Celebrate People’s History: The Poster Book of Resistance and Revolution
Edited by Josh MacPhee, Foreword by Rebecca Solnit
The Feminist Press
New York, 2010
The truism has it right. If you’re not depressed or angry about the state of the world, you’re not paying attention. A quick glance at the daily headlines is enough to have many of us wringing our hands in despair. Countless wars seem like they’ll never end; social welfare programs are being slashed; the Tea Party is on the rise; ultraconservatives have picked up the mantle of feminism; and schoolyard bullies have pushed an escalating number of LGBTQ youth to commit suicide, to name just a few of the atrocities presently hitting home. Scary times, we tell each other as we try to muster the wherewithal for a meaningful fightback.
Enter Celebrate People’s History, a stunning look at street art – usually in the form of two-color posters – that recognizes the countless men and women who, since time immemorial, have participated in political actions to challenge the status quo. Meant to be displayed publicly rather than in galleries, museums, or in private collections, the posters were created by an ad hoc group of more than 90 artists. For more than 12 years, these creative agitators have surreptitiously taken buckets of wheat paste and cheaply made drawings and affixed them to walls throughout the US. Along the way, they’ve educated viewers about dozens of rebellions, from the 1600s to the present. The posters – many of them visually spectacular – inspire a question: how can we use the audacious examples Celebrate People’s History presents to kick-start a present-day movement that favors human needs over exploitation?
“I’ve asked artists and designers to find events, groups, and people throughout history who were inspiring in some way, who moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world,” editor and artist Josh MacPhee writes in the book’s introduction. “The posters tell stories from the subjective position of the artists. They are very often the stories of the underdogs, those marginalized, or written out of mainstream histories.”
Yes, indeed. In fact, the text that is included on each poster is both instructive and awe-inspiring, frequently teaching the viewer something completely new. Take MacPhee’s tribute to white abolitionist John Brown. Rather than recounting the details of Brown’s failed attack on Harper’s Ferry, the poster includes the words of Henry David Thoreau:
Those who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. … It was John Brown’s peculiar doctrine that a man [sic] has a perfect right to interfere by force with his slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him.
Similarly, Darrell Gane-McCalla teaches us that Harriet Tubman was the first, and, to date, the only, US woman to direct a military action. “On June 3, 1863, Tubman led union troops in a guerrilla action at Combahee River, South Carolina, leading over 750 slaves to freedom,” the poster reports.
And then there’s the celebration of May Day, Eric Drooker’s strikingly beautiful homage to four Haymarket martyrs – Chicago labor organizers who were hanged by the government in 1886 – and the unionists who struggled to win the eight-hour workday.
Anarchism is on bold display in Celebrate People’s History, and the artists’ elevation of this ideology ranges from the direct to the subtle. Ben Rubin’s poster of feminist Emma Goldman, for example, depicts her as a playing card queen, bomb in one hand and condom in the other. Lesser-known anarchists, including lesbian physician Marie Equi, who lived from 1872-1952, are introduced alongside better-known figures such as Sacco and Vanzetti.
Although the book’s 110 posters touch on a wide swath of subjects, a large number showcase early trade union struggles. Shaun Slifter and Sara Meister’s lavender and purple tribute to the Kalamazoo Corset Strike of 1912 acknowledges the bravery of garment workers who organized against sexual harassment. Their argument, decades before second-wave feminists raised the issue, was that earning a living should not require female workers to provide sexual favors to male bosses or foremen. Dave Loewenstein’s gorgeous poster, called The Amazon Army, is another standout. The poster lauds a group of Kansas women who marched in solidarity with striking miners. “On December 12, 1921, the women began their march on the mines, armed only with the American flag, which they carried to make clear that the values it symbolized were synonymous to those of their cause,” it tells us.
Recognition is also given to the Bonus Marchers of 1932, World War I veterans who demanded that the government make good on promised benefits; the Tennessee-based Highlander Folk School, an important training ground for early Civil Rights activists; and The Jane Collective, an underground group that performed approximately 11,000 illegal abortions between 1969 and 1973.
International activism also gets a shout-out when the artwork spotlights groups including Matzpen, the first anti-Zionist organization in Israel, and Las Madres De La Plaza De Mayo, a group of Argentinean mothers and grandmothers who spent years protesting the kidnapping, torture and murder of their children during the Dirty War.
Despite its focus on the past, Celebrate People’s History is a paean to ongoing activism, and the book offers a graphic reminder that people all over the world continue to oppose colonialism, war, workplace violence and exploitation, sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination.
“The streets aren’t dead to political dialogue,” McPhee writes in his introduction. “If we make art that speaks to people’s interests, history, and desires, and bring it into public spaces, people might actually engage with it.”
“The streets still matter,” Rebecca Solnit concurs in the book’s foreword. “When the walls wake up, they remind us of who we are, where we are, whose shoulders we stand on. They make the world a place that speaks to us as we travel through it, that tells us we are not alone, others have gone before, and hope remains ahead.”
It’s easy to forget these truths as we watch country after country move rightward. Yet if history teaches us anything, it is this: The impulse to resist oppression is inherent in human beings. What’s more, small groups of artists and activists can spur revolt, pushing against repression and, sometimes – albeit infrequently – even winning.
The posters in Celebrate People’s History can be purchased through justseeds.org.