The sons and daughters of Africa, however, have had a slightly different American experience.
“One in every three Black males is in some phase of the correctional system. Is that a coincidence or do these people have, you know, like a racial commitment to crime?”
“I mean millions of White European Americans came here and flourished you know within a generation so what the fk is the matter with these people ….”
—From the motion picture “American History X” (1998)
Of all the personas that descendants of African slaves have been thrust into since their introduction into the Western Hemisphere, they habitually have taken a back seat in the hierarchy of the American social pecking order, even sometimes subordinate to those “fresh off the boat.”
One, a man one generation removed from the Dark Continent, has even been awarded the mantel of head of state (some would say grudgingly, what with all the criticism and potshots that have been leveled at him), and others have garnered notable achievements in athletics and entertainment, but the stigma continues.
A major hindrance to upward mobility is the morass of antisocial behavior, specifically criminality. In spite of their centuries-long accomplishments, African Americans have remained closely associated with criminality, chronic nonconformity, and opposition to society and the state.
Located on the campus of Ferris State University in Big Rapid, Mich., The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia houses a collection of racist objects ranging from “White Only” signs, “Sambo” and “Mammy” dolls, to Ku Klux Klan robes and, more recently, posters of President Barack Obama being lynched. The items on display seek to realize its stated goal of “using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”
Social psychologist J. Andy Karafa, Ph.D., the museum director, notes that his compilation consists of stereotypes built upon “the long history of subjugation,” starting with the loyal and docile servant, “Sambo.” A principle concept in all this is the stereotype of the “coon,” depicted as “Sambo gone bad,” a darkie not content with his station in life. Not nearly as prolific, but present nonetheless, is the “brute.” On the museum’s website, this persona is described as a caricature “innately savage, animalistic, destructive, and criminal—deserving punishment, maybe death.”
As Karafa explains it, the dolls and figurines fashioned within this characterization conveyed a specific message. In so many words, they proclaim “… now that they’re out there with their freedom, look at how they act.”
This distortion has been carried over into contemporary incarnations, such as the vengeful militant in “Blaxploitation” movies, and the gang-banger propagated by the Rap culture. (Mike Tyson’s persona is arguably a manifestation of this.) Like all good caricatures and misrepresentations, it impacts reality most tragically. With the Susan Smith murder case for example, the dependent, personality-disordered South Carolinian drowned her two children, then put the blame on a fictitious Black marauder so that she could consummate an illicit affair with a wealthy paramour who had no wish to be tied down with her kids.