Thursday, April 26, 2007

Racist Imaging

Kimberly sent this link to a slide show called "Uncle Ben, CEO? The Strange History of Racist Spokescharacters" by Slate contributor, David Segal. It is an excellent piece with visuals that clearly elaborate linkages between advertising, capitalism, and racism. Also, see my earlier discussion below.

Thanks Kimberly. The reference to Sambos got me thinking. Was there a Sambos restaurant in central Oregon? I seem to remember that when I was the faculty advisor to the African Students Association at PSU they were busy with a campaign aimed at getting that restaurant to change its name? David Segal, however, says that only the original Sambos in Santa Barbara, California, stands.

I did a little background reading on Sambos. It is said that the restaurant was founded in 1957 by Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett. The name supposedly reflects the letters of the owners names. The owners claim that the relationship to Sambo, the character in Helen Bannerman's book entitled "The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899)", is purely incidental. This said, the owners 'merely borrowed' from Bannerman's racist imagery and innocently reproduced themes from the book in the restaurant.

This kind of dishonesty will have us believe that racism is incidental, individual, and not systemic. Kind of like that movie "Crash" where liberal America, and others, deluded themselves into a similar analysis of racism. The fact that the movie could not make its points without racist and stereotypical reductionism was mostly lost on its admirers.

Bannerman wrote her book (see cover directly above) for children while living in India. She depicts Sambo as an Indian boy with a broader amalgamation of stereotypical blackness. Sambos portray Bannerman's Sambo as a black (or 'non-white') boy among Indian tigers. There is, of course, a 'deracialized' spin on the 2007 Sambo. See the Sambos website. You will be amazed at their racist dishonesty. Who are they kidding? And who eats there?

While reading-up on Sambos I remembered the Golliwog character in Enid Blyton's children stories. Folks living in Britain and the commonwealth probably remember Noddy and the Golliwogs. Some may even do so with distinct fondness. I don't.

The Golliwog characters have a longer history than many readers of the Blyton books may recognize. The character was first created by Florence Upton and initially appeared in her 1895 book entitled "The Adventure of Two Dutch Dolls". Upton, an American whose parents were British immigrants, spelt Golliwogg with two 'Gs' at the end. See "The Golliwog Caricture" for background information.

Enid Blyton dropped one 'G' and 'developed' her Golliwog characters to be more typical of racist stereotypes. Her Golliwogs are scary and thieves. In one book an untrustworthy Golliwog steals a car. In another, Blyton depicts a Golliwog as honest and even lovable. The usual dilemma for whiteness perhaps.

It is, however, a dilemma that has proved very profitable for Blyton and others. Golliwog dolls were a favourite toy in Britain and elsewhere during the 20th century. Even today, the Golliwog doll is a much sought after collector's piece on Ebay in Britain.

In essence, the Sambo and Golliwog characters can be seen as extensions of 'Black Face Minstrel' imaging.

'Black Face Minstrel' imaging has a very prominent and permanent place in white popular culture. Remember Al Jolson (1886-1950) in blackface performing "My Mammy" in The Jazz Singer (1927). The intent to manipulate and denigrate the identity of Blacks is abundantly clear. The outcome in any context, notwithstanding the kind of Sambos detraction, is racist and demeaning.

Though less glaring, racist imaging continues. But sadly it is mostly ignored. When I think about Enid Blyton's Golliwog stories I can't remember one time in South Africa where someone, anyone, fingered her very obvious and blatant racism. Instead, Blyton was, and still is, a respected and revered author. Most folks see nothing wrong with having their kids read about Golliwogs. For this reason, you will find Blyton's books, including "The Famous Five" and "The Secret Seven" series, on the shelves of public libraries throughout South Africa.

The only 'mitigating' factor, so to speak, is that South Africans are notorious for not reading. But then again, who can afford to read in South Africa? Books are a heavily taxed luxury the masses just can't afford. When I was a child books were more affordable. Though many were banned or just not available.

Did you know that Anna Sewell's book "Black Beauty (1877)" was banned here during the apartheid era? That's right. A chidren's novel about a horse was banned during the apartheid era. The apartheid regime would not stand for the words "Black" and "Beauty" to be used together, and descriptively nonetheless. It did not matter that what was being described was a horse. Go figure! But that is another story for another time.

I remember that I used to lay on the floor of number 11 listening to a record that contained readings from an Enid Blyton book. It was a reading from one of the many Noddy adventures. I remember thinking about Noddy driving around in his little car and chasing a train. What I don't remember is the Golliwog character. But is that not the point? Noddy is the main character of normal dreams and adventurous excitement. Golliwog is the manipulated character of varying deviance. He is the opposite, even conflictual Other, of the ideal white Noddy. He functions in the subconscious where cultivated prejudice prods and informs discriminatory action. This profitable 'playground' is the functional harness of the marketplace.

And racist imaging sells. Persistently and productively. To disband these profit strategies is unthinkable and unprofitable. Instead, imaging is updated. The context and purpose is the same. See Eminem for a modern reinterpretation of blackface, for example.

I do not intend to suggest that everything about racist imaging is tied to capitalism. Nor do I intend to suggest that racism originates in the class consciousness critique of classical Marxism. I am aware that the psychological and social functions are primary. For this reason, if racist imaging is suspended it would not mean that racism would be significantly diminished in capitalism. It is a more complex and interwoven reality that we are facing.

I have obviously just begun to scratch the surface here. But it is a surface that traces back through not-so-innocent children's stories like those of Florence Upton, Helen Bannerman, and Enid Blyton.

OK, so please weigh in and tell me your thinking.


In the late 70s early 80s here in South African there was an ad for "Big Corn Bites" that used the "lazy larcenous" and dirty Mexican stereotype. "The Frito Bandito" in the US was very similar to the "Big Corn Bites" Mexican ... remember?

Who owned and produced "Big Corn Bites" in South Africa? Was it Fritos or Willards? Does anyone know if Fritos and Frito (now Frito Lay) were/are the same company? I think they are. You know how the apartheid capitalists played around with coporation names to get around economic sanctions. Remember how General Motors became Delta Motor Corporation when US economic sanctions came into effect in the late 80s?

It would also be great to hear more on this topic too.


Jp-Mot said...

Simba bru!

Ridwan said...

Thanks Jp-Mot. You are right.

I see the lazy/loco Mexican is still a theme to sell chips/crisps.