As one of the stars of PBS’ “History Detectives,” Tukufu Zuberi has helped to unearth the stories behind a wide range of fascinating artifacts. But last fall, the show delved into an item from Zuberi’s own collection: a poster, captioned “Our Colored Heroes,” depicting an African-American soldier in World War I stabbing a German soldier, his foot resting on the chest of another fallen enemy.
That captivating image is one of 33 from Zuberi’s collection of propaganda posters on display in Penn Museum’s new exhibition “Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster.” The striking posters span from the Civil War to the African independence movements of the 1960s, raising crucial questions about citizenship and combat.
“All the posters in the show reflect the heroism of individuals who fought for democracy and freedom abroad while they didn’t have it at home,” says Zuberi, professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “Either as colonial subjects in Africa or in the United States, where segregation ruled the day, a man could return from fighting in war and be subjected to second-class citizenship and scrutiny.”
Zuberi’s poster collection is a direct result of his work on “History Detectives,” where he constantly encounters the educational benefit of collecting. “I had come into contact with so many collectors and individuals who were doing very interesting things in trying to present history to the public,” he explains. “That made me want to develop one of my own ideas into a format that could be presented to the public in that same way.”
Many of the posters reveal the ways in which the government attempted to convince African-Americans to fight for a country that was denying them equal treatment, whether the battle was to preserve the Union or to defeat Fascism.
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“Those men so believed in freedom, they so believed in justice and democracy, that they would go and fight in the international effort to preserve these things,” Zuberi says. “Being a soldier hits on the essence of citizenship — you’re going out to give the ultimate in the name of the country. So people should come away from this exhibit saying, ‘Would I have fought as these soldiers did, knowing that I did not have freedom at home?’”
If you go
Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster
Through March 2, 2014
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South St.