Stereotypes of African Americans  

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Cover of the brochure of the "Entartete Musik exhibition
Cover of the brochure of the "Entartete Musik exhibition
This reproduction of a 1900 minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from white to "black".
This reproduction of a 1900 minstrel show poster, originally published by the Strobridge Litho Co., shows the transformation from white to "black".

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

African Americans as a group have been primarily stereotyped as animalistic brutes in American culture: physically rather than intellectually oriented, hedonistic, criminal-minded, violent, and willing to rape. They are more likely to be portrayed as unrestrained, hot-tempered, and more profane than whites or others in movies and television shows.

The counterpoint to the young male image is the female "Mammy archetype"; often this mature woman is portrayed as grossly overweight, poorly made up and dressed in gaudy clothing, but nonetheless genial, churchgoing and spiritual to the point of delusion, and passive in the face of white authority. Aunt Jemima and the Hattie McDaniel character from the film Gone With the Wind are standard portrayals of this stereotype. "Lord have mercy" is a phrase often associated with this character, in contrast to the ghetto dialect, profanity, and general disrespect seen in stereotypical portrayals of young males.

Young African American females are often stereotyped as promiscuous, generally unkempt apart from hair extensions and fake nails, loud in speech, greedy and self-serving. They are "welfare queens" and baby machines incapable of experiencing love. As a result, the stereotyped character can be physically and sexually abused without the guilt that normally would accompany the act.

There is a rich history of stereotypical representations of mature African American males, including Uncle Tom and "house nigger", the subservient Pullman porter and loyal butler, or the Uncle Remus character, always willing to tell a story to the master's children, while berating or neglecting his own offspring. An example of a positive stereotype of the mature male, the "magical negro" is often portrayed as a mystical guide or thought catalyst for white protagonists. Examples of the "magical negro" in modern films include John Coffey in The Green Mile and Moses the Clock Man in The Hudsucker Proxy.

African Americans are generally portrayed as intellectually, economically, and culturally inadequate, and soliciting or in constant need of assistance from white Americans and others. The stereotype of the dedicated non-African American teacher, social worker, or mentor providing what African American family, culture, and wealth cannot is well established in films, television shows, and televised charity appeals.

In contrast to the streotypes of Asia as being the "mystic Orient" full of ancient, powerful and ineffable (at least to the white audience) secrets, Africa is often portrayed as a backwards, underdeveloped place with a silly, primitive and superstitious culture and no relevant history or legacy of contributions to the world. African cultures are often not thought out and portrayed uniformly as primitive tribalism consisiting of simple savages who live simple lives in village huts, occassionally warring with neighboring tribes. They are often portrayed as either hostile and violent to outsiders or in awe of the obvious cultural and technological superiority of the usually white foreigners. The vast variety of African cultures are ignored and African history beyond tribalism is assumed to be non-existant. This streotype possibly aids the perception of people of African descent as intellectually and culturally inferior savages who are largely physically-oriented rather than mentally-oriented. Africa is rarely portrayed as having any significant cities or non-tribal civilizations.

Comedian Carlos Mencia created a skit that shows the different types of stereotypes all in one called The Stereotype Olympics. Some parts include an African-American stealing tv's and hopping over fences, but lost to a Latino.

Black men are often portrayed as having large genitalia. For example, in the film Full Metal Jacket a Vietnamese prostitute refuses sex because she thinks the black character's penis is too large.

Early stereotypes

In centuries before and during the first half of the 20th century black people were often depicted as dumb, evil, lazy, poor, animalistic, uncivilized, un-Christian people. The early Anglo-Saxon colonists brought these initial thoughts with them to the US. White colonists commonly believed that black people were inferior to white people. These thoughts helped to justify black slavery and the institution of many laws that continually condoned inhumane treatment and perpetuated to keep black people in a lower socioeconomic position. Black people were usually depicted as slaves or servants, working in cane fields or carrying large piles of cotton. They were often portrayed as devout Christians going to church and singing gospel music. In many vaudeville shows, minstrel acts, cartoons, comics and animated cartoons of this period they were depicted as sad, lazy, dim-witted characters with big lips who sing bluesy songs and are good dancers, but get excited when confronted with dice games, chickens or watermelons (examples: all the characters portrayed by Stepin Fetchit and black characters in cartoons like Sunday Go to Meetin' Time and All This and Rabbit Stew). A more joyful black image, yet still very stereotypical, was provided by eternally happy black characters like Uncle Tom, Uncle Remus and Louis Armstrong's equally joyous stage persona. Another popular stereotype from this era was the black who is scared of ghosts (and usually turns white out of fear). Butlers were sometimes portrayed as black (for example the butler in many Shirley Temple movies). Housemaids were usually depicted as black, heavy-set middleaged women who dress in large skirts (examples of this type are Mammy Two-Shoes, Aunt Jemima, Beulah and more recently the title character of Big Momma's House). Children are often pickaninnies like Little Black Sambo and Golliwogg. Black jive (dialect) was also often used in comedy, like for instance in the show Amos 'n Andy.

African black people were usually depicted as primitive, childlike, cannibalistic persons who live in tribes, carry spears, believe in witchcraft and worship their wizard. White colonists are depicted tricking them by selling junk in exchange for valuable things and/or scaring them with modern technology. A well-known example of this image is Tintin in Africa. When white people are caught by African tribes they are usually put in a large, black cauldron so they can be cooked and eaten. Sometimes black Africans are depicted as pygmies with childlike behavior so that they can be ridiculed as being similar to children. Other stereotypical images are the male black African dressed in lip plates or with a bone sticking through his nasal septum. Stereotypical female black African depictions include the bare breasted woman with large breasts and notably fat buttocks (examples of this stereotype are the 19th century sideshow attraction Saartjie Baartman and Robert Crumb's comic strip character Angelfood McSpade) or the woman who wears multiple rings around her giraffe-like neck (note: this type of neck ornament is also common in Burma with women from the Kayan (Burma) tribe, but is generally associated with Africa (like in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Which Is Witch).

Secretary of State John C. Calhoun arguing for the extension of slavery in 1844 said "Here (scientific confirmation) is proof of the necessity of slavery. The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to give him the guardianship and protection from mental death."

Even after slavery ended the intellectual capacity of Black people was still frequently questioned. Lewis Terman wrote in The measurement of intelligence in 1916
"(Black and other ethnic minority children) are uneducable beyond the nearest rudiments of training. No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable citizens in the sense of the world…their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stock from which they come…Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can be made efficient workers…There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusual prolific breeding.)"

Modern black stereotypes

Since the 1960s the stereotypical image of black people has changed in some media. More positive depictions appeared where black people and African-Americans are portrayed as great athletes and superb singers and dancers. Black men are still often portrayed as excellent lovers with large genitals . In many films and television series since the 1970s black people are depicted as good natured, kind, honest and intelligent persons. Often they are the best friend of the white protagonist (examples: Miami Vice, Lethal Weapon, Magnum Force,...). Some critics believed this political correctness lead to another stereotypical image where black people are often depicted too positive 1989 showed that blacks were more likely than whites to be described in demeaning intellectual terms. Political activist and one-time presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson said in 1985 that the news media portray blacks as less intelligent than we are. Film director Spike Lee explains that these images have negative impacts. "In my neighborhood, we looked up to athletes, guys who got the ladies, and intelligent people,".

Even so-called positive images of Black people can lead to stereotypes about intelligence. In Darwin's Athletes: how sport has damaged Black America and preserved the myth of race, John Hoberman writes that the prominence of African-American athletes encourages a de-emphasis on academic achievement in black communities. In a 1997 study on racial stereotypes in sports, participants were shown a photograph of a white or a black basketball player. They then listened to a recorded radio broadcast of a basketball game. White photographs were rated as exhibiting significantly more intelligence in the way they played the game, even though the radio broadcast and target player represented by the photograph were the same throughout the trial. Several other authors have said that sports coverage that highlights 'natural black athleticism' has the effect of suggesting white superiority in other areas, such as intelligence.

Patricia J. Williams, writer for The Nation, said this of Jar Jar Binks, a character from the 1999 and 2002 Star Wars films The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, respectively: "...intentionally or not, Jar Jar's pratfalls and high jinks borrow heavily from the genre of minstrelsy. Despite the amphibian get-up, his manchild-like idiocy is imported directly from the days of Amos 'n' Andy." Many aspects of Jar Jar's character are believed to be highly reminiscent of the archetypes portrayed in blackface minstrelsy.

See also

African American humor, African American culture, Amos 'n' Andy, African-American representation in Hollywood


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