O pioneers of the digital frontier,
Anyone who’s watched Spike Lee’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes obvious 2000 film Bamboozled, Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia might feel eerily familiar—the docile, self-sacrificing”mammy,” the lazy, stealing, and insatiable “coon” (on the left). Less familiar to some readers may be the sexually virile “Jezebel” stereotype, embodied, curator David Pilgrim argues, by Pam Grier’s blaxploitation turn as Foxy Brown (right).
None of the artifacts on the site are explicitly sourced, which speaks, in part, to the ubiquity of the imagery over a long span of time—so long that the stereotypes’ sources in the abuses of Southern slavery have largely been forgotten. Even reproducing the images feels suspicious to me, since they still beg the viewer to take pleasure in their excesses. Old Aunt Jemima packaging once provoked delight (and relief) in seeing stereotypes depicted, hierarchies confirmed. And yet we’re left with a new ironic laughter, taking pleasure in our shock—our willingness to deride Americans of the past as unforgivably racist without admitting the subtler bigotries of the present. For all its flaws, Bamboozled makes two points worth reflection that minstrelsy continues into the 21st century in less obvious but no less pernicious forms, and that stereotypes have a life and energy of their own, which cannot be easily tamed.
Three books on the subject worth reading: Donald Bogle’s classic Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks, about African-Americans in film; M.M. Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima; and my advisor Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery.
Last but not least, be sure to check out Slate’s succinct slide show on the history of racist spokescharacters, Uncle—I mean Chairman Ben included.