Kristine Marie Cummins

Derogatory Imagery of Blacks During the Antebellum Period




Originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., this reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, shows the transformation from white to "black".

A reproduction of a 1900 William H. West minstrel show poster, shows the transformation from white to “black”. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The rising tension between the American North and the South increased after the American Revolution and the prohibition of the importation of slaves in 1808. The North was much more swift with emancipation but at the same time, selling slaves to the South for the domestic slave trade to support the cotton agriculture boom. During this time period, before the American Civil War in 1861, a “collective consciousness” rose among blacks and whites for emancipation. Abolitionist literature was publicized, rebellions occurred and communities developed such as black societies, churches, fraternal lodges and schools. Staunch proponents of slavery were fearful of the economy being affected by this new awareness. As a result, a rebound occurred depicting blacks in a derogative manner through pervasive illustrations and minstrel shows that served specific social functions during this antebellum period.

The timing in which the derogatory archetypes and stereotypes started being publicized is worth examining. The year in between activist, David Walker wrote, “An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World” in 1829, and William Lloyd Garrison’s, “The Liberator” in 1831, one of the first racial archetypal depictions was created in 1830. Dancing a jig, a white minstrel performer Thomas “Daddy” Rice with charcoal-blackened face sung “Jump Jim Crow” introducing the public to the idea of mocking ex-slaves on stage with his character “Jim Crow”. Walker’s Appeal and Garrison’s Liberator both influenced the abolitionist movement and passionately called for immediate emancipation. A year after Jim Crow made his appearance in 1831, one of the largest revolts occurred: Nat Turner’s Rebellion creating new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks and restricting rights of assembly. With these significant events, it concludes that a whole new method of suppression of degrading media reared its ugly head.

aunt-jThe perceived threat to the economic institution of slavery leading to imagery of negative archetypes and stereotypes created social functions of racial superiority. Historian John Hope Franklin cites in his book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, “routine debasement of free blacks” (163). Those in favor of slavery strove to bind blacks as property to extend their economic power. As free blacks became employed, whites were fearful of losing their jobs to ex-slaves. For each significant fear, there seemed to be a derogatory cartoon hoping to continue the institution of slavery, mocking free blacks and to further dividing the races. The most common negative imagery besides the Jim Crow cartoon include, Zip Coon (mocked free, urban Africans, 1834), Sambo (mischievous but apologetic), Mammy (romanticized caretaker), Uncle Tom (a sell-out to white culture), and Jezebel (overly sexual depiction of black women). Some of these blatant negative stereotypes still appeared in ads, games, cartoons, minstrel shows and carnivals well into the 20th century such as the “mammy” character on the box of pancake mix named “Aunt Jemima”.

Even though the civil rights movement in the 1960s worked to abolish the use of negative stereotypes, unfortunately it is still widespread in the 21st century. Mia Moody of Baylor University states in her paper, New Media-Same Stereotypes, “Facebook fans build on historical stereotypes and cultural narratives to frame the two negatively.” Since the media is the most significant tool in spreading social culture, it makes sense that ad agencies, publishers and producers should be accountable. In a world where porn and violence is prevalent in media, it is a tall order to completely eradicate it. The best weapon against negative stereotyping is education; knowledge overrides insensitive generalizations and advances understanding. It was education (and religion) that encouraged the abolitionist movement among many colonists, and the same can be relevant 150 years later.

Works Cited

Garrison, Lloyd. The Liberator. n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Walker, David. “An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World”. n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Franklin, John Hope, Evelyn Higginbotham. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, Ninth Edition. McGraw-Hill. New York, NY. 2011. Print.

Moody, Mia. “New Media-Same Stereotypes: An Analysis of Social Media Depictions of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama” The Journal of New Media & Culture, Vol 8 Iss 1. NMEDIAC, 2012. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Special Thanks

Professor Dunn-Salahuddin
J. Cummins

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