Makes One Cringe

(Last Updated On: January 1, 2016)

While perusing images of Black girls one can find charming examples, just as one finds of girls of any race. However, since modern Black girls are descended from races that have been subjected to heavy oppression by Europeans and are still victims of cruel and unwarranted stereotypes, particularly in the United States, there are portrayals of these girls that would make any decent human being cringe. It has been a challenge finding just the right context with which to present these images.

There is a recent exhibit held by Art In These Times that deals with these images specifically and posits how they were part of a propaganda campaign to put Black people in their place after the abolition of slavery in the United States. The exhibition is called ‘Making Niggers: Demonizing and Distorting Blackness’ and will run through January 2016 in Chicago. It is based mostly on postcards from co-curator Mariame Kaba’s private collection.

From the 1890’s through the 1950’s, thousands of postcards depicting racist caricatures and stereotypes of Black people were produced across the United States and the world. Degrading images of blackness also found expression in advertising and other media. Black people were portrayed as lazy, child-like, unintelligent, ugly, chicken stealing, watermelon eating, promiscuous, crap-shooting, savage and criminal. These images comforted white people in their racist beliefs, reinforced white supremacy and enabled whites to justify violence and subjugation of Black people. The stereotypes continue to shape and shorten Black lives in the present. -From Making Niggers Exhibition Webpage, 2015

Without knowing which specific postcards are on display—there are thousands of possibilities—we present a few selections that illustrate this stereotyping through the portrayal of little Black girls. One of the first things one notices is how many of these racist images are of children. That was part of a subtle tactic to regard Black people generally as juvenile and so really these are not especially about children.

C. Levi - Kute Koon Kids: A Little Black Washing (c1910)

C. Levi – Kute Koon Kids: A Little Black Washing (c1910)

That watermelon symbol at the bottom was certainly unwarranted. It’s interesting how something that may have once been a symbol of Black independence has been turned into a racial insult.

Picaninny Freeze Ice Cream Tin (1920s)

Picaninny Freeze Ice Cream Tin (1920s)

There are a handful of stereotypical “types” of Black people and it is amazing that whole products and companies openly used these names. Pickaninny was a term commonly used to refer to a dark-skinned child and some cards would make this into a play on words like, “I’m not pickin-any body but you.” which appears on a vintage Valentine.

A lot of images show Blacks naked. This seems to play into several stereotypes so that they can just be dismissed as primitive savages.

(Artist Unknown) - Some Little Darkie Gal Trading Card (1920s)

(Artist Unknown) – Some Little Darkie Gal Trading Card (1920s)

Tuck - Happy Little Coons (c1906)

Rafael Tuck & Sons – Happy Little Coons (c1906)

Donald McGill - Just a spot of powder an' I'm dressed! (1920s)

Donald McGill – Just a spot of powder an’ I’m dressed! (1920s)

The Three Bares Postcard (Black version) (1920s)

The Three Bares Postcard (Black version) (1920s)

It is interesting to note there are both Black and white versions of this image.

[U] The Three Bares Postcard (white version) (1920s)

The Three Bares Postcard (white version) (1920s)

But really, it is an opportunity to subject them to humiliation in the name of humor.

Curt Teich & Co. - Chocolate Drops Comics (1920s) (1)

Curt Teich & Co. – Chocolate Drops Comics (1920s) (1)

Curt Teich & Co. - Chocolate Drops Comics (1920s) (2)

Curt Teich & Co. – Chocolate Drops Comics (1920s) (2)

Nudity is also an occasion to engage in sexual innuendo. This reminds white people of the ongoing sexual threat and justifies any sexual mistreatment of Blacks.

Curt Teich & Co. Postcard (1920s)

Curt Teich & Co. Postcard (1920s)

Can You Tie This One? (1920s)

Can You Tie This One? (1920s)

I Ain't Worried About No Sugar (1920s)

I Ain’t Worried About No Sugar (1920s)

Plenty of images have fanned the flames of white fear of Black sexual promiscuity and potency. And woe has come to many Black men who showed a sexual interest, or seemed to, in a white woman. This was part of the impetus for the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Hallmark Birthday Card (1936)

Hallmark Birthday Card (1936)

French Postcard (c1921)

French Postcard (c1921)

Even when decently dressed, they are drawn in a way to appear as though they are not wearing underwear and it is easier to get away with this when they are drawn as children. The exaggerated red lips are also a typical stereotypical feature and emphasizes their animalistic qualities.

Valentine (Date Unknown)

Valentine (Date Unknown)

Agnes Richardson - Whose Blackbird Is You? (1920s)

Agnes Richardson – Whose Blackbird Is You? (1920s)

For a time, elementary school reading levels were named after birds with bluebirds at the top and, you guessed it, blackbirds at the bottom. Many examples above make light of Black people’s unsophisticated use of English and, by doing so, helped perpetuate it.

See also Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia

6 thoughts on “Makes One Cringe

  1. Thank you for the considered responses; I am glad the conversation can take place without undue animosity. I do feel there are inherent contradictions in taking a smorgasbord approach to historical images; rescuing and championing those we endorse, condemning those we don’t; also intellectually risky is judging material culture of former times solely through the lenses of today’s consensus opinion.

    For instance, power relations, dominant cultural narratives and predation upon the societally voiceless – all concerns raised about the black representations above – can and have been used by feminists to object to our taking pleasure in images of girls and women from prior historical periods, especially those from “colonialist” societies.

    Efforts to surround an image with text suggesting how the viewer should be reacting to it should be a provocation for, at minimum, a brief question to oneself about whether perceptions are being guided or molded into certain foregone conclusions; moreso if a moral value is attached thereto.

    I for one love to “gaze” at the representations generously provided here of beautiful girls. Can that “gaze” be twisted or misrepresented as an inherently unequal and exploitative act? Absolutely! Such interpretation goes forth every day under the aegis of Gender Studies and Feminism.

    I’m glad the valued subject matter provided here is not subjected to the same (currently culturally mandated) opprobrium that the black images are.

    With continued appreciation of my new “favorite web site”, in spite of our difference of opinion!

    • I have heard that argument many times: that we should not judge materials outside the context of the period’s standards of propriety. This is notorious problem when discussing the photography of Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). But there is a big difference with respect to intent. Clearly, many of us are awed by the beauty of the girl child and that is an honest motivation and not necessarily implying disrespect to the object. In the case of Black imagery, there was a deliberate sinister intent to find a way to put them down. Strictly speaking, this is an honest reaction–a fear-based one. There is a world of difference between awe and fear. Fear is necessary for survival, but I don’t think anyone would regard it as a noble motivation in any time period. It would not be fair to condemn those necessarily who just went along since they would have been steeped in the paradigm of their culture, but there is a legitimate argument to be made about the motivations of those who cynically pulled the strings.

      Sometimes people make the false assumption that Pigtails presents an unbiased presentation of its subject matter; that is far from the truth. (In fact, it is a bit annoying the kinds of assumptions readers have made about this site). Because of the imbalances of our society, it is necessary for us to present a viable alternative that does not resort to blind standards of morality. Comments are carefully screened to ensure that the subject of the little girl is not pigeon-holed into one camp or another of a false dilemma. The whole topic, because of our cultural history, has been misframed and it is one of the main purposes of this site to remedy and reframe this discussion with the knowledge and wisdom available to us at this time.

      Yes, certain feminists may complain about the oppression of the gaze, but that is a kind of immature complaint based on an outdated and unrealistic understanding of nature. It hardly a noble effort to try to turn nature into something it is not, but to find a way to live harmoniously with it. But it should also be understood that, for the contemplative human being, there are uncharted depths to the gaze beyond our superficial animal impulses and these deserve to be explored.

      • This will be my last word on this entry, as I fear I may soon wear out my welcome; nor do I wish to harass you; my opinion of your site is very high, and I don’t intend to drag you away from making fresh posts I’m sure to enjoy!

        I would say that I much prefer the tone of your last response-nuanced and considered- with the tone of the original “Makes One Cringe” post, which seems to wish to dictate how the images should “properly” be read. Once again, even in your last rejoinder, “sinister intent” is very strong language; too strong IMHO for the rather sweet postcards that illustrate the post in question!

        The nuances of representation are in fact, as you allude, inexhaustible; just for one example, imagine a photo from 1900 of an African tribal woman or girl. It may originally have been conceived as educational, or as commercially exploitable; there are sometimes clues as to which (and the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive). But let us stipulate that it is straightforward and carries it’s own kind of dignity.

        To complicate our example, say a later reprint of the original African image now has an insulting caption appended. Now where are we? Is the image retrievable from this new framing? If the original image was intended as an honest anthropological document, then gets reprinted with a vernacular insult, perhaps never even seen by the original photographer, questions of intention and effect get murky indeed. Yet this very scenario has in fact been played out.

        I’ll leave you with this praise: the last sentence of your last reply is marvelous, and worth singling out:

        “But it should also be understood that, for the contemplative human being, there are uncharted depths to the gaze beyond our superficial animal impulses and these deserve to be explored.”

  2. I’ll be forced to demur and say that the images are not equating with the social program of restriction and diminution suggested in the text of this post. These images on the contrary seem mostly to be suffused with affection and warmth.

    As you know, images can be set up by an accompanying text to come off as evil or malign. Your site commonly does battle with that sort of pigeon-holing damnation. btw, many of these images are collected and cherished by black collectors today.

    Still love the blog, but felt this one entry might be a little too influenced by a too modern and too politically correct framing. Best wishes as always!

    • Being affectionate (which is a subjective interpretation anyway) is not mutually exclusive from racial stereotyping. Stepin Fetchit was broadly popular among whites in his time, but few people today would deny that he was a racial stereotype that ultimately damaged the black community at large, and that an element of his popularity was in the fact that he fed into the stereotype of the ignorant, subservient black man. Likewise, even though blacks themselves may collect some of this art, it doesn’t imply that racism was not an element in its creation. Indeed, blacks often collect this stuff precisely because it is racist, as solid evidence that this mentality was rampant and entrenched. The PC community, if they had their way, might like this stuff to disappear, literally whitewashing the past; blacks collect the art to make sure the truth about the past is well preserved.

    • Well, I thought this post was just going to be ignored. Racism is a touchy subject and so maybe people were shying away.

      First of all, I felt obligated to present these images since they feature little girls, but I was turned off by the blatant and ignorant stereotyping. I was grateful to have a more professional context with which to present them.

      Racism is insidious and a stereotype can start at the drop of a hat. There is really so much to say about this subject that it would have to be a dissertation, so I will try to summarize my understanding of the subject here.

      The sudden emancipation of Blacks during the Civil War must have upset two major groups in the South, the plantation owners and whites of the lower classes. The surviving plantation owners had a serious labor problem and had to scheme to make things manageable. Lower class whites took solace that at least they were not the slave class. In addition, there was the latent fear of retaliation since most slaves were treated badly and the laborers had particularly short life spans (even more so on the Caribbean sugar plantations). All of this and the fact that Blacks were actually running and winning elections and opening businesses meant that this situation had to be dealt with.

      Having been slaves, it is a small matter to play on the idea that they are only good as beasts of burden and, indeed, many Blacks continue to work as servants in white households (the Mann household was one of them). As “animals”, this stereotype could be expanded to emphasize their backward culture (savages), lack of intelligence (the dope or the clown), sexual promiscuity, athletic prowess and so on. By the 1920s, the stereotypes were so well established that many people did not even think to question them. By this time, these may have been thought of as “harmless” humor or affectionate jibing, but the fact is that this shaped the culture and how all other races view Black people. Since the extant power structure expected this portrayal, Black actors who wanted to succeed in Hollywood had to fit these portrayals. An excellent film that covers this is Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy. And the game goes on with pitting Blacks against each other–the sellouts versus the ones breaking new ground.

      Racism may not be politically correct, but that is not why I take this position. It is a destructive phenomenon and diminishes the quality of life of everyone, even those who believe they benefit by maintaining this status quo. There is no substantive difference between the so-called races. All the differences are cultural and so we must take seriously the kind of culture we are building.

      With respect to collectors, that is a different matter. Collecting these cards is a kind of cultural anthropology, but one should not forget the underlying power structure that contrived to create them. That is perhaps the more important aspect of the story.

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