Vivid Posters Tell a “People’s History” Over 125 Years

“Occupy Oakland” poster by Zeke Peña, featured in Celebrate People’s History (Feminist Press, 2020), edited by Josh MacPhee (all images courtesy Feminist Press)

Twenty-two years ago, on the West Side of Chicago, a small group of artists began a grassroots campaign. Tired of the corporate ads covering their neighborhood, they began wheat-pasting posters of Malcolm X over abandoned storefronts, in an attempt to bring some history and political dialogue back onto the walls of public space. Soon after, folks started to gather, curious to learn more about what they were doing and how they could get a poster for themselves.

This sparked a few ideas for Josh MacPhee, one of the artists involved, who designed the aforementioned image of Malcolm X. “It taught me that if we make art that speaks to people’s interests, history, and desires, and bring it into the spaces we share, people will actually engage with it. The streets aren’t dead to political dialogue,” he writes in the introduction of Celebrate People’s History, a compelling text which gathers over 125 posters that grew out of this initial campaign. Now in its second edition from the Feminist Press, the book pays tribute to the idea of a “people’s history.” Appropriately, this edition also features forewords by the activists and writers Charlene Carruthers and Rebecca Solnit.

The cover of Celebrate People’s History (Feminist Press, 2020), edited by Josh MacPhee

Rather than memorialize a small group of canonized figures, Celebrate People’s History affirms that the fight for social justice has been pushed forward by countless individuals and collectives, many of whose names may be less familiar. From the Battle of Mactan in 1521 (poster designed by Kill Joy) to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (Dylan at Miner), up through the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot of 1966 (André Perez) and the more recent toppling of white supremacist monuments (Brett Colley), it is the actions of many rather than the few that have brought us to where we are today. As Carruthers writes, “Be it graffiti on the apartheid wall in Palestine or the peace walls in Northern Ireland, people make visual art to tell stories everywhere, especially in times of entrenched violence and systemic oppression.”

To give you a taste of what this edition has in store, we’ve excerpted parts of Carruthers’s foreword, along with selections of the vivid posters compiled. As we continue to resist the growing tide of fascism and fight, let these posters help serve as a map for what resistance can continue to look like in the future.

Dessane Lopez Cassell 

* * *

Celebrate People’s History transports me back to when I was a little girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago. It was then that I fell in love with the idea that I could peek into the lives of people who lived long before I did. I made up movies in my mind while reading. I imagined myself inside of stories whenever images were available. I lost myself in stories about the decisions people made, the inventions human minds created, and the struggles every generation of my own people have had to wage in this country and across the globe.

[…] I knew then, even before I had learned the language of social justice movements, that some people kept their control by offering up their versions of history while dismissing the rest as irrelevant or simply too dangerous. Whenever I read a book from the library or the shelf of an adult in my life, I felt like I was being let in on a secret, something that was absent from the news and even from many of my classrooms.

“Madres De Plaza” poster by John Isaacson, featured in Celebrate People’s History (Feminist Press, 2020), edited by Josh MacPhee

[…] I would learn much later about the details left out and just how much of what I learned in public school was shaped by patriarchal, anti-Black, white supremacist, and capitalist interests. Each poster in this book fills in the details every person in the world should learn. Each poster, its craft and reach, reflects how an individual can contribute to the collective in accessible and affordable ways. At risk of sounding cliché, these artists are showing us what democracy could look like through work that has reached tens of thousands of spaces across the world.

My teenage self had no idea that I would go on to be a part of local, national, and global struggles for collective liberation. I just knew that I always had to ask questions about everything I was taught. I always wanted to know what was missing. Many of my teachers encouraged us to do so. Their encouragement made me a sharper thinker, educator, and community organizer.

Damon Locks’s “Jamaican Maroons Fend Off the British,” featured in Celebrate People’s History (Feminist Press, 2020), edited by Josh MacPhee

[…] I’ve witnessed the value of seeing oneself in movements for resistance and revolution across time. The reality for far too many people—those who are Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, disabled, LGBTQIA+, im/migrant, incarcerated, poor, working class, and many more—is that our histories are quarantined and often surface when beneficial for corporate and state benefit. This dynamic prevents everyday people who organize together for collective liberation from forming complete stories about our past and present.

[…] Art has the power to shatter the barriers to knowledge created by the people who wield their power with repression, violence, and misinformation. The images inside of this poster book, which reach well across communities, weaken the stronghold that gatekeepers to history hold over our lives. Through colors, words, and a wide array of artistic approaches, all viewers and readers are invited to engage with humanity’s contradictions.

“Jane” poster by Meredith Stern, featured in Celebrate People’s History (Feminist Press, 2020), edited by Josh MacPhee

This poster book also illustrates a history of humanity in which no single person is the savior. The tapestry laid across each page shows how everyday people have always been at the helm of efforts for collective liberation. […] Black feminist playwright and filmmaker Toni Cade Bambara said that the work of a cultural worker is to “make revolution irresistible.” I now imagine how my path as an organizer, and my commitment to revolution in my own lifetime, would have shifted if my classroom had been covered with posters from this book. What if I had seen Damon Locks’s “Jamaican Maroons Fend Off the British” poster while learning about the US Civil War? I might have understood that Black liberation is indeed a global struggle. What if John Isaacson’s “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” or Meredith Stern’s “Jane” posters were in the room when I first learned about reproductive health and reproductive justice? I might have understood my options more clearly as a young woman and centered bodily autonomy in my work much earlier. […]

Successful liberation movements have always reckoned with the pain and the joy of the past, leading them to form demands reflective of not just a few people but as many as possible. Be it graffiti on the apartheid wall in Palestine or the peace walls in Northern Ireland, people make visual art to tell stories everywhere, especially in times of entrenched violence and systemic oppression. […] Each artist included in this book provides us with the building blocks we all need to develop a more complete story of collective struggles toward freedom, across many roads, bodies of water, and times in history. This is an invitation to craft more complete solutions that will remain open for as long as our collective memories exist.

— Charlene Carruthers, 2020

“Toppling White Supremacy in Durham” poster by Brett Colley, featured in Celebrate People’s History (Feminist Press, 2020), edited by Josh MacPhee

Celebrate People’s History (2020) is edited by Josh MacPhee, and features forewords by Charlene Carruthers and Rebecca Solnit. The second edition is now available from the Feminist Press

Enjoy an excerpt of Celebrate People’s History, a timely book of political posters reprinted by the Feminist Press.Read MoreBooks, Charlene Carruthers, Feminist Press, Josh MacPhee, Poster Art, Rebecca SolnitHyperallergicRead More

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