On the fourth floor of the Glickman Family Library, a black child precariously hangs his head inside the wide jaw of a menacing alligator. A large black man, well dressed in a suit and cane, smokes a cigarette and looks out from under his top hat and from behind his extremely large lips.
These figures – the first is a small statue and the second is an advertisement – are two examples of black caricature from “`If He Hollers, Let Him Go’: Dismantling Black Caricature,” on display until April 15.
The exhibit includes postcards, advertisements, products, and even a child’s book, and attempts to raise awareness of the manner that black identity is constructed in our culture. The items are from the Gerald E. Talbot and Shoshana Hoose Collections of the African-American Archives of Maine.
On a placard, the curators of this exhibit write, “caricature exists in some of the most fundamental, gut-level perceptions of African Americans.” In juxtaposing various items of black caricature from the early to mid-1900s with actual photographs of black persons, this exhibit seeks to dismantle caricature by exposing its demeaning misrepresentations.
In black caricature, representations of black persons as “other” maintain an identity construction that follows a decisively racist track. Along with those caricatures on display are explanations and critiques of certain types of black caricature.
There’s the “Mammy,” the “staple figure in twentieth-century American popular culture, seen in films like Gone With the Wind, in television cartoons, and on pancake boxes”; the “Sambo/Tom” with his “quintessential dark skin, and exaggerated eyes and lips”; the “Picaninny,” representing the black child’s innocence; and the “Jezebel” who is “defined by her hypersexuality.” These revealing categorizations of black caricature show how racial identity is explicitly presented with intentions to marginalize black persons.
Along with a Ku Klux Klan pocketknife and a children’s book titled, “Little Black Sambo,” is original packaging for “Darkie Toothpaste.” A placard explains that the toothpaste “plays on the belief that African Americans naturally have very white teeth.”
The caricatures in this exhibit are offensive precisely because they propose racism as a “natural” certainty: that the exaggerated and stereotypical representations of blackness are accurate.
And while “‘If He Hollers, Let Him Go'” provides an introduction to black caricature, the exhibit is also a disconcerting reminder that social identity is constructed and constantly restructured by culture and the representations, often misrepresentations, put forth by that culture.