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At the Heinz History Center, Soul Soldiers reconnoiters the African-American experience during Vietnam. 


The instant you enter the exhibit Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era, there's confusion. Some of it is aural: The ambient noise in the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center gallery includes a mash-up of voice-over narration from a video monitor overhead with Country Joe and the Fish asking (from somewhere), "What are we fightin' for?" Visually, the displays lining the walls and filling glass cases seem to eschew the traditional guided tour. There's no obvious "right" path through.

Not knowing where to turn suggests an obvious metaphor for the wrenching, still unresolved experiences Soul Soldiers documents. As assembled by Samuel W. Black, curator of the museum's African American Collection, the exhibit is informative and often affecting, though it also feels incomplete and occasionally at odds with itself.

Soul Soldiers explores African-American life both at home and in Southeast Asia during a war that coincided with a surge in "expression of political and cultural identity" for blacks -- for many of whom fighting in Vietnam only emphasized the inequalities they still faced at home.

A similar dissonance marked World War II, of course. But even that conflict (fought with a segregated military) had little to compare to Muhammad Ali's bold conscientious-objector stand -- let alone the explosion of black consciousness among servicemen themselves. Soul Soldiers is at its best here, for instance in a continuously screening documentary exploring such phenomena as the stylish, sign-language-like greeting called "the dap." For soldiers like Homewood native Bruce Snyder (Pittsburgh vets feature prominently in Soul Soldiers), the dap forged identity. "Now I had a mission," says Snyder in the 12-minute video: He was "a black man in a white man's army."

Indeed, the voices of some black soldiers echoed Vietcong propaganda asking why they'd fight for a country that abused them. In 1969, in a hand-lettered journal displayed here, James Curt Standifer wrote: "So why should me, a brother of soul, whose war is on the streets in the states be fighting here?" Among the exhibit's more fascinating artifacts is a life-sized wooden sculpture a Vietnamese woman gave to infantryman Donald Harris. It depicts two forearms, shackled like a slave's, hands fisted, its base painted in stripes of pan-African black, red and green; Harris and his comrades considered it a protective idol. Nearby, a photo of a smiling black soldier guarding a tentful of crouching Vietnamese complicates the picture further.

Recognition that black soldiers died in combat out of proportion to their numbers (especially early in the war) joins a display on Project 100,000, Lyndon Johnson's push to boost troop numbers by lowering testing standards, and evidence of aggressive recruitment. "Your son can be Black and Navy too," reads a poster depicting a serious-faced young man in dashiki and afro -- hung alongside images of honored black Vietnam vets Col. Daniel James and future Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The exhibit also smartly contextualizes pop culture. A 30-song listening station (with lyrics sheets) features contemporaneous war-themed tracks from Funkadelic to Marvin Gaye, Swamp Dogg to Nina Simone. A poster for the 1973 Paul Winfield film Gordon's War -- "He's got a four-man army and a foolproof plan" -- suggests how Americans tried to redeem at home a war that seemed lost abroad.

Still, Soul Soldiers feels sketchy in spots. One display, for instance, highlights the Mau Maus, a black nationalist group "organized in Vietnam to protect against prejudice and intimidation." But what kind of "prejudice and intimidation"? Perpetrated by whom? Protected against how? The exhibit doesn't say (although a fine companion book, edited by Black and for sale here, fills many such holes).

Most tellingly, though, the exhibit inevitably reflects our culture's conflicted feelings about U.S. soldiers and the ill-conceived cause they fought and died for. In the show's centerpiece documentary, for instance, narration scripted by Black calls the war "a blinded example of American imperialism"; moments later, the narration -- spoken by local TV producer and Vietnam vet Chris Moore -- says of black soldiers, "It was an act of their soul to help make America a great nation." It's respectful rhetoric, but given how unwillingly so many Vietnam vets served, it can't square idealistic sacrifice with geopolitical delusion.

Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era continues through Nov. 11. Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-454-6000 or www.pghhistory.org

click to enlarge Greetings: Soldiers in Vietnam do the dap. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HEINZ HISTORY CENTER.
  • Photo courtesy of Heinz History Center.
  • Greetings: Soldiers in Vietnam do the dap.

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