October 29, 2015, by Michael Jennings

War, race and imagery

James Brookes is a PhD student in the American and Canadian Studies department, where he is writing a dissertation on the visual culture of American Civil War soldiers. He recently completed an MRes thesis on photographic portraiture’s relationship with Union citizen-soldiers. He is a research associate with the Centre for Research in Race and Rights.

On November 13 at 6pm, Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier and PhD researchers Rosemary Pearce and James Brookes will participate in a discussion on race and visual culture across three major modern conflicts at Waterstones Nottingham. To mark the close of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the American Civil War and to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the First World War, this discussion will focus on those neglected by conventional military histories, African Americans. Despite their significant contribution to every war the United States has fought in its history, our collective memories too often relegate African Americans to peripheral positions in our understanding of American conflict.

Visual culture pertaining to the African American martial experience reinforces the significance of these agents. Imagery provides a new lens with which we can gain innovative insights into the complexities of the African American at war. It provides ballast for those textual stories held in diaries, letters, memoirs, and official reports, whilst simultaneously opening new avenues of research to broaden our understanding of a frequently understated subject. When viewed together, it is evident that African Americans have consistently viewed soldierly service as a precursor to citizenship, believing that exhibiting martial qualities in battle would guarantee the rights of citizenship in peace. In the face of relentless prejudice and discrimination, African American soldiers have displayed an acute awareness of the opportunities afforded to them by martial service.

Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier, author of the new book Suffering and Sunset: World War I in the Art and Life of Horace Pippin, will discuss the self-made artist and soldier Horace Pippin, who served in an all-black infantry regiment in the First World War until he suffered a wound on the Western Front. Conflict provided a formative experience that defined much of Pippin’s life and work. His ability to transform combat service into canvases of emotive power, psychological depth, and realism showed not only how he viewed the world but also his mastery as a painter. Bernier’s book painstakingly traces Pippin’s life story of art as a life story of war. It is also the first intellectual history and cultural biography of Pippin, revealing his many artful resistances to racism in a white-dominated art world.

Special Easter Eggs for Hitler, 1945," (Photo was taken on March 10, 1945, during the Battle of Remagen). National Archives

Special Easter Eggs for Hitler, 1945,” (Photo was taken on March 10, 1945, during the Battle of Remagen). National Archives

Rosemary Pearce, a scholar of the African American experience under segregation, will explore race and imagery at mid-century. When the Second World War broke out, African Americans faced a dilemma of waging a war against fascism abroad whilst suffering racism as second-class citizens at home. African Americans contributed greatly to the U.S. war effort but were constantly exposed to idealised representations of white soldiers in the media. However, the dissemination of images of African American men and women in uniform, and those of decorated military servicemen, instilled pride in the African American community and galvanised them to fight harder against Jim Crow.

David B. Bowser, “24th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops. Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace,” photographic print on carte-de-visite, Courtesy Library of Congress."

David B. Bowser, “24th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops. Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace,” photographic print on carte-de-visite, Courtesy Library of Congress.”

James Brookes, who researches the soldier’s experience and visual culture of the American Civil War, will discuss how African Americans utilised visual culture in the Civil War. By utilising photographic portraiture, African American soldiers exhibited qualities deemed exclusively in the realm of white masculinity. Through these self-stylisation strategies, they appropriated the white American figure of the romanticised citizen-soldier. Through the artwork displayed on their regimental flags, they were able to express their contribution in a war for Union and emancipation. African American soldiers defined themselves as agents of their own liberation.

Together, the scholars will debate the fusion of race and imagery across three major modern wars.

Free and open to all, but please register here.

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