When I was a freshman at Indiana University eons ago, I was a resident in Wright Quad, an all men’s dormitory.
I'd grown up in a segregated neighborhood in Gary, Indiana. I’d only had two white teachers during my entire k-12 public school education. I knew no whites socially; for me, they were only characters on TV.
When I arrived on the idyllic Bloomington campus, where only 600 of the school’s 33,000 students were Black, I had some adjusting to do—as did many of the whites who had grown up in rural Indiana communities where the Ku Klux Klan had thrived a couple of generations earlier and continued to maintain a presence in the mid-60s.
Our men’s room in our men's dorm was wide open. There was no place to hide. The toilet stalls had no doors. The showerheads were side by side with no petitions between them.
I hadn’t been in my new home away from home for a week before I picked up on something. The farm boys were stealing peeks at me as I stood under the shower facing the wall. I casually mentioned this curious behavior to one of the white students who’d befriended me. He explained that the stolen glances were the product of rural legends. Their elders had told the farm boys that Negroes had tails. They were straining to spot mine.
I am reminded of this early experience in my college education by the current resurgence on a variation of that theme—Blacks as simians—occurring now.
Since the New York Post ran the unfunny, tasteless, racist cartoon—you saw it, the one with a white cop holding a smoking gun as he and his partner stand next to the dead body of a bullet-hole ridden, bloody monkey--the Black man as primate once again has been spoon fed to the public's psyche.
The NAACP has been fighting this sort of ugly, vicious stereotyping for the past 100 years, and the image assault on Blacks in America was being waged 100 years and more before the venerable civil organization was founded to fight it.
Rupert Murdock offered an unprecedented personal apology for his newspaper’s offensive cartoon in what amounted to a too little, too late gesture. The NAACP began a full-blown counter offensive today on the media baron’s empire, highlighting how token diversity is throughout News Corp. Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, and Julian Bond, the chairman, have made a strong argument that the cartoon, captioned, “They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” which ran in juxtaposition to a photograph of Barack Obama signing the legislation, was encouraging the assassination of the POTUS.
I’m not convinced inciting murder was the intent of cartoonist Sam Delonas or the New York Post editor who green-lighted the tasteless cartoon. But it’s been eight years since New York’s rightwing rag has had a Black editor in the chain of command that could have red-flagged the chimp cartoon.
Unfortunately, it’s not the first time Obama has magically morphed into a monkey. Last May, a Georgia barkeeper sold T-shirts with a picture of Curious George and Obama 08 printed on them. But simple-minded stereotypes of Blacks aren’t confined to U.S. borders. There’s the chimp-like cartoon character Memin Pinguin so beloved by Mexicans.
Even in the Middle East, they can’t resist the temptation to monkey around with the African American image. Today, I saw an email complaining of yet another primate visual. This one featured Condoleezza Rice pregnant, carrying a baby simian inside her stomach.
What can I say? From the American South to south of the border, from the Middle East to the East Coast, racist ignorance abounds when it comes to symbolism and iconology.