their involvement in the war.
Dr. Zuberi does not have posters from later wars, like Iraq and Afghanistan, as most recruiting materials today come in the form of videos. He grew his collection on his work travels, and while he is no longer actively looking for posters, potential buyers still contact him frequently.
All of the posters exhibited were created by non-blacks, and Dr. Zuberi said they represent an attempt to advocate where black bodies fit somewhere, in a war effort or peace. Propaganda, he said, “works at the collective conscious and collective unconscious,” and awakens “how we feel about race and racial differences.” By visiting the exhibition, visitors are confronting what it means to be human, he said, as these black soldiers fought for freedom and democracy that they did not yet have.
After leaving the Black Bodies exhibit, visitors are encouraged to walk through an exhibition featuring World War I propaganda posters from the McFarlin Library special collections. These posters encouraged Americans to unify for the war. Everyone was meant to take part in the war, through conserving food, buying bonds or serving in the war. More than 200 other propaganda posters are in Special Collections, but “Black Bodies” will only be on display till July 9.