Y’all know what today is… Watermelon and Chicken Wednesday’s!!! We are going to talk about the Pickaninny. Well I’m not but I’m going to post an article on it from www.ferris.edu. Very interesting info. I won’t post the entire article but I will leave you with a link to the rest of it. So here’s to Watermelon, Happy cotton pickin’ peoples. FANGGGGGGGGGGGG!!!
The Picaninny Caricature:
The picaninny was the dominant racial caricature of Black children for most of this country’s history. They were “child coons,” miniature versions of Stepin Fetchit (see the section on the coon caricature). Picaninnies had bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips, and wide mouths into which they stuffed huge slices of watermelon. They were themselves tasty morsels for alligators. They were routinely shown on postcards, posters, and other ephemera being chased or eaten. Picaninnies were portrayed as nameless, shiftless natural buffoons running from alligators and toward fried chicken.
The first famous picaninny was Topsy — a poorly dressed, disreputable, neglected slave girl. Topsy appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Topsy was created to show the evils of slavery. Here was an untamable “wild child” who had been indelibly corrupted by slavery.
- She was one of the blackest of her race; and her round, shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new Mas’r’s parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging; and stood with her hands demurely folded in front of her. Altogether, there was something odd and goblin-like about her appearance — something as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, “so heathenish…”
Stowe hoped that readers would be heartbroken by the tribulations of Topsy, and would help end slavery — which, she believed, produced many similar children. Her book, while leading some Americans to question the morality of slavery, was used by others to trivialize slavery’s brutality. Topsy, for example, was soon a staple character in minstrel shows. The stage Topsy, unlike Stowe’s version, was a happy, mirthful character who reveled in her misfortune. Topsy was still dirty, with kinky hair and ragged clothes, but these traits were transformed into comic props–as was her misuse of the English language. No longer a sympathetic figure, Topsy became, simply, a harmless coon. The stage Topsy and her imitators remained popular from the early 1850s well into the twentieth century.
Black children were some of the earliest “stars” of the fledgling motion picture industry; albeit, as picaninnies. Thomas Alva Edison patented 1,093 inventions. In 1891 he invented the kinetoscope and the kinetograph, which laid the groundwork for modern motion picture technology. During his camera experiments in 1893, Edison photographed some Black children as “interesting side effects.” In 1904 he presented Ten Picaninnies, which showed those “side effects” running and playing. These nameless children were referred to as inky kids, smoky kids, black lambs, snowballs, chubbie ebonies, bad chillun, and coons.
The Ten Picaninnies was a forerunner to Hal Roach’s Our Gang series — sometimes referred to as The Little Rascals. First produced in 1922, Our Gang continued into the “talkie era.” Roach described the show as “comedies of child life.” It included an interracial cast of children, including, at various times, these Black characters: Sunshine Sammy, Pineapple, and Farina in the 1920s, and later, Stymie, and Buckwheat. One or two Black children appeared in each short episode.
Our Gang is often credited with being “one of Hollywood’s few attempts…to do better by the Negro.” All of the children, Blacks and Whites, took turns playing nitwits. Donald Bogle wrote: “Indeed, the charming sense of Our Gang was that all of the children were buffoons, forever in scraps and scrapes, forever plagued by setbacks and sidetracks as they set out to have fun, and everyone had his turn at being outwitted.” This is true, however, the Black characters were often buffoons in racially stereotypical ways. They spoke in dialect — dis, dat, I is, you is, and we is. Farina, arguably the most famous picaninny of the 1920s, was on more than one occasion shown savagely eating watermelon or chicken. He was also terrified of ghosts — this fear was a persistent theme for adult coons in later comedy films. Farina and Buckwheat wore tightly twisted “picaninny pigtails” and old patched gingham clothes which made their sex ambiguous. Why was this sexual ambiguity a necessary part of the show? Buckwheat, the quiet boy with big eyes, has an unenviable distinction: his name is now synonymous with picaninny. This is due, in large part, to Eddie Murphy’s depiction of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live in the 1980’s. Indeed, the term picaninny is today rarely used as a racial slur; it has been replaced by the term buckwheat.
Characteristics of Picaninnies
Picaninnies as portrayed in material culture have skin coloring ranging from medium brown to dark black — light skinned picaninnies are rare. They include infants and teenagers; however, most appear to be 8-10 years old. Prissy, the inept and hysterical servant girl in Gone With the Wind was an exception. She was older than the typical picaninny, but her character was functionally a picaninny. Picaninny girls (and sometimes boys) have hair tied or matted in short stalks that point in all directions; often the boys are bald, their heads shining like metal. The children have big, wide eyes, and oversized mouths — ostensibly to accommodate huge pieces of watermelon.
The picaninny caricature shows Black children as either poorly dressed — ragged, torn, old oversized clothes — or, and worse, they are shown as nude or near-nude. This nudity suggests that Black children, and by extension Black parents, are not concerned with modesty. The nudity also implies that Black parents neglect their children. A loving parent would provide clothing. The nudity of Black children suggests that Blacks are less civilized than Whites (who wear clothes).
The nudity is also problematic because it sexualizes these children. Black children are shown with exposed genitalia and buttocks — often without apparent shame. Moreover, the buttocks are often exaggerated in size, that is, Black children have the buttocks of adults. The widespread depictions of nudity among Black children normalizes their sexual objectification, and, by extension, justifies the sexual abuse of these children.
A disproportionately high number of African American children are poor, but the picaninny caricature suggests that all Black children are impoverished. This poverty is evidenced by their ragged clothes. The children are hungry, therefore, they steal chickens and watermelon. Like wild animals, the picaninnies often must fend for themselves.
Picaninnies are portrayed in greeting cards, on-stage, and in physical objects as insignificant beings. Stories like the Ten Little Niggers show Black children being rolled over by boulders, chased by alligators, and set on fire. Black children are shown on postcards being attacked by dogs, chickens, pigs and other animals. This is consistent with the many 19th and 20th Century pseudo-scientific theories which claimed that Blacks were destined for extinction. William Smith, a Tulane University professor, publishedThe Color Line in 1905. He argued that Blacks would die off because the “doom that awaits the Negro has been prepared in like measure for all inferior races.” George Fredrickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind includes an excellent discussion of the “Black race will die” theories.
Picaninnies were often depicted side by side with animals. For example, a 1907 postcard, showed a Black child on his knees looking at a pig. The caption read, “Whose Baby is OO?” A 1930s bisque match holder showed a Black baby emerging from an egg while a rooster looked on. On postcards Black children were often referred to as coons, monkeys, crows, and opossums. A 1930s pinback showed a bird with the head of a Black girl. Picaninnies were “shown crawling on the ground, climbing trees, straddled over logs, or in other ways assuming animal-like postures.” The message was this: Black children are more animal than human. (More here)