Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

Primary colours: black brown and beige

Colored Pictures:

By Michael D. Harris<br>Foreword by Moyo Okediji<br>University of North Carolina Press USD 39.95

White superiority in the United States was once vividly seen through two common consumables: Band-Aid bandages and a single Crayola crayon. Both were pinkish-beige and officially called ‘skin color’, which spoke volumes about the racial hierarchies in this country. In fact, it took a spike in minority population growth during the 1970s before the corporations that produced these products understood that this pigment represented only one segment of the total consumer base and ceased referring to them in epidermal terms. Nonetheless the products indicated that white society believed that its non-white minorities were unworthy of being primary colours on the national palette.

Despite this bias there was not, however, a shortage of black and brown in popular American art. As Michael D. Harris observes in Colored Pictures: Race & Visual Representation, an incisive analysis of how the United States has visualised race in art and design throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, blacks originally served as a counterpoint to whites. Ethnicity and race historically determined social stratification and black / brown-ness was the key signifier of a lower caste. ‘The construction of white ethnicity has been dependent on an opposition to blackness, while black ethnicity has been dependent on the threat of white racism,’ Harris explains. ‘White is more describable by its contours and what it is not than by what it is, and its normalisation also standardises the opposition to, and devaluation of nonwhiteness.’

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries blacks (as well as other non-whites and foreign ethnics) were made to appear less noble, or at least more subservient, than pure-bred whites in the plethora of popular cartoons, caricatures, packages, and even commercial trade characters that provided entertainment mostly for whites. Although certain Caucasian types were comically caricatured, too, the most savagely mocking depictions were reserved for Africans or African-Americans, who as a group were demeaned through gross physical (especially facial) exaggerations. While this was routine in cartoons in which all characterisations are designed to be foolish, in otherwise serious representational and journalistic art, like a sketch by Winslow Homer (reproduced in the book) titled Our Jolly Cook, the black man is presented as a buffoon. ‘The cook’s performance argued against his ability to do more than amuse or serve whites,’ Harris explains.

Various character types developed during and immediately following the Civil War (1861-65). Blacks were presented as childlike, shiftless, and lazy but alternately as menacing, conniving and violent. The most popular of all depictions was the minstrel – a dancing, prancing, and frolicking character born of plantation myths and set to music. The minstrel show was part musical and part circus, and entirely rooted in the manufacture of benign black stereotypes that through constant reinforcement stuck like glue to the race itself. Minstrel shows were so popular that they were co-opted by white entertainers who donned blackface and performed in venues that were prohibited to blacks.

The history of racial depiction in graphic art has surfaced more in recent years owing to increased scholarship as well as to artists, like painter Michael Ray Charles, who have repositioned the negative stereotypes in their work. In his chapter ‘The Language of Appropriation’, Harris astutely critiques the ways in which artists have used what some consider best-forgotten remnants of the past as tools of redemption. He also discusses the shifts in artistic prejudice away from accepted caricature norms, with reference to an early twentieth-century black artist named Archibald J. Motley Jr, who often painted against stereotype including elegant portraits of beautiful prosperous black women. But the most valuable chapters are ones that deconstruct the physical traits that fused into enduring stereotypes – both negative and positive.

The development of the ‘mammy’, for example, typified by the Aunt Jemima trademark of pancake mix fame, was for the antebellum South the motherly cornerstone of the slave plantation, a house servant who lovingly raised the young’uns. After the Civil War in both North and South, mammies were nostalgically romanticised in art and literature for strategic reasons. ‘Blackness was prescribed in ways comfortable to whites,’ writes Harris, ‘and it required that black people act out those prescriptions.’ The majority of black women were servants, yet the fictional Aunt Jemima was the personification of the way in which white women wanted to perceive their domestics. This notion is doubtless obvious, but Harris digs even deeper into the imagery and notes that hair was an important trait. ‘The headscarf worn by the typical mammy may have been the ultimate denouement of African American ethnicity in the contrived caricature,’ he says referring to the scarf as ‘negating any beauty potential.’ The headscarf further contributed to desexualising black women, since sexuality was a clear threat to white womanhood.

Today’s African-American stereotypes are more about power and prowess – they are caricatures of the athletes and gangstas, among others. In fact, it is fascinating that a new black symbolic vocabulary has become so popular among the young, overshadowing certain white images (the un-hip white-boy is so déclassé these days). Harris’s book is essential reading for designers who work with signs and symbols. Understanding the power of this kind of graphic depiction – from people into types – should be on every design teacher’s syllabus.