Introduction by Ahmed Habib
Building linkages between different communities is an integral part of our ability to create unity amongst marginalized communities and oppressed peoples from around the world. The connections between the living conditions of an impoverished community in the south of Iraq and a ghettoized community in the south side of Chicago are critical to understanding how the forces that are shaping these communities are one and the same.
White supremacy and capitalism — that is, racism and greed — form the ideological frameworks that led to the American led occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the shutting down of more than 50 schools in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Chicago only last month. The obsession with imposing the market place and its profit obsessed structures and processes as the single method of distributing resources and determining living standards is the same. The racist outlook that renders people living in these two communities as subhuman is also the same.
In many instances, the names of the politicians and the companies that are at play are exactly the same as well. Rahm Emanuel, the current Mayor of Chicago, and architect behind the closures and a litany of other austerity measures that are targeting poor communities in a city with one of the highest rates of gun violence in the United States, also played a critical part in the destruction of Iraq.
I recently spoke to Matthew Cassell while he was in Chicago, and asked him how he thought the attacks on Black and Latino communities in the city were related to the war in Iraq. He told me that when he joined millions of others around the world to protest the war, he and others, “knew it wasn’t only going to be innocent Iraqis suffering as its result,” and that, “working-class Americans would also have to pay the price.” Matthew describes how these same neighborhoods were riddle with military recruiters encouraging young Black and Latino men to fight a war that ended up, “destroying an entire nation overseas as opposed to rebuilding communities at home.”
Prior to his role as mayor of Chicago, Emanuel was a senior advisor to Bill Clinton between 1993 and 1998; a five year period during which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were murdered under the US supported UN sanctions. During that time, Emanuel was an ardent supporter of Apartheid Israel, a stance which he continued to publicly endorse during his time of Chief of Staff with Barack Obama, the new emperor of Iraq.
Companies like Sodexo, a French multinational company, profits from providing services to American military bases abroad and privatized prisons throughout the United States. The occupation and destruction of Iraq and the racist drive to imprison Black youth in America is music to their ears. The list of companies that benefit from the attack on communities in Iraq and Black communities in America is almost identical.
There is no doubt that there are so many connections that can be made between the struggles waged by communities of color in wealthier countries of the West for better living conditions and the struggle being waged by occupied oppressed peoples in Iraq and throughout the global South. These range from the history of colonial theft of Africa, including the Slave Trade that forms the backbone of the history of Black communities in America to the continuing exploitation of communities and their resources.
In the Culture section of the magazine, we aim to investigate different tools employed in our everyday lives to shape our identities and the ways we related to our communities. These include the media, folklore, language, clothing, food, and all different manifestations of identity and belonging, and rejection and exile. That is why I am happy to feature this piece by the late Nofy Fannan, a pioneer in Iraqi hip-hop and a brilliant thinker that was gone way too soon.
In Buffalo Soldier, Nofy looks at some of the ways recruitment campaigns target young Black men to join America’s wars abroad, in place like Iraq. It was an essay that Nofy wrote during his time at Concordia where he studied Communication Studies. We originally shared this piece ten years ago, right after America’s invasion of Iraq. I was keen on republishing it again because the observations Nofy makes are so relevant to this day, and it is important for me to try and encourage the magazine to be a space where people can make connections between Iraq and other struggles around the world.
I also wanted the piece to be a starting point for discussing the history of Iraqis with African origins, and create a space where we can challenge some of the racism that has seeped into the psyche of young Arabs. Dialogue between oppressed communities is so critical to our abilities to overcome the conditions that are holding people back, and I thank Nofy for taking a step in that direction.
Buffalo Soldier, by Nofy Fannan
Advertising. If anything, is a defining feature in today’s society. From billboards to magazines, to television and even product placement, advertising is an enormous industry and a dangerous one. It is dangerous because it is capable of reaching nearly the entire earth’s population, speak to them, convince them to buy not only products, but also, lifestyles, attitudes, and most importantly, ideologies.
After looking at numerous advertisements for various products to decipher, one particular ad campaign stuck out, not because of its shock value, but because of what was being sold. When one thinks of advertising, one immediately thinks of the plethora of products being pitched to the viewer, indeed, the emotions attached to the products are abstract, but for the most part the products themselves are tangible. Whether it’s an ad for jeans or for a soft drink, these commodities can be purchased at your local supermarket or store.
But what if the product itself is just as abstract and political as the denotative and connotative emotions attached to it? This is why for the sake of the challenge, this article will look at US Army/Navy ad campaigns, within a very specific target audience that has a very complex socio-political history with the Army institution itself and the very society that it is a part of.
The medium that these ads were found in was a magazine called “The Source”, which is in their words, “the magazine of hip hop, culture, and politics.” The target audience of this magazine is people who are into hip hop culture and its various elements, ranging from rap music to fashion. The Source also has a political overtone, mainly because its audience share the same socio-political background, seeing that they are mainly Black and Hispanic youth living in the margins of American society.
The magazine also attempts to deal with the issues confronting this marginalized group, like the politics of being Black in America and what that brings with it, namely discrimination and racism. This is why it was interesting to study what kind of ad campaign was devised for the Army/Navy institution targeting specifically this audience, especially when taking into consideration not only their socio-economic background, but also the history of the Army itself with respects to African Americans.
The Buffalo soldier is not only a Bob Marley song. It is part of American history that includes the first regiment of Black soldiers, way before they had civil rights. This segregated regiment called “The Buffalo Soldier” fought and died in wars at home and overseas in order to protect the very same rights and liberties that were not afforded to them back home.
Taken from Africa, brought to America… fighting on arrival, fighting for survival… — Bob Marley
The historical relationship between the Army and their Black soldiers is one that is defined by racism and unjust discrimination. So why is it that even though Blacks historically were brutalized by American institutions such as the Army and the police in times of unrest, do they still make up (along with Hispanics and other minorities) the majority of the present day Army and Navy?
The answer lies in their socio-economic situation, and the advertisers not only know this, but also use it as an effective tool in their campaign.
“…One cannot simply make any propaganda just anywhere, at anytime, or in any fashion. Without a certain milieu propaganda cannot exist…the most obvious of these are historical conditions.” 1
The lack of any real economic opportunities for the millions of Black people living in ghettos all over America is the basis for this specific ad campaign. Blacks cannot find economic and social success as easily as Whites do, especially ones that are born and live poor, with little or no access to proper education.
“Black soldiers, originally classified as laborers, not soldiers, at first received half the pay of white soldiers, despite what they had been promised at the moment of recruitment.” 2
With regards to higher education and even possibly a career, at one time it seemed like African Americans occupying the lower class of America rarely found themselves in college, unless they obtained scholarships, mostly from playing sports. The rest of the population doesn’t have any real opportunities, and the ad campaign presents the Army as an institution that will fill this void.
What must be mentioned first is the fact that all of the ads discussed in this article share the same theme in relation with time. They are all set in the future, as if to tell the viewer that this is what the future holds for you if you join the Army.
The first ad (Plate 1:A) has a picture of a young Black male in the foreground, holding binoculars as if looking into the future. One could immediately tell that he is in the future because he is shaded in a way that implies a dreamlike situation; he sticks out of the picture, with soft, blurry edges. He is dressed in a Navy uniform, with a proud look on his face. In the background is a picture of an aircraft carrier that looks more like a big cruise boat, behind it is what looks like a picturesque Mediterranean village, with blue skies hovering over it.
Within the scenic blue skies lies a message: “You’re born, you go to school, and then one day things to being to get interesting.” The positioning of this message is critical because its connotative implications create an air of divine authority; it is as if God himself said it. The colors in this ad are also very revealing; from the ocean, to the skyline and the soldier’s uniform, everything is blue, which is very significant seeing that gender socialization for boys always includes the color blue.
In this regard, the Army is a “masculine job”, and therefore it is fitting that a man is in the picture of the ad. Studying the Army’s sexist history, one could also argue that the Army’s ideal recruit is naturally a man.
The second advertisement (Plate 1:B) bears many similarities with the first one. It too is blue, with a boat in the background and a Black man in the foreground. What is interesting about this ad is the print, where its starts off by saying: “Prepare for college and beyond in the US Navy, you can earn up to $40,000 for college…” This says a lot about the socio-economic relationship between the target audience and America, and the Army is addressing the issue in a straightforward manner, in effect saying that they know that young Black people in America don’t have the same opportunities as Whites, and the army will fill that void by educating and employing them. Education is an important factor in this ad because the man in the picture is wearing some kind of head set, which connotes the mastery of technology (through knowledge and education) that can be acquired when joining the Navy.
Following in the theme of self-betterment, the third advertisement (Plate 2: C) includes a background image of a young Black boy, with a hood over his head and a chain, but ripping away from that image (done through an effect that looks like another image is ripping out of it) is another image of the same boy, who now is wearing a suit and a clean haircut, with a serious look on his face. In this ‘before and after’ design, the argument is furthered by the racial undertones of the text which reads “Scratch the surface of a leader…”
The fourth image (Plate 2: D) is that of a multi cultural group of Navy officers in the foreground, standing in front of a Navy ship and the American flag. They are all holding musical instruments and have big smiles on their faces. The viewer knows that although there is a White man in the picture, the ad tells a story of one of the Black officers because there is a timeline that points to him. His name is Aaron Womack, we know this because his nametag is clear and his name is printed on the top of the timeline. At 19, the story goes, the journey begins, and then it goes to describe the career and academic success Aaron has enjoyed since joining the Navy, from playing with his band in Singapore to earning various certificates.
What all the ads have in common is the often used method of framing which “essentially involves selection and salience. To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient…”. 3 The framing in the ads connote the idea of travel and adventure, and excludes pictures of weapons and the associations which accompany them; death, killing, injury, hardships, etc.
Also, “by looking for the recurrent themes in how advertising portrays such people, we are being trained to understand the idealized images constructed in the world of advertising.” 4 The idealized image is that of a refined and happy Black man, finding success in the Army and Navy while experiencing the world through travel. And this image is communicated successfully through the use of photography, which is prevalent amongst all of them. “Photography is the chosen artistic mode for advertising because of its deceptive ability to present fictions as if they were realities.” 5
The commodity being sold is an idea, one of happiness and success; it’s also a way out for poor Black youth. Commodity fetishism is at work in these ads because it has taken out the original meaning of the army (death, killing, and also a symbol of oppression) and replaced it with a newer, happier one. And infusing the ads with an air of magic accomplishes their communications goal.
“Consumers are also manipulated by an advertisement’s promise that the product will do something special for them- something magical that will transform their lives.” 6
The techniques used in all these ads share the same stylistic characteristics because of their overall message, which speaks to the target audience. In effect, they all tell the viewer to join the Army and Navy and receive what society itself can’t give you but these institutions can, turning you from a poor Black boy to a successful, educated and cultured Black man.
1 Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Random House of Canada Limited, 1964. 88.
2 Redkey, Edward S. Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army 1861-1865. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 48.
3 Entman, R. M. (1993), Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43: 51–58.
4 O’Barr, William M. Culture And The Ad: Exploring Otherness In The World Of Advertising. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994. 3.
5 Fowles, Jib. Advertising and Popular Culture. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1996. 39.
6 Jhally, Sut. The Codes of Advertising: Fetishism and the Political Economy of Meaning in the Consumer Society. New York, NY: Routledge, 1990. 25.