The Impact of Early Black Stereotypes

By: Keilany Ligons

   The pervasive stereotypes created to dehumanize and objectify Black people date back to slavery. While it can be argued that these stereotypes have changed and “gotten better” over time, they shouldn’t be wiped from history because the unaffected people are too uncomfortable to talk about it, and it’s important to look into these tropes and ask if they’ve really gotten better or if they just get molded over and over to fit into current times.

   In live theater, art, and the early stages of film, Black people were portrayed with exaggerated, and even animalistic features. They were often drawn with incredibly large lips and teeth, “unmanaged” hair, and big wide eyes and noses. They would be shown as goofy and clumsy people who were poor, dirty, and uncivilized. The sole purpose would be to dehumanize Black people and push the narrative that they are less than and naturally inferior.

(‘Cross-Section of the World’s Most Prosperous Department Store’ by Dr. Seuss)

   Personality-wise, Black characters would commonly be shown as submissive and sidelined compared to white characters, and were made to love them and devote everything to them as they enjoyed having no purpose but to serve and entertain white people. These characters were used to back up the idea that Black people are uncivilized and content with being unable to properly live in modern society without their white counterparts and to this day have an impact on how society chooses to view them.

(Sunflower in ‘Fantasia’)

   In film, these characters were often portrayed by white actors in blackface, partially due to them refusing to give roles to actual Black people. Over time roles started to be given to Black actors, but characters in blackface portraying Black people in hurtfully stereotypical ways were still often done in both live-action and animated work.

(Judy Garland in ‘Everybody Sing’)

   Most of these tropes were so overused to the point where they could be titled. Named after Hattie McDaniel’s character in ‘Gone With The Wind’, the “Mammy” trope was portrayed as a heavier, dark-skinned woman who wore rags and a headscarf, the opposite of the European beauty standard. She would be dedicated to serving the white people she worked for and would respect and care for them more than her own family. Mammy was purposely given masculine features and treatment as to not be seen as a being of sexuality and beauty or as a threat to white women.

(Mammy from ‘Gone With The Wind’)

   “Sapphire” was created from the Mammy trope. Sapphire was used to push the narrative of the bossy, loudmouthed Black woman. She was still made to be over masculinized in order to support the unattractive personality given to her.

   Unlike Mammy and Sapphire, “Jezebel” was purposely made to hypersexualize Black women. Used to relieve white men of responsibility for the sexual abuse of Black women, this trope portrayed them as naturally lewd and tempting in comparison to “self-respecting and modest” white women. 

(Artifact from the ‘Jezebel Stereotype Gallery’ in the ‘Jim Crow Museum’)

   The “Sambo” and “Uncle Tom” stereotype goes back as far as American colonization. This image of a happy, unintelligent Black man who was lazy but happy to serve white slave owners was used to defend and justify slavery and was transmitted through music, literature, games, brands, artifacts, and many more aspects of everyday life.

   Sambo was molded into the “Jim Crow” character. Jim Crow was brought to life by a white performer named T.D. Rice. This character’s purpose was to entertain white people, mostly by singing and dancing. As opposed to being content with slavery, Jim Crow had no problem with any of the racial injustice that happened to the Black community, as long as he was able to entertain white people and make them happy. As Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel helped create the white ideology of Black women. Jim Crow became the face of the white ideology of Black men.

(Jim Crow caricature)

   The “Savage” trope was used to depict Black people as thieving, violent, and scary. This depiction was used to criminalize and vilify Black people and used to justify acts of violence against them.

   Today, these characters can’t be found as much, but are still the cause of the modern stereotypes we have now. The Savage trope has lived on through the thug image pushed onto Black men and boys, as does Jezebel through the constant hypersexualization and fetishization of Black women and girls, and Sapphire through the overused “Sassy Black Girl” stereotype.

   Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel have all contributed to the colorist depictions of Black women, light-skinned women being more “proper and attractive” and being given more European facial features and positive characteristics, and dark-skinned women being the more obnoxiously loud “unattractive” ones with more commonly Black features to associate them with negative characterizations. 

(Dijonay Jones & Penny Proud in ‘The Proud Family’)

   Mammy, Uncle Tom, and Jim Crow have led to the creation of the “Magical Negro”, characters in stories that are only used to help further the white character’s story typically before dying or not being seen again. They are also responsible for the “Token Black” that white people keep around for diversity points and the “less-black” Black person who is seen as approachable and as “one of the good ones” because they don’t portray negative Black stereotypes. 

(John Coffey from ‘The Green Mile’ ~Top~, Dionne Davenport from ‘Clueless’ ~Bottom~) 

   The racist and over-exaggerated depictions of Black people in art and cartoons have still had an impact today as we continue to see how cartoonists, artists, and animators struggle to give Black characters realistic features and lean towards the caricatures seen in the past. And, unfortunately, blackface has still been seen being used recently.

   Stereotypes play a significant role in shaping people’s attitudes towards Black people. While they might not be the exact same characters being used today, they have been used to hurt the Black community for centuries and are still alive.

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