Images that bred racism now used to fight it

By Dina Kaur

“It’s not going to do any good for us to pretend that hatred does not exist,” said Ruth Ann Jones during a Michigan State University Libraries special collections Zoom session: Unpacking Racist Stereotypes.

Book cover

“Understanding Jim Crow” uses images and memorabilia designed to perpetuate racism to buster biases and promote social justice.

The April 1 session consisted of a presentation with images that came from several areas of the MSU libraries.  

Jones is MSU’s Special Collections education and outreach librarian. She focused on “the brute,” “the mammy” and “the pickaninny” stereotypes.  

“These stereotypes were everywhere in popular culture before the 1960s, absolutely everywhere,” Jones said. “There was nowhere that a Black person could look in mainstream culture that didn’t have a demeaning portrayal of Black people.

She said the stereotypes still still turn up in mainstream culture today but perhaps a little bit weakened and not presented with such lack of shame, but they do still exist. She brought up an example of how Michelle Obama was often characterized as an angry Black woman.

Jones said myths about slavery are not based on truth and their purpose was to justify the existence of slavery and hide the truth.

Slaveholders often claimed that Black people had to be enslaved because they weren’t able to take care of themselves, Jones said.

Another myth about slavery was that people were treated well and slaves were happy. An image from the food history collection showed a trading card and the woman is presented as she’s dancing through her work of picking cotton.

The next myth is that slaves were completely content. A postcard set said “Greetings from the Happy South” all the images showed different reasons or assertions that slaves were happy. 

Another myth was that slaves wanted to please their masters, not out of fear of punishment but because they were devoted to them. 

Disobedience was tolerated was another myth Jones brought up. The truth is that disobedience could violent punishment. 

The final myth was just no other way to handle the agricultural needs of the South. Someone had to pick the cotton, someone had to plant the corn, and so on.

The mammy stereotype was revisited in 2020 when Quaker Oats announced it was dropping the Aunt Jemima caricature, an image very clearly meant to be a mammy cook during. 

“The mammy stereotype, first of all its sheer repetition, implies that a Black woman is only capable of domestic work, or domestic work plus field work: picking cotton or planting cotton,” Jones said.

Jones said this stereotype  tied in with White women who freely appropriated Black women’s recipes, published them in cookbooks, then got paid for writing them.

The mammy stereotype often portrayed Black women with a very large body to desexualize her, as she was in the house and not in the fields. The truth, Jones said, was that hundreds of thousands of Black women were raped by White slaveholders.

Black children were stereotyped as pickaninnies. They were often shown as  eating watermelon or being eaten by alligators. They were portrayed in ragged clothes with coarse, curly hair and were speaking in dialect.

“The Black man as a brute or savage beast is still operative today,” Jones said. “If you read the comments by White police officers that have shot unarmed Black men, very often they say something like ‘I was afraid for my life, he was so violent, and aggressive and scary’ even though the black suspect was unarmed and the police officer had a weapon.” 

Jones said George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin said something similar about feeling threatened.

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