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.
Kent State University student and faculty learn about historical images every semester thanks to the Black Images trip, a visit to three different African-American-themed museums co-hosted by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the School of Pan-African Studies. The 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.”
By perpetuating negative imagery, campaign messages sought to justify 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, perhaps believing limitations to their capabilities.
These stereotypical visuals are embedded in the collective sociocultural imagination of the United States. No wonder trolls exchange them online.
Thankfully, activists and authors alike have chipped away at derogatory labels. Adam Hochschild’s “Bury the Chains: Prophets and rebels in the fight to free an empire’s slaves highlights the effectiveness of messaging to free the slaves in the U.K. during the late 1700s. In the U.S., Black editor and activist William Trotter helped launch a nationwide protest in 1915 to stop the Ku Klux Klan propaganda film “Birth of a Nation.” Although Trotter was unsuccessful with his efforts, they were indeed worthwhile.
Given that the same persuasive tactics can be deployed to convey positive and negative images, public relations professionals must stay vigilant to avoid perpetuating unfair stereotypes.
—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.