Friday, October 29, 2010

Guest Post: Anita Burton reviews Soul Soldiers at the Western Reserve Historical Society

This week I am pleased to share the first of four guest blog posts written by the students in my Exhibition Development and Design class at Walsh University. This semester my students are learning about the elements and principles museums employ in creating successful exhibits and valuable visitor experiences. As we draw nearer to the end of this fall term, each of my students will present her own perspective on an exhibit, book, or experience that resonates with her.

Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era

Guest Post by: Anita Burton
Last weekend I was able to go to the Western Reserve Historical Society to see an exhibit they are currently featuring called Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era. This traveling exhibit was developed by Pittsburgh’s John Heinz History Center, and its Cleveland appearance is sponsored by the African American Archives Auxiliary of the Western Reserve Historical Society. Soul Soldiers is about African American soldiers fighting in Vietnam, while their friends and family members were fighting their own battle during the Civil Rights movement. The African American soldiers were called "soul soldiers" because they brought their souls to war with them and brought “soul” to the war, a phrase that can have many different meanings. I was drawn to the exhibit initially because it has to do with the Vietnam War, which as morbid as it may seem is one of my favorite eras in history. 

I had my own expectations upon entering the exhibit as most visitors do, something both Nina Simon and John Falk discuss in their recent books. I knew I was going to see artifacts and pictures pertaining to the war in Vietnam and the African American soldiers who were fighting in it. Of course, I did see both photographs and artifacts in the exhibit, but I got a lot more along with it. From the music of the time, to the issues African Americans faced while fighting for their own rights here in the United States, the exhibit covered multiple aspects of the Vietnam War from an African American perspective. The exhibit also included some social objects, which were very meaningful objects, and audio/visual tools that helped to drive the meaning home to the visitor.

As all visitors do, when I arrived I also had expectations of my enjoyment of the exhibit. I knew I would like it, just because of the subject of the exhibit. Object wise, I figured on seeing the typical photographs and artifacts, possibly uniforms, or even diaries written while fighting. As far as content or the information included, I am not sure what I expected, but I got a lot more then one might have initially thought. The exhibit talked about everything pertaining to the Vietnam War and the African American perspective. The very beginning starts off with information about Vietnam and the history of the war itself. It gave just the basics for those who do not know much about the war or the country. It then moved into a quick background on the Civil Rights movement, again to give those without much knowledge on these events a basis for viewing some of the other parts of the exhibit. 

Image courtesy of the Western Reserve
Historical Society
As you move on through the exhibit you see how some African Americans were drafted-- it even showed some of the draft posters that targeted African Americans specifically. The exhibit then went on to cover African Americans fighting in Vietnam, and how they dealt with the aftermath of the war. It talked about the ways the black soldiers communicated. They had this form of communicating with their hands that was described by some as their own form of sign language. The soldiers could meet up with friends they had not seen in a while and tell them everything their unit had been through without saying a word to each other. Finally, at the very end, the exhibit even included some artwork done by some of the veteran Soul Soldiers. I felt the exhibit did a good job of detailing facts about the war and the struggles the African American soldiers went through. Too many times we only see the white aspect of the war.

I felt that there were a couple good social objects featured in the exhibit. These were the ones that particularly caught my attention and caused me to think. One was a carving done by a Vietnamese woman and presented to one of the soldiers. It was a figure of two fists. While this may not seem like much, once you put it into context it makes a great deal of sense. Yes, it was a statue depicting two fists, but this was the symbol for black pride. It was used during the civil rights movement for African Americans to show their strength and pride. This carving was given to a soldier, who was a commanding officer of some units, and it became a kind of good luck charm. The label next to this statue said that it was placed somewhere where all had access to it, and before leaving to go on any mission every man in the unit touched it. It was a symbol of luck and even prayer for these soldiers. 

One of the other pieces I personally found to be very expressive was a piece of art created by one of the African American veterans. This particular piece was called “Crossfire” by William M. Myles. The painting showed an African American man in the midst of war with bullets going in every direction, and he himself getting hit many times. Bullets hit him and caused him to bleed red, white and blue blood. This image struck me as very moving, and again could start many conversations as to the significance behind the different parts of the artwork. For being a smaller exhibit, they had a good deal of what can be considered social objects-- objects that can start discussion on touchy subjects, such as both the civil rights movement and Vietnam War.

Also included in the exhibit, which I thought was a good touch, were the audio/visual parts of the exhibit. Today it seems like everyone wants to listen and watch, as if nobody wants to read information; they want it read to them. At the very beginning of the exhibit is a video that sums up the subject and gives you a little bit of a background on what you are going to be seeing in throughout the exhibit. This video was very well put together and informative. There were two places where you could hear the personal accounts of different soldiers talking about how they got drafted, and one also talked about his part in the civil rights movement. Another audio portion of the exhibit was the station that included about twenty or so songs written and performed by black artists and also talked about the war. Some were popular songs, others were very rare, but visitors could listen, and the lyrics were available as well. Since I personally love music, especially from that era, I was drawn to it. I sat for a few minutes listening to some of the different songs and briefly reading some of the lyrics to songs that had a lot of meaning. I felt the audio/visual parts of the exhibit did their job in drawing in the visitors, but did not overpower the objects and photographs placed throughout the exhibit.

The Soul Soldiers exhibit was very well put together and I greatly enjoyed it. It did a good job depicting the Vietnam War through an African American soldier’s perspective and helped to show what they went through, having to deal with fighting a war overseas and also fighting for their own rights at home. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of information included and the detail put into the exhibit. The social objects and audio/visual portions of the exhibit helped to capture the visitor’s attention and start conversation among visitors. In all, I very much enjoyed my visit to Soul Soldiers exhibit and would recommend it to many. 

Soul Soldiers is on view at the Western Reserve Historical Society now through November, 27th, 2010. For more information, visit the museum online at

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