A Fine Line Between Satire and Myth: On Stereotypical Images
By Shantay Robinson
The black community was in an uproar recently when luxury product company, Prada, released a line of products featuring a character resembling Sambo. Every once in a while, the black community has to demand that either a sole individual or a multinational corporation reevaluate the choices they make when representing black images. Whether it’s a Halloween costume or a product, white people tend to be unconscious to the significance of these stereotypical depictions for black people. For centuries, everyday household products were created that used negative images depicting black people in ways that demeaned their humanity. They were also used in advertisements in plain view. It was a campaign to erase the humanness of black people.
In “Memories and Memorabilia, Art and Identity,” Michael D. Harris eloquently states, “In the post-Civil War period the stereotypical caricatures of blacks served to confirm to whites an image of blacks that justified their continued oppression and, on a global level, the colonial domination and exploitation of Africa and Africans for hegemonic European interests.”
These items came in the form of toys, knickknacks, and figurines. Coon cookie jars, postcards of alligators chasing black babies, and handkerchief-wearing-Aunt Jemima clocks could be bought in broad daylight from many stores. These images reinforced the perception white people used to justify the treatment of black people. And the degrading images on products, that were part of everyday America, reinforced stereotypes for generations of people. The images on these products, not only defended the racist notions white people had of black people, they demoralized black people with their intentionally hurtful visual rhetoric.
There were several archetypes that could be found circulating the country up until the 1960s. There were Sambo, Mammy, Jezebel, the savage black man and picanninies. The Sambo image of grinning black men with dark skin and bright red lips depicted black men as jolly niggers happy to serve white people. The Mammy who tended to be large in size and asexual was also happy to care for white families. Jezebel would steal away with white women’s husbands. And the savage black man would rape white women. Picanninies were unkempt black children. These stereotypes denied black people of inherent individuality, and lumped them together in groups for convenient racism.
Harris notes that visual artists throughout the times these images were most popular attempted to counter these images with their own perceptions of black people. Henry Ossawa Tanner’s, The Banjo Lesson (1893) was not simply a portrait of an older man and younger man playing the banjo, but a reaction to the idea that black people didn’t possess the intellectual capacity to engage in artistic pursuits such as learning an instrument. In this depiction, Tanner counters the childish stereotype of Sambo, a frivolous man without the ability to formulate coherent sentences. In addition to countering the narrative with more positive images, African American artists have intentionally remixed stereotypical images and created art that directly addresses these stereotypes. Robert Colescott remade Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters into Eat Dem Taters by inserting black face images into the painting. In Interpreting Art: Reflecting, Wondering and Responding by Terry Barrett, Colescott is quoted as stating, “It’s a polemical painting. It’s a frontal and brutal attack on the myth of the ‘happy darkie,’ with a raw almost minstrel element in it. It has always been convenient for white people to believe that black people can sing and laugh and be happy, even in the worst situations.” While Barrett gives space in his chapter on controversial art to Colescott, Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles benefit most from the discussion.
Barrett writes, “Some of those antagonistic to the work of Walker and Charles point out that it is mostly whites who buy and show the work.” He goes on to quote Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw in praising the artists because they choose, “to wrestle with the legacy of tainted imagery that the non-visual world chooses to ignore, subsume, or reject.” The chapter mentions that while Henry Louis Gates, professor at Harvard University, is a passionate defender of a Walker’s work, Roberta Smith, an art critic for The New York Times, asserts that Charles leaves his work too close to the original for the satire to be effective. In Barrett’s book, Julia Szabo is quoted from a New York Time Magazine article describing Walker’s work. She writes, “Hardly the obedient, victimized female slave, the Negress is a star player in this version of history, seducing her masters as much as being molested by them or stuffing hobbyhorses down white children’s throats.” Szabo also states, Walker is “offensive right across the board.” In the Harris article mentioned above, the author quotes Charles in defending his use of stereotypical images. Charles states, “I use images of old [stereotypes] to acknowledge their presence in culture today…[they] might not be explicitly used any more, but they still affect us unconsciously.”
The Black Power Movement empowered African American artists to alter one of the most pervasive of these stereotypical images – Aunt Jemima. Although Aunt Jemima has gone through some changes in recent years by getting rid of the handkerchief and wearing straightened hair, this image has withstood the test of time. Harris reveals that when the product was first released, the company found a model to perform Aunt Jemima who would attend fairs to speak and make pancakes. In their work, several artists have transformed Aunt Jemima. Betye Saar’s, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) is a figurine of a stout black woman holding a rifle in one hand and a broom in the other to refute the passive image. Murray DePillars’ Aunt Jemima (1958) depicts a bare-breasted spatula-slaying Aunt Jemima bursting through a pancake box with an American flag behind it. Jeff Donaldson’s Aunt Jemima and the Pillsbury Doughboy (1963) stages a confrontation between the two American icons to subvert the submissive image of Aunt Jemima.
While artists have attempted to reconfigure these stereotypical images, collectors have been doing the job of preserving memorabilia that convey images that were in regular circulation for so long throughout the country. In 1988, The New York Times published an article, “Black Memorabilia: The Pride and Pain” that discusses the growing number of collectors of black memorabilia or negrobilia, which it is also called. Many of the collectors of these items at the time, were black people who were discovering them in thrift stores. In an attempt to get them off the market, so they wouldn’t fall into the hands of racists who wanted to use them to assert their power, many collectors filled their homes with these items. Collectors contend they collect these items because they are a part of history, while others would rather destroy them and keep them out of sight.
Daniel Grant, writing for The Forward, reported that David Pilgrim, a professor of sociology at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan founded the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia on the university’s campus which contains 12,000 pieces that Pilgrim purchased. Pilgrim states, “I use these objects to remind myself how far we’ve gone and how we still have to remain vigilant.” Christopher Borrelli, reporting for The Chicago Tribune, writes that Edward Williams, who started collecting negrobilia in the 1970s, stated, “I saw it from the corner of my eye… A caricature of a black man in white clown costume, made to look grotesque. It sent chills down my spine. I was taken aback and I had to get out of there. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I had to buy it – so that no one else could see it. I decided that I wanted it out of circulation.” William’s collection of more than 6,000 pieces is currently housed at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, Illinois.
According to Carol M. Motely, Geraldine R. Henderson, and Stacey Menzel Baker in their scholarly article and study “Exploring Collective Memories Associated with African-American Advertising Memorabilia: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” they note that while some scholars believe the production of these products were to amuse white customers, others believe the products were created intentionally to torment and torture black people. For the study, the researchers interviewed 144 people comprised of 73 African Americans, 69 whites, and 2 Asian Americans over a two-year period. While some of the respondents spoke of the pride they felt for their ancestors and the homage they pay to the people who suffered through this time when their image was ridiculed, others were totally oblivious to the fact that these images were meant to harm black morale. They looked at their collecting or the products they grew up with as a tribute to black people. For example, one respondent claimed she thought Aunt Jemima was on the box because she was able to cook so well. Overall the respondents feel these items represent a time in history that should not be forgotten.
Harris concludes his article with, “the collection of so-called memorabilia by African Americans undermines a long tradition in the twentieth century of resistance to visual signs of racial oppression and these items may, in fact, operate like radioactive objects slowly poisoning the subconsciousness and the self-consciousness of the collector while grinning obsequiously from the kitchen shelf.”
While some African American art lovers appreciate the satire of artists like Walker and Charles, many do not. They find works that depict stereotypical images without overtly empowering them in some way, a continuation of the same racist sentiments black people in this country have endured for centuries. Some critics of these kinds of artworks feel that younger artists are gravitating toward this kind of imagery because there aren’t enough black faculty at art schools who can educate them on the significance of these images. It’s also thought that younger artists are dealing with these images because they feel they can make money from white buyers by perpetuating the stereotypes. There’s a fine line between creating satire and preserving the myth.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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