Racist Caricature of the Day: The Picanniny

Content Note:  The subject matter in this post contains images, words, and phrases of racist nature, some of which may be graphic.

Those of African descent have long been ‘othered’…treated as if they aren’t part of the human race…treated as subhuman…or only part human; certainly not deserving of the same rights as everyone else (often read as white people).  This othering has resulted in racist caricatures of Blacks. These denigrating caricatures treat Black people in a dehumanizing manner.  One such racist caricature is ‘The Picanniny’:

Picaninnies as portrayed in material culture have skin coloring ranging from medium brown to dark black — light skinned picaninnies are rare. They include infants and teenagers; however, most appear to be 8-10 years old. Prissy, the inept and hysterical servant girl in Gone With the Wind (Selznick & Fleming, 1939) was an exception. She was older than the typical picaninny, but her character was functionally a picaninny. Picaninny girls (and sometimes boys) have hair tied or matted in short stalks that point in all directions; often the boys are bald, their heads shining like metal. The children have big, wide eyes, and oversized mouths — ostensibly to accommodate huge pieces of watermelon.

The picaninny caricature shows black children as either poorly dressed, wearing ragged, torn, old and oversized clothes, or, and worse, they are shown as nude or near-nude. This nudity suggests that black children, and by extension black parents, are not concerned with modesty. The nudity also implies that black parents neglect their children. A loving parent would provide clothing. The nudity of black children suggests that blacks are less civilized than whites (who wear clothes).

The nudity is also problematic because it sexualizes these children. Black children are shown with exposed genitalia and buttocks — often without apparent shame. Moreover, the buttocks are often exaggerated in size, that is, black children are shown with the buttocks of adults. The widespread depictions of nudity among black children normalizes their sexual objectification, and, by extension, justifies the sexual abuse of these children.

A disproportionately high number of African American children are poor, but the picaninny caricature suggests that all black children are impoverished. This poverty is evidenced by their ragged clothes. The children are hungry, therefore, they steal chickens and watermelon. Like wild animals, the picaninnies often must fend for themselves.

Picaninnies are portrayed in greeting cards, on-stage, and in physical objects as insignificant beings. Stories like Ten Little Niggers show Black children being rolled over by boulders, chased by alligators, and set on fire. Black children are shown on postcards being attacked by dogs, chickens, pigs and other animals. This is consistent with the many 19th and 20th century pseudo-scientific theories which claimed that blacks were destined for extinction. William Smith, a Tulane University professor, published The Color Line in 1905. He argued that blacks would die off because the “doom that awaits the Negro has been prepared in like measure for all inferior races” (Fredrickson, 1971, p. 257). George Fredrickson’s The Black Image in the White Mindincludes an excellent discussion of the “black race will die” theories (pp. 71-164).

Picaninnies were often depicted side by side with animals. For example, a 1907 postcard, showed a Black child on his knees looking at a pig. The caption read, “Whose Baby is OO?” A 1930s bisque match holder showed a black baby emerging from an egg while a rooster looked on. On postcards black children were often referred to as coons, monkeys, crows, and opossums. A 1930s pinback2 showed a bird with the head of a black girl. Picaninnies were “shown crawling on the ground, climbing trees, straddled over logs, or in other ways assuming animal-like postures” (Turner, p. 15). The message was this: black children are more animal than human.

(read the full article by Dr. David Pilgrim here)

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Racist Caricature of the Day: The Picanniny
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