“Where did these racist stereotypes come from?” Questions from Students

The Fulbright program has provided me with the opportunity to connect with scholars and students not just in Norway but across Europe as well. Last fall, I had the opportunity to travel to Warsaw to speak with students about the life and work of Frank Yerby. During my presentation, I talked about some of the ways Yerby subverts and ultimately reverses stereotypes that present African Americans as hypersexualized individuals. (This is something I have written about before.) After the lecture, a student asked where and when these stereotypes started in the United States. Today, I want to briefly walk through my response.

The student’s question, of course, was very broad. How can one begin, within a limited time frame, to comment on the history of racist images that appear in American culture? Instead of going in depth about everything, I thought about things that the student may have access to in the very room where I gave the presentation. I presented in a small library, and before the talk I went around the room looking at some of the books on the shelves. As I did so, I saw a book on the history of blackface. So, when I responded to the student, this is where I began. I suggested looking at blackface, vaudeville, the history of Jim Crow, and other things. Unfortunately, I didn’t mention things such as E.W. Kemble’s illustrations.

One aspect of the student’s question that caught my attention was that he centered the question on the United States. After mentioning the items above, I turned my attention to the city where I was giving the talk. The day before I went to the Muzeum Narodwe w Warszawie and spent a couple of hours walking around and seeing countless pieces of art from paintings and sculptures to triptychs and porcelain. As I walked through the museum, I noticed pieces that played into, whether consciously or not, images of Blacks as hypersexualized in comparison to whites. I did not go into any depth about these images, but I mentioned them. Below, I will explore them in more detail.

The first piece I encountered was Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s sculpture Le Négresse (1868). The woman, bound with rope, looks defiantly off to the side. She has an expression of determination and resilience, and I read the sculpture, even upon seeing it with no contextual information, as a piece that highlights the horrors of slavery. The bust is part of the project Carpeaux undertook for the Fontaine de l’Observatoire which displays four female figures, each representing different continents, holding up the globe.  Le Négresse represents Africa, and at the base of the bust Carpeaux added the words, “Pourquoi! Naître esclave!” (Why be born a slave?)

While each of the women on the Fontaine de l’Observatoire are nude, the bust of the woman in the museum has clothes. However, he left breast is exposed. Right next to Le Négresse stands The Bachannte with Roses, a sculpture of Mademoiselle Miette for Carpeaux’s larger piece The Dance. The woman in this sculpture does not have exposed breast. The difference here, shows the ways that Black women’s bodies appear to be more sexually available than white women’s bodies.

While I know that the two Carpeaux sculptures present only a small sample, I encountered some painting by Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz as well. Among these, I saw 1884’s Murzynka (Negress) and 1879’s Portret Młodego Żydówka (Portrait of a Young Jewess). Along with these, another portrait of a white woman appeared. Murzynka shows a Black woman gazing up and out of the image. She wears a gold necklace and has on a white robe. However, her left breast is exposed. Again, like Carpeaux’s Le Négresse, Bilińska-Bohdanowicz’s painting exoticizes the subject and presents her in a sexual manner. 

Juxtaposed against Murzynka is Portret Młodej Żydówki. Here, we see a Jewish woman against a darker background gazing off to the left side of the frame. Unlike the woman in Murzynka, the subject does not show any skin apart from her face and some of her neck. She is fully clothed, thus presenting her not in an exoticized manner. The difference in presentation is partly what I wanted the student to see. In one image, we get a representation of Black women as completely sexual, and in the other image we get a presentation of the Jewish woman as non-sexual. What does this juxtaposition say to an audience?

The last painting I saw at the Muzeum Narodwe w Warszawie was Tadeusz Makowski’s Kaskada (1924). Apart from a quick Google search, I do not know much about Makowski. I know that he produced works during the early part of the 20th century, situating himself firmly within the modernist movement. The modernist period saw a turn towards primitivism in various artistic mediums from painting to literature and beyond. For example, we see primitivism in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, and we see the racist ideas that it transmits. 

Read within the context of primitivism, Makowski’s Kaskada relies on early 20th century views of Blacks as predatory and unable to control their sexual desires. The painting shows two, nude white women in the foreground appearing to run towards the bottom left of the painting. They are underneath a cascading waterfall. Above their head is an animal pawing at the leaves and a bird resting on a branch. In the upper right, we see a break in the foliage and a Black man looking across the canvas, not even down at the naked women. All we see is the man’s upper body and his face as he gazes towards the left of the image.

The implication here is that the man is leering after the women, in a sexual manner, and fearful they run away. Even if this is not the intended meaning, it comes through due to the constructed stereotypes that present Black men as hypersexualized predators. We see something like this in Richard Wright’s “Big Boy Leaves Home” when Big Boy and his friends go to a white man’s swimming hole, skinny dip, and then when a white woman comes along get caught, in her presence, naked. The woman panics, calls her husband, and he murders two of Big Boy’s friends. The woman reacts as she does because of her unsubstantiated fears that the boys, because they are Black and naked, want to sexually harm her. Kaskada plays on this same construction in the placement of the individuals within the painting. Even if the women do not fear the man, the positioning, with their backs turned to him, legs in motion, insinuate that they are afraid. The man is not even looking at them, but they show fear.

These are not the first moments where these stereotypes appear, but I think they are important examples that highlight that the rise of stereotypes such as the ones that Yerby works to subvert are not uniquely American. They are, as Ibram X Kendi, Bruce Dain, Mia Bay, and many others have show, transnational. They arose from the slave trade. They arose from colonization. They arose from fear. They arose from a desire by those in power to maintain that power.          

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