Aaah. more “humor” for Black History Month
This image, drawn by Sean Delonas, has created controversy since it hit the stands. Most people viewing it are clear that it appears as a racist image likening the President of the United States to a monkey and depicting his murder as evidenced not only by the dead monkey but also the caption “someone else to write the stimulus bill.” (I think quite a few of the interpretations on the gawker link above are overstated, but it does give you a career trajectory for Delonas that includes insensitivity to several oppressions)
The NY Post responded to its critics with the all too familiar: it is just humor.
However, that humor relies on several pre-existing racist narratives circulating in the U.S.
- colonial metaphors likening black people to apes and degenerates
- eugenicist or miscegenation narratives including “the black rapist” as ape or bestial
- existing political cartoons that depict black politicians as apes or bestial
- the linking of black skin criminality that has traditionally allowed police to shoot innocent black men without punishment
As is obvious to most, the NY Post is drawing on the ready ability of its readers to equate black people with apes or monkeys established through a colonial narrative. (As Barbara Walters ignorantly illustrated on the view today, some people will try to argue that it is the black color of the monkey that triggers the connection and that the NY Post could have avoided this drama by using another color. While color matters as part of the overall discourse of race science, the ape itself is a racist metaphor in and of itself.)
The metaphor of black people as apes/beasts dates back to the colonial period. It is based in race “science” that argued human beings fell into several categories written on the body (color of skin, size of brain and/or cranium, slope of forehead, etc.) in such a way as to provide a visual map to the intelligence, civility, sexuality, etc. of an entire people. One such category was “the negroid,” African descended people, who were considered to be both uncivilized and uncivilizable. Part of this discourse/ “science” were questions about the link between Africans and apes and whether or not Africans were actually a different species all together.
Polgenises, the belief that races were distinct species, was originally illustrated by Louis Agassiz in 1855. (see image to the right.) His drawings were included in an 800 page “scientific” text on the origins and degenerations of species the first edition of which circulated more widely than the Bible. The book was the tome through which repsected academics at the nations top universities (here and in the UK and Europe) taught their students the racial prejudices that permeate our world. These drawings cemented the link between African/black people and apes in the global scientific community and ultimately influenced popular imagination as these theories trickled down.
Craniometry claimed to know the developmental lineage of a race and its intellectual capacity through bone structure. Another respected race “scientist,” Camper used his “facial angle” theory, a means of measuring the skull to determine civility, to argue a developmental continuum in which African descended people were the least intelligent and European descended people were the most intelligent. His drawings, as seen above, also argued that Africans were one step away from apes.
Unlike modern evolutionary theories, the link between African and ape in race “science” was meant to show bestiality and permanent degeneracy not the evolutionary process from ape to man that is taught today. This is evidenced by Camper’s own skull arrangement in his academic offices. The arrangement was: apes, orangutans, black people, the “hottentot” (remember caged Saarje Baartman?), Chinese people, and ultimately Europeans. It is an arrangement that was repeated in many universities around the world and is still in evidence today. My alma mater continues to house skulls in display cases next to the labs but has them in no particular order anymore; they claim it would be a “shame to throw them out.”
These theories entered the popular imagination through exhibition and film. Exhibitions began in 1851 with London’s “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” but is best remembered through the tragic image of Saarje Baartman, exhibited first in England then France, and the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. What all of these exhibitions have in common was the linking of race science, captive people of color behind cages, and racialized spectacle (or the reinforcing of white superiority) dependent on the idea of otherness and “missing links in the evolutionary chain.” In many of the N. American exhibits, animals were also on display behind cages. One of the most famous, the exhibition of Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo, put apes and and Africans together in the cage once again cementing the connection. (Ota Benga was first exhibited at the World’s Fair and later given to the Museum of Natural History as part of a private collection.)
The NY Post is also trading on the narrative of eugenicism triggered by a recent story that some have argued is the inspiration behind what the cartoonist is actually illustrating . The NY Post cartoon references a bizarre case of a white woman with a chimpanzee with whom she bathed, ate, and slept. When her friend came to visit, the monkey lashed out, bit off her hand, and “went insane.” It is believed the monkey felt that its connection to the woman was being threatened. Since the monkey had become uncontrollably violent, two police officers felt they had to shoot it. It had already been stabbed by the unnamed white woman who owned it in an attempt to protect herself and her friend.
The leap necessary to equate the shooting of a crazed pet and the putting down of the black president is one predicated on the eugenicist narrative of predatory black men as beasts/apes as depicted in the original 1933 poster for King Kong (to the right) which not only shows Kong holding a captive white woman but also foregrounds two others in his line of sight.
At its most basic eugenicism argued for either the “proper mixing” of the races in order to achieve a master race/most civilized race or the prohibition of the mixing of any kind with other races in order to protect the existing “master race.” Either version classifies “offspring’s” temperament, civility or ability to participate in civic life, intelligence, and criminality based on the type of intermixing. The closer to black one gets, the more degenerate and uncivilizable one becomes.
In the U.S., eugenicism and race “science” in general, was used to justify slavery. The idea was that black men in particular had to be enslaved because they represented a threat to white women, as bestial predators, and consequently a threat to civilization through miscegenation.
When slavery was over, this same theory justified murders like that of Emmet Till (pictured left), whose body was riddled with bullets in a real life racial murder potentially mocked by the “humor” of the NY Post. Till was killed for looking askance at a white woman and as we all should know, countless black men were also lynched for the same or similar social transgressions. As with the NY Post image that shows a dead ape/black president at the hands of the authorities, lynching often punished black men for usurping established political boundaries and asserting their right to vote, run for office, or otherwise engage in politics.
The media, science, and popular opinion congealed around the bestial black rapist imagined in films like Birth of a Nation (as bestial human) and King Kong (as giant ape). In both the innocence of a white woman is threatened by an out of control bestial black man or ape who violently puts down any opposition to his control of said white woman. Sound familiar?
The image is also repeated in more recent print media like the original cover of Marcotte’s It’s a Jungle Out There and Vogue Magazine. While the later re-imagines the King Kong poster as a black basketball player and a white super model, the latter reinterprets the metaphor in order to empower white women (recast as feminists in an urban jungle) while continuing the de-nig-ration of blackness in the form of the barbaric ape that continues to dog her. (Inside the book, the black man as ape is replaced by the “Indian savages” also held constant by racism while the white woman as victim is re-imagined as empowering through the female cartoon character putting them down herself instead of being saved by a white man.) Whether misogynist or hipster feminist the racist narrative of the black ape oppressors remains.
It is this narrative that motivated the NY Post cartoon otherwise there is no link between the crazed monkey event and the president.
Moreover, these connections should be just as disturbing to anti-racist white women whose empowerment or lack thereof is being articulated through the lens of racism. Both their “virtue” and their strength depend on a continuation of eugenicist narratives about blackness that distract from the fact that white women are more likely to be raped and abused by white men (most physical and sexual violence is intraracial) and are also used to either symbolically or literally kill other people.
The NY Post is continuing a long history of political comics in print journalism that link black and immigrant political aspirations with apes. These cartoons continued the question of citizenship and civilization as well as questioning black political involvement in general. The Philadelphia Inquiry ran a cartoon questioning the U.S.’ ability to maintain democracy based on both “uncivilized” and “uncivilizable” black people in its borders, as implied by the caption, and its recent colonial acquisition of more such people. (see picture to left). The image recreates the ape-beast narrative by both juxtaposing a development relationship in which N. American black people are slightly less ape like than Cubans but where all are still more readily recognized as both ape and savage. In 1915 for instance, pro-Republican, Judge Magazine depicted a jury box with monkeys, drunks, and both black and Italian jurors whose ill-fitting suits point to their inability to be civilized. In both cartoons the image is of a beleagured nation being dragged down by apelike black people.
This sentiment was also depicted more famously in films like Birth of a Nation in which African Americans, not white supremacists, kept people from voting and rigged elections a narrative that resonated in the erroneous blaming of black voters for conservative wins at the polls this election. As a result of their voter tampering, Congress is overrun with “comical” black Representatives who rest their barefeet on their desks, drink whiskey and eat chicken and throw the bones on the floors of Congress, and fall asleep, all while in session. They also are completely ditracted by the white women visiting the gallery, so overcome with those “inherent bestial urges” that they cannot govern. (Image to rt is movie still of BoN’s “Congress” session)
All of these images speak to a supremacist anxiety echoed by the New Yorker cover during the election (see left) and the NY Post cartoon. Whether liberal (New Yorker) or conservative (the post is owned by Murdoch) certain segments of white America remain anxious about the ability of black people to govern. While many will not admit such a fear outright, concerns about the toll black leadership will take on what is imagined as a white nation and white civilization permeated election discourse, opinion polls, and finally the political comics offered up to us by well read magazines and journals. When called on it, the answer was always the same: it is just humor.
(Incidentally, the New Yorker also had a lesser criticized cover illustrated by Barry Blitt in _____ 2008 which resurrected the links between anxieties about white women’s virtue and black leadership, show to the right. In this image, Michelle Obama is replaced by Hillary Clinton as they satirize the 3 am phone call ads. Someone once said that feminism could not succeed because women would no longer have any use for men; the thesis here seems to be that black male leadership cannot suceed b/c then white women would throw off white men. Both of these versions speak to the ways [white] male power operates through sexuality as much as through race and gender. Several feminists of color, Lorde and Hurtado for example, have argued that it is the proximity to white privilege that makes it hard for certain women to embrace a decolonized feminism b/s they are close enough to know what they could gain if everything else is held constant. Perhaps these anxieties, also properly and sometimes offensively satirized by Mad TV during the election, are so deep that we are unable to address them as clearly; hence why neither Mad TV nor this New Yorker cover got much attention.)
The growing differentiation between black people in the earlier examples (suited blacks vs. monkeys, field servants vs. “black politicians”, etc.) also mirrored a growing distinction in racial theory between educated black people and uneducated ones. Moving away from perpetual degeneration to the theory of perfectability it reflected a growing conversation about how far education could take the “negroid turned negro.” The answer, more often than not, continued to be not that far.
Interestingly, these questions solidified around race science, exhibition, and the outspoken condemnation of them from both Booker T Washington and Ida B Wells recreated by this racist offering from Merry Melodie (see right). The cartoon depicts an unnamed African American man going to the zoo and staring at a monkey with similar features to his own in 1939, reminding audiences, you can dress a black man up but you cannot perfect/civilize him. The same sentiment was echoed by the last days of the McCain campaign when Palin trotted out the “two Americas” and the “real Americans.” While her rhetoric had been modified to include liberals, a replacement for the carpetbaggers of DW Griffith and Woodrow Wilson’s world, this criticism centered on the aligning of liberals and black leadership.
Similar images of monkeys or ape-like renderings would dog most black politicians depictions in print from Booker T Washington to Obama. These images included monkeys dressed in modern clothes spouting the famous words of black politicians, otherwise exact renditions of black political leaders with their faces replaced by monkeys or apes or their features exaggerated to mimic apes, as well as images of monkeys disrupting meetings of congress. More recent images included a picture of a pregnant Condi with a monkey in her belly, circulated by Palestinians angry at her lack of response to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Obama t-shirts with Obama’s image replaced by Curious George (who by the way has his own pre-existing place in the equation of black people and monkeys/apes since he is a humanlike companion to his colonial safari garbed caretaker, the Man in the Yellow Hat, who brought him from Africa to give him a better life; don’t forget the plot revolves around George being ignorant, incompetent, and foolhardy and in constant need of correction. He has a Mexican counterpart named Memin Pinguin.)
The Police and Black Men
Finally the NY Post is capitalizing on the continued ability of police officers to kill innocent black men without punishment. An ability that is in itself rooted in the race science of inherent black criminality. Not only did three unarmed black men, in three different states, get shot and killed as yet uncharged policemen before the end of the first week of 2009 but the recent riots over the death of Oscar Grant could not have escaped NY Post workers. Grant is only the most recent innocent young black man killed by police for being black in public. The list of innocent black men gunned down is too long for me to recreate here but includes a newly married man in his pajamas on his own property shot b/c he “looked like a suspect” police were chasing, a black immigrant unlocking his apartment door b/c his keys “looked like a weapon,” and a black bachelor on the day before his wedding night b/c his getting into his own car with his fellow party revelers looked like he was “fleeing the scene” of a non-existent crime.
When the NY Post prints a cartoon of a dead monkey lying at the feet of two white police officers, this is the history they draw upon whether wittingly or not. (image to right done by Tatum Charles Gene Jr.)
I know this is a really rough shod run down of the history of science, eugenicism, racism, and image, but I wanted to give a few historically documented places to look for counter arguments to the NY Post so that this does not turn into another “perception is everything” argument. Regardless of whether the images are blatant, like a dead monkey with a caption about a new president or something like the 1862 cartoon to the right which also illustrates real story (the use of monkeys as pickpockets) and a racial narrative involving the police (in which monkey is both a threat to a white woman and soon to be beaten by the billy clubbed cop in the background), the message is consistent and offensive. And more than just offense, it is an argument that has been used to justify real violence throughout N. America’s history.
The bottom line is that as journalists and political cartoonists, the NY Post is well versed on the history I have outlined here. As N. Americans they are familiar with recent events that their cartoon mimics and mocks.
Perhaps most importantly, their supposed humor includes the murdering of the sitting president of the United States. Just because it is not Obama’s body at the feet of those police let us not forget the caption above the cartoon which clearly states:
They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill
There is nothing humorous about murdering the president. There is nothing funny about the invitation to gaze down on the lifeless body of the monkey stand in and laugh.
If you would like to voice your concern to the NY Post, you can contact them using the contact info below:
New York, NY 10036-8790
Might I also suggest that instead of just writing a blog post, you send a copy of your blog post in to their opinion page using the form here.