Graphic Images as Propaganda and Ideology

WHITE ON BLACK: IMAGES OF AFRICA AND BLACKS IN WESTERN POPULAR CULTURE By Jan Nederveen Pieterse Yale University Press, 259 pp., $35 PERSUASIVE IMAGES: POSTERS OF WAR AND REVOLUTION By Peter Paret, Beth Irwin Lewis, and Paul Paret Princeton University Press 233 pp., $35

HERE are two books on the effectiveness of the graphic image to rouse hatred, fear, and resolve in the human breast, or at least a feeling of separateness and superiority.

"White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture" is a detailed history of racial stereotyping in advertising and the arts, covering the last 400 years in America, Europe, and South Africa. The stereotypes are well-known to those over 30, but younger readers will be amazed at the depictions of supposed black savagery, sensuality, and stupidity.

In nearly all representations, blacks were portrayed as wild-eyed, sub-human, or simple-minded. In advertising, blacks are usually cartooned images smiling idiotically in satisfaction with the product. Not infrequently they are the inoffensive servants. As recently as 1948, Aunt Jemima declared her pancakes were "Happifyin' Light." Uncle Remus grinned from the syrup bearing his name, "Dis sho' am good." Things have improved as a result of civil-rights actions, and Aunt Jemima no longer speaks in dialect these days. But she still appears to be content in her role as pancake-maker.

The imagery served to reinforce the concept of blacks as slow, strong, and capable in specific, allowable ways (music for example), but most important as being satisfied with what the audience agreed was their "naturally lower" station in life.

Mr. Pieterse, a Dutch sociologist, includes South African and Far Eastern examples in this collection, suggesting that colonialism spread prejudices about blacks along with its other influences. For example, one of the more popular dentifrices in Hong Kong was Darkie brand, featuring a stylized Al Jolson on the tube, smiling broadly to illustrate white teeth. (The product is still sold, but the name was recently changed to Darlie - whatever that means. The glittering Jolson smile remains.)

In the American experience, Hollywood used to be the worst offender, forcing the stereotype as the only permissible role for blacks. Black women were either Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel, in either case incapable of a serious thought or role. Male versions varied between scampish Amos-n'-Andy types and outright Uncle Toms. Pieterse notes that even powerful entertainers today, such as Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy, alter these images slowly so as not to get too far ahead of their audiences.

Pieterse offers his sociological commentary on this process, stressing the power of repeating images to push a subliminal message about superiority and inferiority. Such images are more difficult to eradicate than verbal arguments, especially when they seem harmlessly childish - as when the nursery character Sambo was used as the name of a chain of pancake restaurants. The management claimed that no harm was intended, and in fact the image was used for its appeal to children. Protests in the 1970s finall y forced the company to change the name to Uncle Sam's Pancake House. Shortly thereafter, the chain went bankrupt.

But if the racial image is reprehensible, the nationalistic war image is outrageous. "Persuasive Images: Posters of War and Revolution," a lavishly printed book of propaganda posters, focuses on in-your-face graphics used primarily by governments to fire up their citizens to march off and slaughter one another.

The posters tend to reflect the national style of the times. The French posters, even at their most belligerent, are graceful and almost lyrical. British posters are obvious and blustery. The American posters are full of derring-do. The German posters radiate the heat of glowing swords and accusatory glares. And the Soviet posters look as if they are drawn by a committee.

Posters were the television ads of the times - four or five words and an overcolored image. In one way, they were more effective than television because, although they didn't move, you couldn't turn them off. An example is the classic German election poster of Von Hindenburg glaring out over the blackletter slogan, "A better man you won't find." If, day after day, you stared at his block-shaped head and no-nonsense glower, you didn't dare even look for a better man. The German and Russian war posters are

probably the most violent and menacing of the entire collection. It's hard to judge how seriously the threats portrayed were taken, but both regimes pictured the enemy as apes with dripping knives and smoking bombs. The degree of threat allowed for only one reaction - retaliatory extermination, say the authors. Governments prepared soldiers and citizens alike for extremes of battle and cruelty.

The most effective war posters, even those making relatively peaceful appeals for medical help or conservation, depend on emotional broadsides. The effective message is so abstract that no counterargument can be suggested. In fact, as the authors comment, historically the best way to argue with an effective poster was to put another poster over it.

The American war posters are the most innocent, portraying war as a slightly more serious version of team sports. The only really vicious American posters are the anti-Japanese ones. Recruiting posters, even during wartime, suggest duty and adventure more than sacrifice or revenge. And at the most illogical end of the spectrum was Howard Chandler Christy's flirtatious "Christy girl," who was dressed up in Navy uniforms and gave the boys come-hither looks. The promise was intentionally obscure, but as Wor ld War I recruiting tools they worked.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.