Why would African Americans fight for the freedom of others when they themselves were treated as second-class citizens?
Why would Africans fight for democracy in Europe, when as the colonial subjects of European powers, they were denied full participation in European and African societies alike?
These thought-provoking questions are explored in the exhibition Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster, featuring 33 posters from the collection of Tukufu Zuberi, the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
Propaganda has long been used to mobilize societies during times of war. The posters presented in the Black Bodies exhibition are visually captivating works of art created with the objective of mobilizing people of color. These appeals for support were presented even as the very populations they targeted faced oppression and injustice in the United States, Europe and Africa.
The earliest examples in the exhibition date to the American Civil War, created to inspire black men to join the Union Army as a means to end slavery. In the postwar years, as the nation rebuilt itself, these posters served as commemorations of African American service and heroism. In the years after Reconstruction, widespread segregation and Jim Crow laws denied African Americans any sense of equality. Despite this lack of justice, the United States was forced by the needs of the Spanish American War and World Wars I and II to once again mobilize the nation’s black population to support the war efforts.
In addition to posters highlighting American wartime propaganda efforts, the exhibition has several posters produced by European nations to encourage their African subjects to join colonial armies. Also included are highly stylized posters created in the Soviet Union and China expressing both support for oppressed blacks as well as condemnation for their oppressors. With its many compelling examples, Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster, on view beginning April 7 provides a very revealing presentation of this important history.