Representations of Blackness in the United States

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Representations of Blackness in the United States

Stereotypes are the cultural prisms, shaped over time and reinforced through repetition, that predetermine thought and experience. Although based on a semblance of historical reality, once implanted in popular lore, such images penetrate the deepest senses and profoundly affect behavioral actions. Philosopher Walter Lippmann in Public Opinion (1922, pp. 8990) believed that in the twentieth century, stereotypes are "the subtlest and most pervasive of all influences" because people imagine most things before experiencing them.

The collective aspect of stereotyping is self-confirming and provides a continuing sense of reality, "a kernel of truth," as historian H. R. Trevor-Roper observed in The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century (1965, pp. 190191), a study of the witchcraft frenzy in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. "Once established, the stereotype creates, as it were, its own folklore, which becomes in itself a centralizing force." As a result, stereotypes pervade personal fantasies and become cultural commodities; they are dislodged only after a series of protracted assaults.

Racist Ideology

In the history of race relations in the United States, stereotypes preceded and accompanied the origins and legalization of slavery. Equipped with stereotypes, whites fastened the dogma of inferiority on Africans and African Americans. With the termination of slavery, stereotypes were then extensively employed to legitimate segregationist policies. Throughout the course of American history, such ingrained stereotypes have subverted black identity and seriously undermined the formation of a biracial society based on egalitarian practices.

The Child and the Savage

The early images of the African American revolved around a conception of primitivism. The English defined this condition as being "uncivilized," a view that posited the individual

as "child" and "savage." Intriguingly, many of the stock traits ascribed to American blacks existed in other slave cultures. "The white slaves of antiquity and the Middle Ages," noted David B. Davis in The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), "were often described in terms that fit the later stereotype of the Negro. Throughout history it has been said that slaves, though occasionally as loyal and faithful as good dogs, were for the most part lazy, irresponsible, cunning, rebellious, untrustworthy, and sexually promiscuous."

Thus, on the one hand, American blacks were seen as savages, inherently brutish and vigorously sexual. Males in particular were cast as being physically well endowed. Examples of this were found in southern newspapers in the decades following the Civil War; their spurious accounts of black assaults on white women resulted in numerous lynchings. The definitive example of this stereotype is undoubtedly director D. W. Griffith's (18751948) early film classic Birth of a Nation (1915), which depicted black men as intellectually crude, sexually predatory, and physically volatile.

However, on the whole, the nonthreatening side of the stereotype dominated the popular culture, perhaps because of a fear of encouraging black sexuality or retaliation. Traits of nonaggression, servility, loyalty, docility, and comicality were heavily accentuated. Images fixated on male amiability and female nurturing that became labeled, respectively, as Sambo and Mammy. There were other related images that permeated the culture. In literature and film, women were often delineated as the child "pickaninny," the tragic mulatto, the innocent or ingenue, the hot mama, and the exotically promiscuous. Males were toms, coons, dandies, and bucks who possessed natural rhythm, had flashy dress habits, craved watermelon and chicken, shot dice, and resorted to petty theft.

There were additional factors that led to Mammy and Sambo, not the least of which was Southerners' phobic need for security. Slave rebellions and retaliations, numerous instances of sabotage, acts of miscegenation, and the suspicion that no black person (and especially no black male) could be completely trusted led whites to yearn for a worker beyond question. For these reasons, Mammy was portrayed, as was her male counterpart, as invariably cheerful, backward, and harmless.


As with all stereotypes, these figures held a partial truth. That certain black women achieved relatively high status on the plantation and in other white households is unquestionable. Women were highly skilled workers who supervised a variety of domestic operations, counseled and caressed people of all ages in white homes as well as in their own homes, and played a predominant role in the black community. The portrait of the black woman as loyal without bounds, caring solely for her white charges, cheerfully administering all duties regardless of personal circumstances, and fulfilling her own wants by being a slave and worker was a creation arising out of white requirements. The stereotype was intended to legitimize her enslavement and serve as a role model for all black women.

A Mammy prototype appeared extensively in diaries, novels, speeches, anecdotes, lithographs, and advertising throughout the South in the nineteenth century. She was invariably portrayed as large-girthed, apron-wrapped, shining-faced, and bandannaed; her face was wreathed in a smile, her wisdom often delivered in comical dialect. It was a portrait that eventually became widely recognized in the 1890s in advertising as Aunt Jemima, a popular brand of pancake batter. At various times Mammy was depicted as being tough and domineering, soft and judicious, or slow-witted and comical, but she was always the household worker and nurturer, the one person on whom all could depend when needed. White males in particular were unabashed about their "Mammy" and publicly extolled her.

Southern women were no less effusive in their praise of Mammy, although their relationship was more complex. The request of one aging mistress in the antebellum period that her favorite servantwho had been relegated to sleeping on the floor near her mistressbe interred alongside her was unusual but not unheard of. In 1923, at the prodding of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, a bill was submitted to Congress authorizing "the erection in the city of Washington of a monument to the memory of the faithful colored mammies of the South." Strong protests from African-American newspapers and organizations ended the only attempt to place a statue to "Black Mammy" in the nation's capital.

Nonetheless, the durable Mammy stereotype extended well into the twentieth century in all levels of print, from folklore to novels. Novelist William Faulkner (18971962), for example, depicted several literary Mammies. In The Sound and the Fury (1929), the character Dilsey is an interesting literary variation on the Mammy theme. In Go Down, Moses (1940), Faulkner poignantly dedicated the novel to his family's servant, whose energies touched many generations: "To Mammy CAROLINE BARR / Mississippi (18401940) / Who was born in slavery and gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love." But novelist Margaret Mitchell's (19001949) "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind (1936), the book that became one of the most popular novels and films of the twentieth century, was the archetypal portrait. The Mammy, as portrayed by Mitchell and others, was a composite of the different types of women that had worked on the plantation: firm, compassionate, smart, morally exemplary, and privy to the inner workings of the family. Her language was ungrammatical and provincial, and, as was often the case with the black male as well, her name always lacked family designation. She answered to the call of Jasmine, Aida, Dilsey, Sapphire, Beulah, Hester, Gossip, Stella, Aunt Dinah, and Aunt Petunia.

Mammy was feted in popular songs and ballads. The new immigrants from Eastern Europe, like the older ethnic groups, astutely recognized her iconical status and wrote lyrically about this ideal American servant. In the popular 1919 song "Swanee," written by George Gershwin and Irving Caesar, there is a longing homage to the figure. But by far the most famous stage and film scene spotlighting the form was rendered by Al Jolson (18861950), one of the most prominent of the blackface performers. It came at the end of The Jazz Singer (1927), the first major film to include sound. On one knee, his clasped hands in white gloves, eyes rolled upward, Jolson sang to his imaginary servant: "Oh, Oh, Oh, Mammy, My little Mammy / The sun shines East, the sun shines West / I know where the sun shines best. Mammy, Mammy / I'd walk a mil lion miles for one of your smiles / My Mammy." (While Jolson's song is directed at his white mother, the stereotypes of the black Mammy dominate the song's imagery.)

Nowhere was the Mammy stereotype more durable than in film and on radio and television. A number of distinguished actresses, among them Hattie McDaniel (18951952), Ethel Waters (c. 18961977), and Louise Beavers (19021962), fashioned careers playing numerous incarnations and variations of the jolly house servant. The first television series to feature a black female actress, Beulah (19501953), had a housemaid as the central character.


That black men presented a sunny and entertaining stance was a constant observation made by whites. Yet it is apparent

that Sambo was a form of resistance, a type of disguise used to survive the systems of slavery and segregation by deflecting physical and mental assault. It was also a particular form of retaliatory humor. A nineteenth-century slave song expressed the strategy: "I fooled Ole Master seven years / Fooled the overseer three / Hand me down my banjo / and I'll tickle your bel-lee."

The roots of the name "Sambo" were both African and Latinofrom the Hausa fashioning of a spirit or the second son, and "Zambo," meaning a type of monkeybut the English "Sam" had an important role in transposing it into popular lingo. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century, Sambo became the nickname for the black male along with other designations that found popular expression: Tambo, Rastus, John, Pompey, George, Uncle Tom, Nigger, and Boy. In popular songs he was called Old Black Joe and Uncle Ned; in advertising there was Uncle Ben's Rice and Ben the Pullman Porter; in literature some of the most widely read literary characters were Uncle Remus and Little Black Sambo; and in radio and films he was Amos 'n' Andy, Rochester, and Stepin Fetchit.

The essential features of Sambo consisted of two principal parts. On one hand, he was childish and comical, employed outlandish gestures, and wore tattered clothes. Irresponsibility was a cardinal characteristic and buffoonery an inherent trait. On the flip side, he was the natural slave and servant who displayed the qualities of patience, humility, nonbelligerence, and faithfulness. Here responsibility was expected and intelligence rewarded, though both virtues were carefully monitored by whites.

These two separate sides eventually were translated into theatrical forms. The child became the "plantation darky" called Jim Crow; the servant became the urban mulatto known as Zip Coon or Jim Dandy. There were variations on the Sambo theme, but all varieties involved individuals who fit the stereotypes of being lazy, shiftless, and natural entertainers. On the plantation, the dancing and singing slave was a common sight. Musical abilities were often an important selling point at slave auctions, and masters pressured slaves to perform in order to increase production, undercut hostility, and enliven everyday life. For their part, slaves resorted to music and dance as a release from sunup to sundown labor, a means of communication, and a retention of African folkways.

Early forms of Jim Crow made their way into dramatic theater in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but it was in the minstrels of the 1830s and 1840s that the figure emerged fully developed. It occurred when the popular white performer Thomas D. Rice (18081860) applied blackface; dressed in outlandish costume, he caroused around the stage, singing and dancing in a black idiom: "Wheel about, turn about / Do jis do / An' every time I wheel about / I jump Jim Crow."

The heyday of white minstrelsy lasted for more than fifty years, from the 1830s to the 1880s, and was one of the prevailing forms of theater, reaching into many of the remotest geographical corners of the United States and beyond. Almost every white community (and many black communities) boasted a minstrel troupe that performed in blackface and comical dialect. As a neighborhood production, the minstrel continued into the 1960s, reaching millions of persons who had scant knowledge of African-American culture. By distorting black language and emphasizing comicality, the show perpetuated the image of the black male as a natural buffoon.

The plantation black was given heightened profile in the late-nineteenth-century stories of Joel Chandler Harris (18481908), one of the first writers to use the folktale as a literary medium. Harris's Uncle Remus tales, which first appeared in Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1881), were popular with children and adults for decades and were later adapted to radio and film. By the latter decades of the nineteenth century, Sambo existed in every nook and cranny of popular culture. In journals, weeklies, newspapers, magazines, novels, short stories, children's stories, humor books, comic pamphlets, and burlesque essays there was a Sambo figure speaking in malapropisms and mispronouncing words. His graphic expressions were even more ubiquitous. On the covers of sheet music, Currier & Ives prints, posters, calendars, book illustrations, dime novels, postage stamps, playing cards, stereoscopic slides, children's toys and games, postcards, cartoons, and comic strips there was a saucer-eyed, thick-lipped, round-faced, kinky-haired, grinningly toothed figure clad in plantation clothing or foppishly attired in formal dress. Sambos also filled the material culture as ceramic figurines on dining-room tables, lawn jockeys, whiskey pourers, men's canes, placemats, wooden coins, salt shakers, and countless bric-a-brac.

From its earliest years, the electronic media made extensive use of the stereotype. Film companies inserted Sambo characterssome of whom were white men in blackfacewho savored watermelon and chicken, shot dice, wielded razors, and fearfully escaped from ghostly spirits in animated cartoons and feature movies. On radio, the long-running serial program Amos 'n' Andy (19281960) was performed by two white men in simulated blackface. And the most widely recognized servant on radio was Rochester on the Jack Benny Show, which ran from 1932 through 1958.

Termination and Replacement

Constant pressure from the African-American community, combined with powerful external events such as World War II (193945), gradually transformed the harshest aspects of the stereotypes. Their eventual elimination, however, was the consequence of the demands of the civil rights and black nationalist movements of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. For instance, in response to the civil rights movement, some of the more offensive qualities of the Aunt Jemima image on the pancake-batter package were modified by its manufacturer; in the 1960s, the bandanna was changed to a headband, and since 1990 she has been depicted without any head covering.

The rise to prominence of black legislators, writers, intellectuals, filmmakers, performers, and comedians in the latter decades of the century consigned Mammy and Sambo to the historical dustbin. In the 1980s and 1990s, such films as Malcolm X (1992) by Spike Lee (1957) and Boyz in the Hood (1991) by John Singleton (1968), as well as the extraordinarily popular television sitcom The Cosby Show (19841992), brought to national attention the complex levels of black history and community life. Whatever traces of the stereotype that may have remained at the turn of the twenty-first century were expunged from the public consciousness with the emergence of a new generation of comedians, among them Richard Pryor (1940), Eddie Murphy (1961), Chris Rock (1965), and the Wayans brothers, whose seminal routines fused retaliation with self-mockery.

If the Mammy and Sambo stereotypes have faded, however, new negative images of African Americans in the mass media have replaced them. In the latter decades of the twentieth century, urban blacks were often stereotypically identified with city crime, gang violence, welfare, and the firebombing and looting accompanying urban uprisings. Such extreme emphasis on the negative aspects of blacks continued to impede the democratic dialogue vital for a biracial society.

See also Identity and Race in the United States; Jim Crow; Media and Identity in the Caribbean; Minstrels/Minstrelsy; Representations of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean


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joseph boskin (1996)
Updated by author 2005