Nigger Aesthetics

Coonskin, “The Story of OJ”, and the radical appropriation of the Nigger Aesthetic in cartooning.

by Ronald Wimberly

  1. I may use Nigger and Nigga interchangeably as I am not of the school of thought that the word magically changes depending on how it’s spelled, but rather alters depending on how and by whom it is spoken.
  2. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1935.
  3. Here I will use “sambo” as a stand in for the black face cartoon Williams epitomized. It was a great success. He starred in In Dahomey, the first Black Broadway musical, and was cast in Darktown Jubilee, the earliest known film to star a Black cast. He even performed for King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace. Bert Williams capitalized on a Nigger aesthetic developed by a white artist.
  4. Time Magazine, “On the Beach With Dave Chappelle.” Sunday, May 15, 2005.
  5. Dessins (1924), as quoted by Pierre Chanel in A Thousand Flashes of Genius, Jean Cocteau and the French Scene (1984).
  6. i.e. in the cartoons of Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, a children’s story about a South Asian child who tricks a tiger. This black face aesthetic is present also in the Pickaninny, “Gollywog” or “Swarte Pete” and is characterized by the reduction of the black body to white eyes and exaggerated red lips against black skin. Here I refer to “bimbo” as the reduction of female bodies to a sexualized shorthand bare enough that the viewer can project their desire onto it. It’s usually characterized by an hourglass figure and face with doe eyes and no nose but this archetype can vary and can be identified by its repetition within the work of the cartoonist and its position as an object of desire to be attained by a proxy within the work. This term evolved from an Italian epithet for a dumb brute of a man into an epithet for a dumb female sex object in the 1920s and was popularized by its use in Grant Clarke’s “My Little Bimbo Down on the Bamboo Isle,” about a white man’s indigenous mistress with a great big “Zulu smile.”
  7. From “The Story of OJ”: “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.” This type of economic anti-Semitism dates back at least to the anonymous Russian-produced manual, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Notable capitalist, Henry Ford championed the work in the US, funding its publication in English.

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