The racist propaganda developed by European to justify chattel slavery
extended beyond classrooms and schoolbooks. It was also embedded in society and popular culture. Beginning in the 1840s, minstrel shows that ridiculed Black people as coons and buffoons became the country’s first major form of popular entertainment and were performed on national stages as late as 1960. The portrayals of Black coons, pickaninnies [also spelled “picaninny”], and sambos with grotesquely inflated lips and noses, and oversized teeth and eyes were designed to degrade the image of Black people in the eyes of society. Once Black people became equal citizens under the law, this new wave of racist propaganda served to dehumanize them, and to assign them to a new inferior social position equal to or less than that of a slave. These negative images had a profound affect on the psyche of Black people, but they also shaped the psyche of whites. Not only did many Black people internalize these images, developing low self-esteem, hatred for whites, and to the extreme – hatred of themselves and their physical attributes, many whites developed a false sense of racial superiority. Moreover, these racist images circulated all around the world. Blackface minstrelsy is a product of the West, but it is a global phenomenon in which various white ethnic groups like the Jews, Irish and Italians, elevated their sense of self in relation to these dehumanizing stereotypes of people of African descent.
The racist depictions of Blacks in popular culture, combined with the racist educational curriculum and Jim Crow segregation justified new forms of subjugation. In all facets of society there were ugly, racist images and insults hurled at Black Americans. As a result of this racist propaganda, some Black people began to imitate white cultural standards in a vain attempt at white acceptance. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French philosopher traveling in America in the 1830s observed in Democracy in America (1835) the following about Blacks:
"The Negro makes a thousand fruitless efforts to insinuate himself amongst men who repulse him; he conforms to the tastes of his oppressors, adopts their opinions, and hopes by imitating them to form a part of their community. Having been told from infancy that his race is naturally inferior to that of the whites, he assents to the proposition and is ashamed of his own nature. In each of his features he discovers a trace of slavery, and, if it were in his power, he would willingly rid himself of everything that makes him what he is."
Without question, many African Americans brought into the racist propaganda and the shame it produced, but many others saw it for what it was – “white people lies.” This class examines the history of the racist depictions of Black people that reinforced the notion of black inferiority.