The Racist Caricatures of African Soldiers that Soothed French Colonial Anxieties
With a Weapon and a Grin, a new book by Stephan Likosky, traces the iconography used to infantilize African soldiers who fought in the French army during World War I.
An iconic image of the tirailleur sénégalais used in an ad for the breakfast drink Banania (all images courtesy Schiffer Publishing)
The image of a smiling woman from Antilles, standing between two bushels of bananas, was the first image used in 1912 to advertise Banania, a banana-flavored chocolate drink most widely distributed in France. Three years later, she was replaced with a smiling African man holding a spoon of the drink like a child and accompanied with the slogan, “Y’a bon” — a phrase of pidgin French that translates to, “It’s good.”
Wearing a red chechia cap and often depicted with a rifle, the figure specifically represented the tirailleurs sénégalais, or Senegalese soldiers who fought in the French army during World War I. The character was just one of many widely circulated racist illustrations of these colonial troops, thousands of whom were recruited to serve France in its battle against Germany. Not all were from Senegal — other men were brought from their homes in Guinea and Mali, for instance — but they were referred to in France under one blanket term, and a slew of demeaning caricatures came to erase their identities and represent them, created as propaganda for France.
Postcard of a Red Cross nurse helping a wounded African soldier, with the caption, “White sister and Black brother”
The function of this careful manipulation of the image of African infantrymen between 1914 and 1918 is explored in With a Weapon and a Grin, a heavily researched book by Stephan Likosky recently published by Schiffer Publishing. Illustrated with over 150 images, the title analyzes a range of stereotypical images of the black African soldier, who was characterized as both heroic and strong, but still limited in his power, as in the Banania advertisements that suggest a subservient and harmless individual.
“Propaganda would help reassure the French that the African savage was now a disciplined soldier willing to serve his mother country,” as Likosky writes. “At the same time, his image would be softened to show a less threatening side: he was now a naive and child-like figure — a grand enfant — amicable and ever ready to flash a broad smile.”
The propaganda primarily took the form of postcards, commercially made, mass distributed, and cheap to procure and send. Those illustrating the book come from Likosky’s personal collection, and are organized into chapters based on their intended messages. His selection exemplifies how these images’ meanings glaringly contradict one another; how the expressions and actions of soldiers were blithely tweaked in all kinds of ways to serve a political purpose.
Some examples show soldiers as proud, disciplined defenders of France, in full uniform and standing tall — but the men are sometimes barefoot to indicate “savagery.” Still others portray the tirailleur as ruthless and wild to scare German enemies, showing soldiers committing acts of cannibalism or mutilation, from holding up an ear to raising the bloodied heads of Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Franz Joseph. One chapter explores the trope of the wounded warrior, intended to underscore sacrifices colonial troops supposedly willingly made. Men were often shown with nurses, and made to look childlike and dependent on their caretakers. Many of these postcards also include dialogue, written in the highly simplified, petit nègre pidgin language that further characterized subjects as unsophisticated or immature.
A postcard in a set of three of a boyish looking soldier holding two German spiked helmets, with the caption, “Glory to Greater France”
Used for everyday communication, these postcards were largely successful in instilling nationwide support for colonial troops while enforcing racist attitudes toward them. There are some doses of reality within the book’s pages, captured in photo postcards, including scenes of African soldiers arriving in Marseille, or hospital wards that integrated white and black patients. But some of these are stylized to carry similar messages as illustrated postcards, such as one studio portrait of a boyish soldier carrying German helmets. And other photographs that seem void of propagandist function, like images of soldiers washing clothes in a river or simply eating, did actually serve a purpose of making them more identifiable to French citizens, to show that they were not threatening to society.
As Likosky writes, the French government’s campaigns to recruit soldiers were met with resistance, with thousands fleeing to the bush, maiming themselves, and even committing suicide. About 31,000 died during the war; survivors who were shipped back to Africa, he writes, returned with new ways of thinking that influenced the growth of African independence movements. One enlisted man was Léopold Senghor, who, in 1960, was elected as the first President of the Republic of Senegal. In 1948, he had penned a poem singling out for the racist, war-time role of the Banania “Grand Enfant” figure, writing, “I will tear off the banania grins from all the walls of France.” The company only abandoned the “Y’a bon” slogan in 1977, and the figure’s face slowly evolved into the cartoon rendering of an African boy that appears in its logo today. He still wears a red cap — and his grinning face is one quiet but lingering trace of the racist character, the legacy of an iconography created nearly a century ago.
Poscard of three soldiers — an Indian, a North African, and a tirailleur sénégalais during a battle
With a Weapon and a Grin is available through Schiffer Publishing.