The people whose land was taken were soulless heathens in desperate need of the constraints of civilized (read “European”) culture and the tenets of Christianity, just as the dark-skinned savages benefited from the discipline and structure gained by tilling the fields and taming the land. Over time, the enslaved earned the designations of “Coons,” “Mammies,” “Pickaninnies,” and “Toms” as worthy titles to signify their place in the new hierarchy.
Whether or not the early stereotypes imposed on these African newcomers were intentional, they proved useful as a validation of the caste system by projecting the idea of happy, contented servants existing solely for the betterment of their betters.
“… such schemas are called stereotypes.”
—J. Andy Karafa
Making sense and generalizing
In cognitive science or psychology, a concept emerged in the 20th century promoting the idea of organized patterns of behavior or thought called “schemas.” As explained by social psychologist Karafa, human beings organize their perceptions about the environment surrounding them (and especially the rest of humanity) into schema in order to negotiate the world with minimal exertion.
“To make sense of the world, the mind categorizes things (people), automatically and unconsciously,” he says.
Of course, the thought process had been around long before clinicians started applying labels. The introduction of psychology as a formal science was useful because it developed a vocabulary and definitions to describe and explain the mysteries of behavior in a prescribed manner. In a sense, science and generalization both evolved to fulfill a specific need. Going on, Karafa says “… the good news is that these (schemas) allow us to interpret the world around us very quickly and efficiently; in fact, we are typically unaware of their use. The bad news is that whenever we categorize people, it frequently results in prejudice and discrimination.”
“Movies are not about Blacks, but what Whites think about Blacks.”
—novelist Ralph Ellison
A wider stage
New, electronically transmitted forms of mass media (including radio), providing a wider stage upon which to project these generalizations, surfaced around the same time as these notions of behavior and mind functions. One noteworthy sitcom appearing over the radio waves at the cusp of the Great Depression had its roots in the minstrel tradition, an American form of theatrical performance that evolved in the wake of the post-Civil War period. “Amos ‘n Andy,” centered around the antics of a “Negro” community in Chicago (later transplanted to the New York enclave of Harlem). Much of the series centered on the relationship of the title characters and their fellow fraternal lodge member George “Kingfish” Stevens, a chronically unemployed conniver, given to get-rich-quick flights of fancy. He was kept in his place by his overbearing shrew of a wife, Sapphire. She was an outgrowth of the 1800s “sassy mammies” stereotype who provided the template for the depiction of future generations of emasculating harridans, who eventually earned the moniker “Angry Black Women.”
The radio series’ popularity facilitated a transition to the newly emerged medium of television, where Sapphire manifested herself physically on the tiny screen in all her belligerent glory, hands on hips, arms akimbo, head shaking in time with her verbal assaults on her flawed mate.