PRESENTATIONS BY FOUR FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY GRADUATE STUDENTS
Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to sit in on four Powerpoint presentations made by Florida International University graduate students taking Professor Dennis Wiedman’s Ethnohistorical Methods class. The topics these students had chosen were very diverse, ranging from an exploration of African-American image-making; changes in vacuum cleaner design between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; Italian fascist propaganda concerning North Africa; and the General and Special Catholic Action movements in the interwar period.
The first presenter, Marquita Reed began her talk on “The Reconstruction of the African-American Image: Johnson Publishing Company, 1950 – 1970,” by first reviewing the deplorable stereotypes that Johnson publications such as Negro Digest, Ebony, Jet, and Black World attempted to eradicate and replace with a positive Black image. Although the Wolfsonian Library does not hold runs of these popular post-war periodicals, Ms. Reed was able to draw upon some of the stereotypical images of African-Americans from the earlier era to establish the background against which the Johnson publications tried to change.
The library has just recently acquired a children’s book published in 1940 with a message considered very progressive for its era in which a single white nurse adopts an abandoned African-American infant that is brought to the hospital by concerned citizens.
In her own work, Ms. Reed focused a great deal on the advertisements aimed at African-American readers that employed African-American models in middle class consumer roles. She noted some of the changes over time in which ads for hair straightening gels and skin bleaching creams gave way to a new line of products that celebrated an African-American racial identity on the cusp of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. The Wolfsonian also holds a number of vintage labels for products aimed at African-American consumers emphasizing the earlier assimilationist attitudes.
FIU student Joseph O’Leary presented on the topic: “Tracing Vacuum Cleaner Design from 1890 to 1939.” His talk and slide show covered the transition from sweepers to vacuums and argued that changes in the design and appearance of these cleaning tools had more to do with consumer desires than technological improvements. Mr. O’Leary also focused on deconstructing the imagery of advertisements for sweepers and vacuums with the aim of exploring the underlying gender, class, and societal changes that advertisers and industrial designers needed to take into consideration.
The next presentation looked at “Propaganda and Italian Fascism in Imagery and Architecture in Northern Africa.” Jimmy Wong looked at a series of propaganda postcards produced by the Fascist government to justify their invasion of Ethiopia as well as at the architectural buildings erected at the Tripoli Trade Fairs to promote fascist colonial initiatives in Libya.
The library has a wealth of propagandistic materials produced by Mussolini’s regime, including a number of school notebooks, display card, leaflets, and even medical pamphlets promoting Italian colonial activities in North Africa.
Just this month, the library has added another “colonial tourism” brochure published in 1936.
Ironically, even as the fascists began to grow increasingly strident in their calls for the separation of the races in the late 1930s, much of the imagery calling young men to military service in North Africa emphasized the eroticism and beauty of half-naked native women encouraging them to equate military and sexual conquest.
The last presenter for the day, Joseph Holbrook, spun “A Tale of Two Catholicisms,” examining the Catholic Action lay movements that developed very differently in Italy and Franco-Belgium between 1922 and 1939. Mr. Holbrook was especially interested in investigating the influence that the competing “secular religious” movements of fascism and communism had on the development and evolution of the general and specialized Catholic Action movements.
While it was the German Communist Karl Liebknecht who coined the phrase: “He who has the youth, has the future,” all of these groups believed likewise and considered the other to be a competitive threat in their battle for the custody of the child. Mr. Holbrook spent much of his research time in our library looking over such periodicals as Gioventù Fascista in order to establish how the fascists attempted to exercise exclusive control over the hearts and minds of Italian youth.