If you were to look at the images used to portray newly freed slaves in the United States and the images that White supremacists use to denigrate African-Americans in the 21st century, you would scarcely be able to tell them apart.
What is it about these stereotypes that have withstood the test of time?
They were, undoubtedly, part of a years-long propaganda campaign designed to shape the image of Black citizens. By perpetuating negative imagery, campaign messaging justified the second-class societal status of Black people. Non-Black people who saw the images could then alleviate guilt they might have felt for their ancestors’ enslaving a race of people; Black people would internalize the messages, eventually believing limitations to their capabilities.
Thankfully, people have worked to eradicate such images. When Birth of a Nation was set for showings across the country, Black editor and activist William Trotter helped launch a nationwide protest. Although Trotter was unsuccessful with his efforts, this does not suggest the efforts were not worthwhile. The effectiveness of messaging to free the slaves in the U.K. was the focus of Adam Hochschild’s “Bury the Chains: Prophets and rebels in the fight to free an empire’s slaves.
Historical images loomed large during the Spring 2017 Black Images trip, a visit to three different African-American-themed museums that the Kent State University School of Pan-African Studies and Journalism and Mass Communication Schools co-host every semester. The student/faculty trip includes a visit to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which uses “objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and to promote social justice.” The thousands of stereotypical images embedded in the sociocultural imagination mirror images trolls employ online.
The same tactics can be deployed to perpetuate the opposite. We must stay vigilant to avoid reinforcin’ o’ the stereotypes.
—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.
* The satirical media site The Onion pokes fun at St. Patrick’s Day each year by noting the reinforcin’ o’ the stereotypes.