African American Visual Representation: From Repression to Resistance

Article excerpt

The United States of America was born in slavery and its prosperity was built upon a foundation of racism. The major political, economic, and legal institutions of the nation advanced Black subordination; only after the Civil War were most people of African origin freed from legal servitude, formalized in the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution. But long after their liberation, millions of African Americans suffered egregious economic, social, and political discrimination, the legacies of which have continued into the early 21st century.

Throughout the nation's history, visual art and culture have also promoted public perceptions of Black subordination. Depictions of Black women, men, and children were highly stereotypical and demeaning. These images conformed to the dominant ideology of white supremacy in the United States. Black people were typically shown as buffoons and as persons incapable of serious intellectual or artistic accomplishment. As Albert Boime persuasively demonstrated in The Art of Exclusion, even the American "high art" tradition reflected deep-seated white attitudes of Black subordination. The renowned genre painter William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), for example, produced numerous images of African Americans with toothy grins that reinforced widespread racist perceptions. Especially from the late 18th century through the mid-20th century, popular cartoons, posters, advertisements, and other visual forms reflected the Jim Crow and minstrel visions of African Americans as lazy, irresponsible, sexually promiscuous, and prone to disease.

These representations were far from benign; they were much more than mere visual accompaniments of a racist institutional structure. Instead, they reinforced that structure and added additional barriers to genuine racial equality and social justice. By conveying the view that African Americans were childish, irrational, and buffoonish, it logically followed that they should be excluded from full citizenship, including the right to vote, to serve on juries, and to participate fully in the economic and social life of American society.

The retreat from Reconstruction in the South and the growing use of Black Code laws effectively bypassed the 13th Amendment and subjected African Americans to cruel and discriminatory laws that closely mimicked slavery itself. By 1896, the United States Supreme Court, in its infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision, legalized racial segregation through its ludicrous "separate but equal" doctrine, ensuring second class citizenship for Blacks for the next six decades.

During this time, hundreds of thousands, even millions, of racist products and images were produced and distributed. Many were images of grinning "darkies," watermelon eating "picanninies," servile mammies and older "jolly nigger" African American men and similar racist stereotypes. Some were presented in advertisement posters, postcards, cereal and other product labels, sheet music covers, and other printed visual forms. Still others were three-dimensional products including toys, salt and pepper shakers, ceramic knickknacks, vases, figurines, and similar products.

More perniciously, some cartoons and advertisements even used Black bodies to promote overt contempt for or even violence against African Americans. Examples are legion: "Picaninny Freeze" (Figure 1); "Nigger Head" golf tees (Figure 2); "Coon Inn" Restaurants (Figure 3); and many more. The Picanniny product was typical: using caricatures to sell a prosaic dessert product and, in the process, use a word widely regarded as a racial slur. The effect was to further legitimize derogatory language while simultaneously promoting a vision of African American children as stupid creatures whose entire human needs are satisfied by a large slice of watermelon.

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"Nigger head" golf tees are more pernicious. …