The black image in the collective white American mind is the product of anti-Negro propaganda from the late 19th century that has continued into the early 21st century. With the end of the enslavement period came an obsession among the ruling class regarding the so-called “Negro problem.” Anger among southern whites at the loss of exploited labor, plus the unwarranted fear of the “black peril,” made for a perception of loss of power and need for retaliation. Some method of social control had to be devised to maintain the “natural place” of Negros as members of a docile subordinate population.
The state-supported method of social control of the Negro was the establishment of “Jim Crow”. Jim Crow was the institutionalized system of laws and customs that ruthlessly segregated black Americans from white Americans and discriminated against them. In the early 1830s, the white actor Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice was propelled to stardom for performing minstrel routines as the fictional “Jim Crow”, a caricature of a clumsy, dimwitted black. As the show's popularity spread, “Jim Crow “became a widely used derogatory term for the state-supported laws and customs. When Jim Crow was believed to be violated, violence in the form of lynching was the major extra-legal application of silencing the African American.
One of the least discussed, but most insidious, methods of control of African Americans during this period was racial demagoguery. Using the Biblical story of the cursing of Ham, and dubious social science, an image of the inferior Negro was created. It was, however, through the popular culture of literature, cartoons, post cards, ethnic notions such as toys, banks, cookie jars that the caste position of blacks was cemented in the American mind. It was advertising that had the greatest impact on making the southern image of blacks the national image, one that remains in the collective white American mind.
Images or pictures are powerful tools that elicit specific emotional reactions from the viewer. Race is an emotional stimulant. Images that are emotionally saturated, as that of the Negro during that time, have the power to evoke deep emotions in whites and to influence their beliefs and feelings at an unconscious level. The physical distortion of black images was most exaggerated in the depiction of the mouth, eyes and extremities. Their mouths were usually opened with and filled with large and carnivorous-looking extra-white teeth, their eyes white and bulging. Their hands were hairy and ape-like. In many depictions, black images were more animal or apelike than human.
These highly distorted images of blacks were created, reinforced and perpetuated by the former Confederate states for physical, emotional, social control of the Negro and to maintain a subjugated labor source. The images reinforced the ideology of white superiority and black physical, intellectual, emotional, and cultural inferiority; and the belief that blacks were “natural” servants.
Advertising played a key role in presenting images of blacks in servile and submissive roles, the part of southern culture that became the subconscious reality of American whites in general. These images had immediate meaning for white consumers. The southern images of blacks became part of the collective American mind. By the late 19th century, the stereotypical images of African Americans were universally accepted.
Stereotypical images were never neutral in their representation. Images of black men as shiftless, unreliable and incompetent shaped his employment opportunities, confining him to positions of servant, hard laborer, and low-wage employee. Black women were cast as Mammy, servants in the Aunt Jemima mold -- fat, deferential and happy. Images of black people incapable of reaching higher levels of intelligence shaped and curtailed educational opportunities for African Americans. Images of ignorant black men rationalized his exclusion from polls and juries.
According to Benson (1988), the psychic well-being of whites is produced by stereotypical images. Stereotypical images of African Americans became popular advertising “hooks” for consumer goods aimed primarily at the white working class; the objects of material culture served the class and race interests of the elite by helping that class of whites identify with the upper class white race in general rather than their own perhaps lower-class background or condition within the white race. race and not their economic background or condition.
Stereotypes created during the Jim Crow era are deeply embedded in the collective white American consciousness and unfortunately have also been internalized by many blacks as well. In a recent survey of more than 100 white, black and Latinos, the most commonly listed stereotypes held by them were that blacks were: intellectually inferior, lazy, irresponsible, overly sexed, criminals, thugs and violent drug users/dealers.
Most disturbing is that stereotypical images enable whites to believe stereotypes which in turn ensure that “good people” to ignore and endure injustice, discrimination and segregation. These distorted images of blacks possess the most subversive power because they are regarded as acceptable by well-meaning whites who do not consider themselves to be prejudiced. Images of blacks as inferior and only meant for servitude conveyed beliefs, attitudes, and values that subtly invaded the consciousness that remains part of the American psyche today.
Uncle Mose, Mammy and Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers, sugar bowls, creamers, pitchers, cookie jars and door stops all represented blacks as servants. As innocent as these images may have seemed, they are relevant in the American mind today: African Americans must prove their intelligence and capability still, against all odds.
The Jim Crow era did more to create anti-black beliefs and feelings than slavery. Jim Crow laws and customs shaped every aspect of African American life. Laws have been changed – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; however, distorted images of African Americans created during the 1800s remain deeply rooted in the collective American consciousness. This is the most destructive legacy of the Jim Crow Era.