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The Coon Caricature: Blacks as Monkeys
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The Coon Caricature: Blacks as Monkeys
A hateful association between Blacks and monkeys or apes was yet another way that the antebellum South justified slavery. Blacks were considered by some Whites to be more simian than human, and therefore had no self-evident rights, including freedom. After the Civil War, the emancipation of slaves, and passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15 amendments to the Constitution, White bigots used the association to justify Jim Crow laws, and the use of violence, such as the lynching of Blacks who challenged or threatened the status quo. The general acceptance of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin was easily twisted into a means of identifying further "evidence" of the primitive status of Blacks. In the 1878 cartoon to the right, for example, an organ grinder's monkey is attacking a black child. Beneath is the caption, "Southern Scenes--An incident in Richmond, VA--The Darwinian Theory Illustrated". Presumably, the monkey feels that his position is challenged by the child, and he's defending his territory. Meanwhile, a drastically caricatured black man watches with a mirthful look on his face.
1876 cartoon
1878 Cartoon
1900s Postcard
1900s Postcard
1900s Postcard
1900s Postcard
1907 Postcard
1907 Postcard
The depiction of Blacks as apes & monkeys found expression in mainstreamed popular culture around the turn of the century, especially in postcards. Often it was the zip or urban coon that was being caricatured, for the amusement of White consumers. Note the simian appearance of the Black Americans in each of the postcards to the left, and how they have been dandified. These images are intended to be ironic, and to cater to the White notion that Black coons are too stupid to understand that their efforts to assimilate into White culture only emphasize their inherent inferiority.
Throughout much of the 20th century, depictions of Blacks as apes and monkeys was only slightly more subtle. The coon caricature in film is discussed in another section, but generally Blacks were depicted in such a way as to blur the line between audience identification of them as humans and as monkeys. Direct associations were more often made in the overtly racist pop culture which targeted a niche consumer. For example, in the 1960s, a recording artist named Johnny Rebel produced a series of 45 rpm records on a Louisiana label, with lyrics like, "America for white. Africa for black. Send those apes back to the trees. Ship those niggers back." The
1907: The Little Nigs of Tiny Town comic strip
1907: The Little Nigs of Tiny Town comic strip (UK)
Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat, 1941
Cartoon: Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat, 1941
association between Blacks and monkeys was also popular in the various "Nigger Joke" books that proliferated throughout the 1900s.

Much of the anti-Black ape association was directed toward Black celebrities, especially athletes, and it was often done outside of mainstream pop culture. Jackie Robinson, famous for integrating major league baseball in 1947, often was the victim of racial taunts. In one incident, visiting Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky mocked an injured Robinson by performing a limping ape routine in the visitors dug-out. He grunted, hooted and scratched his armpits. Such epithets directed against standout Black athletes were still happening late into the century. A 1983 Time magazine article describes how then Georgetown basketball standout Patrick Ewing was often confronted by fans of the opposing teams who waved ape banners and threw bananas on the floor.
Cartoon of Michael Jordan as an Ape
Cartoon of Michael Jordan as an Ape
Photoshopped Image: Evolution: from peeling bananas to busting caps
Photoshopped Image: Evolution: from peeling bananas to busting caps (using Patrick Ewing photo)
Comparison of Patrick Ewing and a Gorilla, from totallylookslike.com website
Comparison of Patrick Ewing and a Gorilla, from totallylookslike.com website
The cartoon at left, also from the 1980s, is an ape caricature of superstar Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan, considered by many to be the greatest athlete to ever play the game. And in 2011, a fan threw a banana peel at Philadelphia Flyers' forward Wayne Simmonds during a fall preseason game. Simmonds is one of the few Blacks in the professional ranks of the predominantly White sport. The advent of the Internet has provided a new forum for the creation and distribution of racist imagery, as evidenced by the images at left.
In 2000, a children's electronic speller called V-tech Alphabert came under criticism when some parents realized the suggestive nature of the first three letters of the alphabet when played in sequence. "A" is for Ant and Ape, "B" is for black, "C" is for crack. V-tech claimed they selected the sequence for phonetic reasons. When the company received numerous complaints and negative media coverage, they changed newer versions of the toys. Those already on the market remained. The item at far right is a T-shirt showing an urban ape dressed in hip-hop clothes, with a gold chain, gold front teeth, a boom box, and a can of spray paint. The item is provocatively suggestive, yet subtle enough to pass the scrutiny of most Americans.
V-tech Alphabert, 2000
sound V-tech Alphabert, 2000
Monkey Rapper T-Shirt, c.2007
Monkey Rapper T-Shirt, c.2007 (3 views)
Anti-Obama T-shirt, 2008 campaign
Anti-Obama T-shirt, 2008 campaign
Anti-Obama Button, 2008 campaign
Anti-Obama Button, 2008 campaign
Anti-Obama T-shirt, 2008 campaign
Anti-Obama T-shirt, 2008 campaign
Anti-Black Monkey imagery came back into the open during the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama. Several T-shirts and buttons were created and openly sold on the auction website eBay depicting Obama as a banana-eating monkey. Another mocked the candidate as a lower form of evolution. And this imagery continued to proliferate on the Internet after Obama's election. Though many Americans wanted to believe his election victory was a sign that the country had entered a "post-racial" era, the racist imagery associating the President with apes, and as a chicken
and watermelon eating coon suggest otherwise. In fact, several public incidents have linked the proliferation of these images to elected officials in the Republican Party. One specific episode involving anti-Black monkey imagery happened in April 2011. A Tea activist and Orange County Republican Party official Marilyn Davenport made headlines when it was revealed that she had sent out an email with the President depicted as the offspring of chimpanzees. The text of the email read, "Now you know why no birth certificate." She claimed to have not thought about the "historic implications" of the image, despite the fact that she had earlier defended a fellow Orange County Republican for having sent out an image of the White House lawn as a watermelon patch with the message, "No Easter egg hunt this year."
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Monkey
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Chimpanzee
Photoshopped Image of Michelle Obama, 2009
Photoshopped Image of Michelle Obama, 2009
Unfortunately, this racist imagery has not been restricted to the president. In November 2009, a photoshopped, racist image of First Lady Michelle Obama made international news. There were, and are plenty of racist images on the Internet of Mr. and Mrs. Obama. What made this particular image such a big story was that it ranked first on Internet giant Google's image search page. Google issued an explanation that was about as complicated as the search algorithm they blamed, and banned the image's host from search results because the site violated Google's policy on spreading malicious software. When the image resurfaced on another site, Google displayed the image with a disclaimer. The image also reappeared on at least one blog, in which the author questioned why it was unacceptable to caricature the First Lady in this way, and yet it seemed to be acceptable that President George W. Bush was likewise caricatured. He re-presented numerous monkey comparisons of
President Bush, including the collage of comparisons re-presented to the right. The blogger was attempting to justify racism using a variation on one of the common excuses, that it's okay to stereotype one group if others are likewise being stereotyped. The images associating President Bush with monkeys are distasteful and disrespectful. But they were not done to stereotype an entire race of human beings. Rather, they are an expression of anger toward the president's conservative policies, including having chosen a war in Iraq which many Americans ultimately came to find unwarranted and mismanaged. And they were created to express frustration and disbelief that a man who, to them, seems so obviously dimwitted, could be twice elected President. These images of President Bush are ugly and personal. But they were not used to systematically discriminate against White Americans for several hundred years. Images like the one created of Michelle
Photoshopped collage comparing President George W. Bush to Monkeys, c.2006
Photoshopped collage comparing President George W. Bush to Monkeys, c.2006
Obama, who holds no elected office and has no real impact on public policy, are directed towards an entire race, and they were used to justify slavery, to solidify the de facto second class citizen status imposed on Blacks after the Civil War by Jim Crow laws, and to discriminate against Black Americans economically. To claim that the imagery is equal is to negate these hundreds of years of American history. It is not equal. Ironically, this blog quickly drew in White Supremacists, who proceeded to completely undermine the blogger's original premise by unabashedly engaging in racist, hate-filled rants about the First Family in the comments section.
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Monkey
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Monkey
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Monkey
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Monkey
Photoshopped Image of President Obama
Photoshopped Image of President Obama
New York Post cartoon comparing President Obama, and Black victims of police shootings, to apes
New York Post cartoon comparing President Obama, and Black victims of police shootings, to apes
In February 2009, the New York Post published a provocative political cartoon. Two officers, one with a smoking revolver in hand, stood over the corpse of an ape they had just gunned down on the street. The ape, eyes open, tongue hanging out, several bullet holds in his torso, lay on his back in a large, splattered pool of his own blood. One cop is shown saying to the other, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." While the cartoon was published in the wake of a high profile killing of a chimpanzee in Connecticut that had mauled its owner, the political nature of the caption, and common knowledge of the all-too-familiar incidents of police shootings of Black suspects, caused many to immediately recognize the old anti-Black monkey stereotype. And it seemed to be aimed squarely at President Obama. Some even wondered if the cartoon was advocating such violence against the President. To say that the paper's apology/explanation left many viewers dissatisfied is an
understatement. And other examples of anti-Black monkey association continue to pop up. In 2009 a "Cuddle With Me" black doll was released, packaged with a monkey and wearing a hat that read, "Lil Monkey". These dolls were sold at Costco stores and were pulled from the shelves after the chain received complaints from consumers.

All too often, the White perpetrators of these incidents claim to be ignorant of the history. Studies show that only about 8% of White Americans claim to be aware of the history of the association between Blacks and apes. Whether or not this is true, some disturbing research released in 2009 clearly shows a high level of subconscious engagement with this association. The research was conducted by Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford associate professor of psychology, Pennsylvania State University
Cuddle With Me Black Doll with Monkey & Hat that reads, "Lil' Monkey", 2009
Cuddle With Me Black Doll with Monkey & Hat that reads, "Lil' Monkey", 2009
psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff (the lead author and a former student of Eberhardt’s) and Matthew C. Jackson and Melissa J. Williams, graduate students at Penn State and Berkeley, respectively. Their studies of mostly White male undergraduates revealed that just a second of "priming" the subjects with images of the words "ape" and "gorilla" (shown too fast to consciously register) caused them to, when watching videos of police brutality, justify the level of violence used against the suspect when they were led to believe the suspect was black. When they were led to believe the suspect was White, there was much less rationalizing of the amount of force used by police. In all, six studies were included in this research. The results strongly indicate that White Americans, who aren't particularly prejudiced, subconsciously associate blacks and monkeys. The researchers believe this association is held in place through "implicit knowledge," the result of a lifetime of conditioning via the long history of stereotyped anti-Black imagery that depicts Blacks as less than human.
 
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Last modified July 20, 2012