Last Tuesday in my Multicultural Perspectives class, we watched Ethnic Notions, (please watch this clip before continuing to read) a disturbing 1986 documentary by Marlon Riggs that chronicles the history of the depiction of African-Americans in popular culture in the 100 or so years just leading up to and following Emancipation.
A large part of what made watching this film so unsettling was that I remember many of these caricatures and have spent a lifetime trying to forget them: Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, The Cream of Wheat guy, the cartoons. The mammy, the pickaninny, the coon, the Sambo, as Riggs points out. I used to sit on my grandpa’s knee while he read Little Black Sambo to me. I remember lawn jockeys, cookie jars, and other knickknacks that exaggerated and distorted African-American features in the name of entertainment.
These memories stirred deep within me as we viewed the film, as Riggs systematically demonstrated the intention behind each caricature, the impact each has had on the ways whites currently view Black Americans. With such pervasive and insidious images in our consciousness, it’s not surprising (completely unacceptable, but not surprising, really) when someone like Paul Ryan blames inner city poverty on lazy “inner city” men. And we know what he means by “inner city.”
Images like those in Ethnic Notions serve as shorthand to remind us that African-Americans can only be either simple, shuffling Uncle Toms or scary, monstrous savages. These are the images that have lodged in our minds. These are the images George Zimmerman had to have conjured up before he shot Trayvon Martin, the notions that Michael Dunn had before he opened fire on a truckload of Black teens who were playing their music too loud.
For only by dehumanizing African-Americans can we justify our treatment of them over the course of our country’s history. Only by dehumanizing an entire race can we continue to insist that they are all the things we say they are, only by dehumanizing them, can we maintain our ideas about white superiority and cling to white privilege.
Last night I watched 12 Years a Slave, and I think I must have felt the way my grandparents did when they watched Roots all those years ago—appalled by my ignorance, angered by Solomon Northup’s story, certainly. Aghast at the pervasiveness of evil, not just at how Northup came to be captured, but that there was even a system into which he could be sold. And ashamed that in spite of the intervening 100+ years, so much remains unchanged.