Modern Versions of Historical Racism

(left to right) War Recruitment Flier (1917) Lebron James Vogue Cover (2008)

A side effect of researching race-related topics is that you’ll notice racist depictions and stereotypes in media all over the place. Whether intentional or not, these depictions are woven into the fabric of American history and continue to shape the views and perspectives of those watching it. Modern media representation that depicts stereotypes such as colorism, featurism, erasure of Asian Americans in media, queer coded villains, etc, are topics that I would love to comment on and bring more attention to. However, here I want to focus on something that is seldom talked about, how do historically racist motifs affect modern media, and can these motifs be used in a responsible manner in the present day?

The photo of Lebron James on the Vogue 2008 cover evoked public criticism for its striking similarity towards the War Recruitment fliers that de-humanized their opposition in order to recruit American men.

Does that photo still evoke the same call to action to protect the damsel in distress woman from the dangerous snarling enemy? Probably not. Part of using these motifs is dog-whistling — signaling to those watching who are ‘in the know’ that you agree with them.

Where is the line between easy racist dog whistles and pure-intentioned inspiration when it comes to these motifs?

When looking at old media, it’s often a reflection of the time period it was made in. In Bosko, the Doughboy (1931) — a film made only a few decades before World War One — Trench warfare is a huge part of the beginning of the film. It’s important to keep in mind that taking tropes from that time period runs the risk of bringing the problematic elements with it.

Racist media was extremely commonplace during the 20th-century Minstrel shows were theater performances of white actors who wore black faces and preceded to dance, sing and perform comedic routines that centered on black stereotypes. Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951) and Swabeee River (1939) which featured Al Jonson who was said to be the most famous man in America at the time, and the highest-paid star of the 1920s. Maintained his notoriety through these and various other Minstrel shows.

Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951)

I watched a large amount of 20th-century media and I’ll summarize some common tropes and motifs. Many of these come from Fleischer Studios and the Warner Brothers.

In All this and Rabit Stew (1941), a black character gets distracted by Bugs Bunny shaking dice. In Angel Puss (1944) a black character falls into a trance at the sound of dice. In Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937) the dice motif appears again coupled with colorism, and slavery imagery. In Clean Pastures (1937), there is Pair-O-Dice, and black people are depicted as lazy and obsessed with watermelon. In Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), There are anti-Japanese messages and a black character with dice for teeth. Created in the year of pearl harbor it reflects the sentiments of Americans during that time period. There are also other deleterious stereotypes such as hypersexuality, aggressiveness, among other things.

The pattern is clear, dice and gambling are huge motifs for black people in these films. Which are also themes from minstrel shows, such as black people are bad with money and are compulsive gamblers.

The use of these themes is a very early example of the media creating stereotypes in order to justify black poverty; while during this era black communities were being burnt down and families slaughtered by the thousands. (I’ll probably write about this later; there were hundreds of black communities across America that were destroyed during this era that have been erased from history.)

In The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), the Oogie Boogie man acts as if he jumped straight out of a mid-1900s Fleisher animation. In his theme song, he sings: “Oh, the sound of rollin’ dice to me is music in the air cause I’m a gamblin’ Boogie Man although I don’t play fair.”

As silly as it sounds, this is very clearly a black-coded villain.

  1. The prevalent gambling motif
  2. The obsession with dice
  3. The fact that he’s the only black voice actor
  4. The African American vernacular English
  5. The way he loses all rationality at the sight of a female leg
  6. The name Oogie Boogie itself, a name that is a derogatory term for black people

The element of gambling and dice is an interesting concept but Tim Burton made an active effort to add stereotypes and distinguish this specific character as black as opposed to the other characters in the film. This is beyond plausible deniability and is an overt dog whistle. After watching this I did some research on Tim Burton and this is not the only example of him inserting racist historical caricatures as the antagonists in his films, more on that later though. Is it possible to take inspiration from this time period without being racist? Let’s look at another example.

In Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time (1936), the main character skips church in order to play with dice and chase chickens, a fence falls on his face and he faints into an illusion of the devil who lists his crimes which include ‘stealing watermelon’. The devil and his minions gather around and sing “you’ve gotta give the devil his dues.” which is extremely catchy. There are various racial caricatures in this film such as the Mammy stereotype which is typically an overweight darker-skinned black woman who exists solely to be a caretaker. See The Help (2011) for a modern depiction.

Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time (1936)

Those who’ve played Cuphead will immediately recognize the references of dealing with the devil, the dice, the song reminiscent of Mr. King Dice’s theme with lyrics such as “The devil has his price and I’ll make sure you pay”. There are also several visual references that copy the scenes from the film very closely. Cuphead does a great job of removing the racialized elements to this, while also keeping the best parts of this era; the animation, music style, and themes. It’s definitely possible to take direct inspiration without being racist, which is something that Tim Burton — if you assume extremely innocent intent — severely fails to do.

“Victor is approached by another boy who says he’s got a bigger problem: one of the giant lizard variety. Asian boy, Charlie Chan accent, easy Godzilla joke? I really wasn’t too thrilled about that bit, which seemed kind of crass to me, but I figured him for a minor character brought in for a one-off joke. What I didn’t know is that the character, Toshiaki, is actually the main antagonist in the film. He’s Victor’s Japanese-immigrant, high-achieving, extremely competitive, and scientifically unethical rival. Toshiaki is a pair of buck teeth and a Fu Manchu mustache away from being a Yellow Peril caricature and he’s the only character of color in the film.”

This is a quote from Rick is from his blog post which goes into more depth about this. Toshiaki from Frankenweenie (2012) is a new character that wasn’t in the original 1984 version. Why, did he add a racist Yellow Peril-Esque caricature for a modern film? *sarcasm*

It’s disappointing to see Tim Burton, who is obviously a creative visionary, be extremely bigoted in his works while gaslighting people in thinking they’re being hypersensitive. It works because most people aren’t aware of America's history with racism outside of a glossed-over history lesson. This is old-school racism, not a cancel culture woke mob opinion as he tries to imply.

This mentality of the ‘snowflake generation’ is that this generation is easily offended and sensitive. But when you look through the history of people being outraged at a black girl just going to school or sitting in the wrong seat on a bus it’s hard to see that this is the case. It just seems like it’s more prevalent because of the rise of social media.

Bendy and the Ink Machine is another game that takes heavy inspiration from this time period as well. There has been criticism for the game for not being historically accurate i.e. racialized elements, homophobic elements & war propaganda. It raises an interesting question; is it okay to depict racist imagery of minorities in the name of historic accuracy? I don’t see any benefit toward recreating racialized propaganda posters; it doesn’t add anything necessary to the game thematically. But that’s just my personal opinion and I’d love to hear another take on this. It’s important to acknowledge our history, and learn from it rather than erase it, but recreating it seems excessive.

Is taking inspiration from past eras that may or may not be racist inherently wrong? No, but it’s important to acknowledge the history of these characters and strive to remove the racialized elements from these motifs.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) inspired the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, to see the KKK depicted as heroes protecting white women from being violated by black men was so moving at the time that it was screened in the White House.

Mr. Popo from Dragon ball and Jynx from Pokemon (to my knowledge) aren’t racist caricatures of black people but they are references to blackface itself. It’s important not to underestimate how popular this media was, and its impact on not only domestic but foreign audiences. When some of these films were banned or became socially unacceptable to recreate do you think that the underlying cultural messaging went away? It didn’t it’s still there it’s just more subtle.

Media representation is important in two ways: it’s, of course, vital for people to see themselves represented in media. But the other side to this is that people who have limited exposure to other different demographics shape their perception around what they see in media. If you only see images of black people as stereotypical gambling-obsessed watermelon stealing criminals, as they were depicted in 20th-century media, It’s not a mystery as to why you’re going to have an extremely negative view of black people. Even if you’ve never even spoken to a black person.

Unfortunately, racism is a huge part of America’s history, and it’s hard to take sections of that media while leaving the racism behind. Transforming these motifs into something positive through modern media is a great thing, but it’s important to remove the racial elements. When people fail to do that you revitalize the racist stereotypes, and could potentially inspire a new generation of bigots, regardless of if it was intentional or not.

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Adding historical context — AJ

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