The Blackface Stereotype

Manthia Diawara


In the blackface myth, there is a white fantasy which posits whiteness as the norm. What is absent in the blackface stereotype is as important as what is present: every black face is a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite. How, then, do we explain the current resurgence of interest in blackface memorabilia ,with far more black people than white becoming collectors? Moreover, young black artists, actors, and rappers embrace the stereotype as a source of artistic creation and self-expression. Even White artists defy the accusation of racism and find their artistic cutting edge and the clarity of their politics in blackface caricatures.

To begin with, I must say that in this new fascination with the stereotype, I am less interested in the debates over positive and negative images. Instead of liberating Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit, and other stereotypes from the grip of white fantasy, positive images tend to reinforce the immanence of these stereotypes in our collective imagination. That is, the insistence on positive images only strengthens the negative stereotypes in both the white and black imagination. I believe that our new interest in blackface stereotypes involves historical as well as political and aesthetic implications that are more complex than allowed by the debates over positive and negative images. David Levinthal's work is important because it confronts us with the blackface stereotype, makes it speak to us directly, without an intermediary, and demands a response from us regardless of our race, age, or gender. Levinthal, a white collector of blackface memorabilia and G.I. Joe toys, is a photographer who uses his toy collection to recreate original scenes of racism, genocide, and sexual fantasies. His Mein Kampf, constructed with toy soldiers and tanks, the Barbie Doll series, and now this blackface book blows up miniature toys into bigger-than-lifesize men and women and sets them in motion with a cinematic effect, creating for the viewer immediate memories of the histories symbolized in the toys. This photo-cinema effect, which provokes an automatic reaction from the spectator, makes Levinthal's art special and refreshing as far as stereotypes are concerned. The very presentation of Levinthal's Polaroid pictures, closeups of blackface against a black background, places the stereotype in a dramatic situation and makes it signify. The blackness of the blackface emanates with all of its monumentality from the black background. It is hard not to think of Orson Welles' Othello here: the stereotypes red lips, white eyes, and white teeth both emphasize its deformity and monstrosity. Levinthal makes us look at the blackface stereotype as it is caught in this play of colors and their symbolism in our history and culture. Interestingly, by photographing the blackface figurines against a black background,

Levinthal makes us realize our own role in giving shape and content to the stereotype. For example, we look for the white eyes or the red lips first to determine the shape of the head. The whiteness of Aunt Jemimas apron and head-tie and Uncle Bens servants uniform are the primary signifiers of their shapes, as well as their identification with the kitchen. Take, for example, Levinthals close-up shot of the face of a popular figurine advertising a restaurant called "Coon Chicken Inn." The piece is initially remarkable for the oversize mouth which dominates both the head above and the neck below. The next most noticeable features include the white teeth on which the logo "Coon Chicken Inn" is carved, the white bow-tie with black dots, and the bulging white of the left eye. The other details are, however, no less caricatural and symbolic: the head is much smaller by analogy to the large face; the blood-red lips and tongue are matched by the red ring of the hat; and the right eye, which, in shocking contrast to the left, is shut. While the top hat and the bow-tie signify modernity, the red lips symbolize cannibalism, and the one eye, monstrosity. Against Levinthals black background, the skin color is only visible when shining against the light, like a recently polished piece of leather or wood.




I was looking at more than 150 prints of Levinthal's in my living room one day when my 13-year-old son came along and asked what I was doing. I showed him the pictures and explained that white people used to make these images to show that black people were inferior to them and to justify racism and segregation. I introduced him to Aunt Jemima and said that white racists wanted people to believe that all black women were fat and dressed in a white apron and a kerchief as a permanent fixture of white peoples kitchens. Black people were also represented as porters and shoeshine boys at train stations. Those who rebelled against these portrayals of themselves and their race were depicted as Rastus, uppity niggers and called "Zip Coons." When we got to the image that associated black people with watermelons, he asked, "Oh yeah, why are they always smiling like that, with those big red lips?" I told him that whites used to malign black people as watermelon and chicken thieves. They would say that during the night, when it was pitch dark, black people would go to the masters field to steal watermelons, or, like foxes, to the chicken coop to steal chickens. But supposedly, these black people were always betrayed by their white teeth and white eyes which shone in the dark like lightning. So they could not hide, even in the darkest of nights, even though they were so black. That was why their smiles were cut like slices of watermelon and they were considered, like chickens, to be cowards. My son laughed and remained pensive for a moment before resuming his mundane activities.

Left alone with Levinthal's pictures, I began to reassess the history lesson I had just given my son, his reaction with laughter, and his subsequent boredom with the meaning I said white people had put behind the blackface stereotypes.

Every stereotype emerges in the wake of a pre-existing ideology which deforms it, appropriates it, and naturalizes it. The blackface stereotype too, by deforming the body, silences it and leaves room only for white supremacy to speak through it. Levinthal's photographs capture well the location of white racist ideology in the blackface stereotype and the deformation of black progress in history. By zooming in on the parts of the stereotypes body that are already deformed and exaggerated, Levinthals photographs reveal the way stereotypes work with pastiche, caricature, and symbols: that is, stereotypes always rob people of their history and shun their realism. It is in this violent and aggressive manner that the stereotype sends its message ,which is automatically absorbed by the viewer/reader, and which replaces history. Kenneth Goings, in Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black American Collectibles and American Stereotyping (1994), shows that the blackface stereotypes represent the white Souths retreat from the American Revolution, i.e., Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and desegregation. In other words, the stereotypes help to maintain the myth of the gothic Old South and deny the changes in our contemporary society.

To say that the stereotype is motivated by a pre-existing ideology is not only to recognize the limits of every stereotype in a particular history, but also to reveal how the content of that history gives the stereotype its form. In this sense, it is interesting to see how the Mammy stereotype is tied to the myth of the South. Characteristically, the Mammy, used commonly as a cookie-jar, kitchen decoration, or houseware ,is a rotund black woman dressed in a long robe with an apron on top of it, a head kerchief, and a big smile on her face. Sometimes, she is carrying a bowl or a white baby in her arms. Hattie McDaniel, the Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind, is probably the most famous such figure.

This representation of the Mammy ,simplistic in artistic terms ,contains the ethos and essence of antebellum Southernness. The black woman is detached from her home and history, and all that is left of her is the dress, the kerchief, and the smile. The apron appropriates and naturalizes her as a permanent fixture of the white mansion. It is she, more than the Southern Belle or Southern Gentleman, who embodies the attributes of Southernness. The handkerchief denotes her as rural, her smile as unthreatening and hospitable, and her stout figure and her hand movements as strong, hardworking, and generous. Most importantly, however, she is behind the South's pretensions to aristocracy, the sanctity of the white woman, and the gentlemanly breeding of the Southern cavalier. As a stereotype, the Mammy is the most powerful symbol of the South because she is the only one that is necessary and indispensable to the representation of the entire mythology of the South. To borrow an insight from Roland Barthes, in Mythologies (1957), the Mammy is to the South what the African soldier saluting the French flag on the cover of Paris-Match was to the French empire: she forms the identity of the South on the one hand and universalizes the Southern way of life on the other. Dressed in her long dress, apron, head kerchief, and big smile, she becomes as natural as cotton.

The interesting thing about the Mammy stereotype is its domesticity, which is opposed to the coons uncivilized nature or indeed any other stereotype relegated to the black side of the tracks. On the other side of the Mammy, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Mose, and other docile servant characters who are pure products of the South, there are stereotypes that stand for the savage nature of Africans, uncontrolled sexuality, and evil: oversexed tragic mulattos, Mammies who do not know their place and think they are white, Rastus and Zip Coons. The Mammy comes in a uniform which reveals very little of her body, only her smiling face and her forearm. To the degree that the uniform organizes and disciplines the Mammy's body, it is a measure of her domesticity and morality.

It is therefore possible to read the other stereotypes, Rastus, Zip Coon, and the tragic mulatto, in light of their opposition to such domesticated stereotypes as Uncle Tom, Uncle Mose, Mammy, and Aunt Jemima. First of all, any black woman who fails to be contained in the Mammy's uniform is physically punished for it, or exposed to public ridicule for lacking decorum and decency. There is the black woman holding an ashtray in the shape of a washing machine with her oversized breast caught between the wringers. Ridicule is also reflected in making piggy banks in the shape of female and male busts, "Jolly Nigger Banks", in which the stereotype's mouth is wide open, waiting to receive coins from the empty hand. This toy for white children teaches them economic frugality at the same time as they learn to treat black people as robots or coin-swallowing monsters. Levinthal's close-up shots of two piggy banks, a female and a male, are particularly dramatic and fearsome illustration of this myth. These photographs are frightening because the zombie-like characters seem to emerge out of the dark, with an unconscious motion which derives from their open mouths, vacant eyes, and distended hands. It is in this sense that the coin-swallowing becomes a metaphor for an appetite for human flesh, our skin. Several of the photographs in this collection also reveal for the viewer the naturalization of punishment through recourse to stereotypes: an ashtray of a crocodile eating a black baby; a decapitated black persons head; or a black child being bitten by a dog as he climbs up a bone.

When the Mammys uniform is absent, it may also signify the black body as wild and uncontrollable, or as the essence of Africanism: half-human and half-animal. The tragic mulatto stereotype is the most popular target for promoting the black body as the site of unrestricted sex and evil. Unlike the Mammy, the tragic mulatto is often presented naked or scantily dressed ,looking as if intoxicated by sexual desire: she is always the girlfriend or the other wife. Black women who are depicted as the opposites of the Mammy are also dressed in grass skirts to emphasize their wild nature. This Africanism may also appear in the stereotypes in the shape of a trait that symbolizes evil. For example, the way a black female stereotype rolls her eyes or wears her bandanna in the shape of horns may give her away as a fake or an impostor who is trying to usurp the ways and manners of a white lady.

The stereotype of black men who do not fit the mold of the docile servant of the masters kitchen and mansion is equally rich in Africanist symbolism. For example, the disproportionately large upper torsos of the black men, with long faces and cheeks bigger than their heads ,are a sign that they are half-human and half-animal. They can fool nobody, even when they wear a suit, tie, and hat, because their lips are painted with blood, which often spills over and creates a match with the tie. Red, as a symbol of cannibalism, is the dominant signifier here. In one of Levinthal's pictures, a man is standing at the intersection of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street. Given the play between the colors green, yellow, and red, he seems to be directing traffic. But what really grabs our attention in the picture, and which is made even more vivid against the black background of the photograph, is the red which is smeared all over the mans face and matches the color of his suit. Thus, the mans cannibalism takes over and dominates other meanings suggested by the figure, such as the cosmopolitanism of the white shoes and gloves, the checkered pants, and the polka-dotted tie. The motif of cannibalism also circulates through the laughter of the stereotypes which reveal their bigger-than-normal teeth, with wide gaps between them. Take, for example, Levinthal's photograph of the disembodied head of a woman. Her skin color is visible in some places as a blueish reflection against the light, and totally invisible in other places, forming one big dark spot with the black background. In fact, what gives the head its shape is the red head-scarf with white dots which is in complicity with the red lips, separated by the exposed upper teeth that also resonate with the bugged-out white of the eyes. The viewer experiences an uncanny feeling of danger that is derived from the fear of being captured and destroyed by the overwhelming whiteness of the eyes and teeth.

The color white is deceptively dangerous here, because it is associated with black and red, the primary colors of Africanism. This picture, therefore, brings together all the qualities of the Freudian signifier in a dream. The imminent darkness and the red symbolize our latent fear of cannibalism, and other awful things associated with Africa. The white dots of the scarf, the eyes, and teeth constitute the deception in the dream. Finally, the relationship between the black, the red, and the white gives us the stereotype ,just as for Freud, the relationship of the dream to its latent meaning is the key to an interpretation of the problem. For us, a key importance of Levinthal's work lies here: by confronting us with a dark background that subsumes and appropriates the blackness of the stereotypes, it dramatically brings to life the other colors, red and white, which are essential to making sense of the Africanist myth. Whenever the three colors are present in a stereotype, or any one of them in an excessive manner, blood-red lips, tie, scarf, pants, jacket,i t is important to know that that stereotype is threatened by Africanism. Even the Mammy is not above the threat. That is why, in order to maintain her image as civilized, she has to remain desexualized, dressed neatly in her uniform, and just dark enough to be set apart from both the tragic mulatto and the jungle Africans.



There is a hierarchy of stereotypes that organizes them and makes them markers of the complexity of the Southern ideology that gives the stereotypes their meaning. Because stereotypes have different contents, they first of all affect us differently across race, gender, and class. To some people, the Mammy may be preferable to an Africanized Zip Coon. To others, both may be equally offensive. However, the longevity and the immanence of the blackface stereotype, in spite of the significant gains in civil rights and mobility for black people today, is a concern. Is the stereotype so much more powerful and compelling than this new content of history, that it thwarts the artistic intentions of the younger generations?

Judging from the recent conflicts in the art world, the media, and institutions of higher learning over the impact of stereotypes on our society, it is clear that the issue is complex. It is also a clear sign of historical change that black collectors of blackface memorabilia outnumber their white counterparts. Author Kenneth Goings, a major collector of blackface memorabilia, asserts that, while whites derive a "bonus of social superiority" from collecting them, African-Americans such as himself become collectors to "demonstrate that this negative past that so many naysayers assert never happened really did; at the same time, as many other collectors also believe, I am robbing these artifacts/ideologies of the power to hurt me" (The International Review of African American Art 14:5 [1997], 23; all subsequent quotes from this journal will be referenced by page number). Goings believes, in fact, that the resurgence of blackface stereotypes has coincided historically with white peoples perception that black peoples gains in civil rights were undeserved, and therefore stereotypes were necessary to beat them back into the hole (Mammy and Uncle Mose, 88-106).

The perspective that white people and the media deploy stereotypes to counter progress made by blacks informs a critique that lumps together as stereotypical, artists as varied as rap musicians, film-makers, and conceptual artists. Bettye Saar, a respected African American artist, has unleashed a polemic against Kara Walker for her rethematization of blackface stereotypes in art. In 1997, Walker received the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award for her innovative work. Saar believes that Walkers instant fame is attributable to a "white backlash" against the rich tradition of African American art: "This is like closet racism. It relieves them of the responsibility to show other artists. Here we are at the end of the millennium seeing work that is very sexist and derogatory...Kara Walker Is Selling Us Down the River," (IRAAA, 4).

In the same issue of The International Review of African American Art, Michael Harris argues that African Americans should turn the page on stereotypes and concentrate on positive and authentic images of themselves as derived from African art or from their own communities. He invokes the work of black psychologists and the Du Boisian theory of double consciousness to assert that black collectors and artists of blackface stereotypes are haunted by a feeling of self-hatred: they are "holding on to things that whites made to materialize their perception of our community" (IRAAA, 19). Harris concludes his argument by stating that "[t]here are not enough affirming images in our environment for these negative images to ever be fully drained, controlled and mastered. They proliferate so much and there's so little to counter them that you see acts of self-hatred, you see black-on-black crime" (IRAAA, 20).

In their differing ways, Goings, Saar, and Harris are united in their resistance to the stereotype. They have assigned to themselves the burden of representation. For them, black art should pursue the grand tradition of anti-racism, respectability, and representation of positive images that humanize black people. For them, art must avoid stereotypes or, if it addresses them at all, deconstruct them. Bettye Saar's art, for example, subverts our image of the Mammy as defined by her neat uniform and reassuring smile. She calls for the liberation of the Mammy by rendering her image more threatening and by arming her with weapons other than the broom. In one of her thematic installations, 'Liberation of Aunt Jemima: Busy Bee,' the Mammy has mechanical arms and holds a broom in one hand and a bullet in the other. The object of the installation is to bring out a rebellious side of the Mammy, and by denaturalizing her, to distinguish her from our notion of the Mammy in the blackface stereotype.

Saar's work here is resonant with the tradition of such organizations as the NAACP in their organizing against and fighting negative images of African Americans in the media. We are all familiar with the film The Birth of a Race (1916) made by Noble Johnson and the NAACP to counter D. W. Griffiths infamous Birth of a Nation (1915). W.E.B. Du Bois' idea of the Talented Tenth has also made African Americans aware of their duty to represent positive images of their race in society. African Americans have always, therefore, been vigilant against the emergence and perpetuation of stereotypes, whether created by whites or by people in their own communities.

They correctly perceive stereotypes as a violent form of advertisement in which the meaning travels faster than the perception of the fine print. As I have shown, with the help of Leventhal's photographs, what disappears -- when the blackface figurines are placed against a black background -- is the blackness, and what appears is the deformation of black identity. Thus, the complexity of an image will stand between it and its stereotypical rendition. To paraphrase Roland Barthes again in Mythologies, the stereotype always succeeds by disguising the biography of the real black person. The stereotype, because it prefers to work with pastiche and caricature, always steals something from black people.



However, there is a problem with the notion of staying in the tradition, resisting the stereotype, or deconstructing it. One cannot resist the stereotype in representation without creating another stereotype. The point is that the language of resistance itself is caught up in another form of caricature, symbolism, and pastiche that robs the black person of his/her individual history. It is in this sense that one sees in the black middle classs resolve to deconstruct the stereotype at all costs, a new reification of blackness ,the blackness of black nationalists. Once again, the content of history is deformed as tradition dictates to the individual the exclusive way of being black in America.

I want to suggest that there is another way of approaching the stereotype, one which is fluid and thus more attentive to the content of history. If the conflict between the Bettye Saars and the Kara Walkers resides in anything, it is that one side continues the tradition of resistance against the stereotype, while the other has broken with that tradition, confronting the stereotype "not only as an external phenomenon but also as the content of their own individual consciousness" (IRAAA, 3). It is this seemingly discontinuous art of the younger generation, in hip-hop, in the "hood" movies, and in so-called "neo-coon art," that bothers the traditionalists. Against the younger generations embrace of the stereotype, one can hear the traditionalists asking: how can one accept the stereotyping of oneself by the white man, and surrender to capitalism with such a sexual desire? The bourgeois nationalists share an anxiety that this generation does not fully realize how dangerous the stereotype is, and that the irony in the original stereotypes may be stronger and more insidious than any irony deployed by the "neo-coon" artists.

In the so-called "neo-coons'" appropriation of blackface, however, the emphasis is no longer on resistance politics, but on wearing masks that facilitate ones mobility in the world. In he words of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: "For artistic tradition to evolve beyond realism to the meta-level of self-conscious, political, and formalistic commentary is a sign of sophistication, self-confidence, self-awareness, and control. In the work of these sublime artists, the black object has become the black subject in a profound act of artistic exorcism" (IRAAA, 5).

The point now is to look at stereotypes with different eyes. The work of Kara Walker, Quentin Tarantino, Warren Beatty (Bulworth), and Chris Rock, for example, reveals the stereotype as an object of desire. In Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Hammons' art, the stereotype is a point of departure for an uncanny commentary on our contemporary society. For these artists, the stereotype is not only the victim of white racism, but also of black bourgeois nationalism, which has internalized the same hatred for blackface as white supremacists. Lowery Stokes Sims is right when she says that our relation to blackface stereotypes, besides everything else, reveals "a certain fundamental resistance we had to the reality of how we looked as black people" (IRAAA, 21). To embrace the stereotype in a sense that echoes Toni Cade Bambara's "gorilla" in Gorilla My Love is therefore a subversive and critical act against bourgeois nationalists of different persuasions who are united in giving black men and women one single, ahistorical, and permanent identity. Additionally, it focuses our attention on the stereotype itself, not on received ideas about the stereotype. It is then possible to maintain that the meaning and impact of the stereotype are delimited by history, that we can have a different relationship with it today, and that it can be used to say something new about art and society that disrupts our conventions.

Today, as artists like Hammons' stereotype the stereotype, they draw our attention to the distance as well as the similarity between the old blackface and the new. Chris Rock's posing in blackface on the cover of Vanity Fair, or playing a naive black child ready to be eaten up by crocodiles on Saturday Night Live is a new stereotype that steals from the old. True to the function of every stereotype, stereotyping a blackface stereotype corrupts it by giving it a new reified content. By giving the impression of surrendering to the old stereotype ,through referencing some of its distinctive features, the artist addresses a new historical content. The new blackface is therefore the criterion of transtextuality: an artifice which enables the performer to fill all the spaces that the old stereotype occupied and to be the star of the new show. If the old stereotype is the projection of white supremacist thinking onto black people, the new stereotype compounds matters by desiring that image, and deforming its content for a different appropriation.

David Levinthal's photographs bear evidence of this new appropriation. I will concentrate on his Amos-and-Andy and watermelon photographs. I have already mentioned Levinthal's mise-en-scene, in which the blackness of the blackface disappears in the dark and the whiteness emerges dramatically to the surface. By repositioning the blackface stereotypes in close-up photographs, Levinthal destroys their original effect, which is antithetical to close reading and analysis. As I have said, stereotypes convey their meaning quickly by connecting an image to a received idea. It is usually this idea that dominates the stereotype and gives it its form. Levinthal breaks this ideological and aesthetic contract by repositioning the image and weakening its identification with the intended original meaning.

My own favorite in this process of distantiation is a photograph of a blackface figurine setting a dining table. The setting is elegant, with scintillating glasses, candlelight, an ice bucket for wine, and a towel. The server himself is impeccably dressed in a white suit and bow-tie. Paradoxically, the elongated face with its red lips and bulging eyes does not connote the danger of Africanism usually associated with blackface. Instead, there is an analogy between the face and the long fingers that creates an affinity between this figure and the cartoon figure of Donald Duck. The bug eyes and red lips become Donald Ducks eyes and beak. The whole scene is comical, whether one perceives it as a blackface Donald Duck as a server or as Donald Duck/blackface setting a romantic dinner-table. The animal motif associated with Africanism is still there. But what is interesting is that the photograph, by aestheticizing the stereotype, breaks the illusion of identification with the image, makes us pause and scrutinize it in detail, and exposes the ideology of the old stereotype as naive and boring. The Amos-and-Andy figurines undergo the same kind of transformation in Leventhal's photography. Here, the artifice which finds white characters stereotyping black people is framed at a time when the actors seem to be tired of their roles. A close-up of Andys face, with the perennial cigar between his pursed lips and his hat, betrays a white face which is obviously painted black. Andy looks more like a tired clown on his way home from the circus. His sad face connotes more a dejection with the profession of acting than the faux pas of a black man pretending to be white. In fact, this close-up shot, by restoring Andy to the acting traditions of vaudeville theater, renders it ridiculous and distant from the blackness of todays homeboys. Acting is also an issue in the photograph of a black boy trying to wrap his arms around a watermelon that is bigger than he is. This image steals from the stereotype because the boy does not in fact look like one. He does not have rolling white eyes, nor does he exhibit other signs of Africanism. He seems to be posing, stereotyping the stereotype. The embrace of the watermelon therefore mobilizes ironic turns that remind us of the contemporary works of Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles. In contrast to this image, there is one traditional photograph of two jubilant black kids, "pickaninny motifs, " getting ready to bite into a large slice of watermelon. They have beady hair, rolling white eyes, and red lips that match the color of the watermelon. This is a typical image of black kids used as salt-and-pepper shakers, hot-pad holders, and postcards selling somebody's product.

I must have been going through these stereotypes of black kids and watermelons at the moment my son asked me what I was doing. For, a few days later, he brought to my attention two white kids on the cover of the Summer 1998 issue of Health Diary, a United Healthcare magazine. Each kid has a slice of watermelon in his hands and is laughing with satisfaction. The hat on the head of one of the kids, their bare feet, and their self-abandonment in the presence of watermelons, all stereotype the stereotype of black people. By bringing the image to my attention, my son made that much of an association. But his act is also challenging me to stop being the custodian of these stereotypes, to distance myself from them, and to begin to enjoy the humor in them. Only then will I, like him, become an individual and modern.

copyright 1998 Manthia Diawara

Back To Manthia Diawara Front Page I Back To Black Cultural Studies Front Page