Nigger Aesthetics

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

by Ronald Wimberly

My earliest memories of the word “Nigger” — or “nigga” — are of it fluttering about cookouts or family functions. Some old uncle would say it, cigarette dancing metronomically on his lip. Back then, if “nigger” had an odor, it’d be Heineken and Salem menthols; its sound, my childhood, of candor. It was a magic word. If “nigger” could be heard, or spoken without pain, we were in a safe place. And nigger wasn’t always a term of endearment. For instance, when prefixed with “dis-”, “nigga” often signaled frustration or even mild disgust. But “nigger” was always familiar.[1]

“Nigger” is also practical. I use nigger to let Black people know that what I’m saying is for them and maybe even more often to let white people know that what I’m saying isn’t exclusively for them.

I like Nigger because it makes white people uncomfortable. In two syllables, Nigger lets white people know that they are in the world and that they are white and that their whiteness is tied to a history of violence. To say this word, to be this word, you are stepping onto the battlefield.

If white supremacy and its effects weren’t real or simply part of a distant past, the word Nigger would have less cultural value. Nigger only ever diminishes in volatility in the absence of Black bodies or white supremacy. Maybe one day nigger will be uttered aloud and won’t report back shock or pain or comfort, but it remains powerful because you can still die from being a nigger and niggers aint even real …or are they?

Much has been made of the plasticity of the word nigger. “Nigger” was an important part of the branding, the aesthetics of racial capitalism. Black culture has rebranded “nigger” and it was a political and artistic act.[2] 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. In the mouths of black folk, “Nigger” is nearly Mandarin in its tonal plasticity. With a change of inflection “nigger” can identify friend or foe, love or derision. In fact, we’ve given nigger all the complexity of which the word was meant to rob us. The Sambo is the visual counterpart to Nigger and the black visual artist is already engaged in the same act of subversion of this aesthetic technology. The following is my case for the effort and some guidelines for it:

If Wikipedia is to be trusted, “nigger” first appeared innocuously in the English language as “niger.” (I like this one particularly because it’s an anagram for both “reign” and an informal spelling of renege, “re-nig.”) Niger means black. Sometime around the age of enlightenment, around the time Europeans decided what it was to be Human, around the Age of Reason (s not to work), nigger stopped being a description of the color that absorbs all color and started being an epithet for an ontological position within the racist paradigm.

In Walter Benjamin posits that the fascism of the early 20th century gave the the proletariat the aesthetics of the Führer cult and the demonic jew in place of material political change in order to allow them “expression while preserving property.”[3] The aesthetics of racial capitalism preceded fascism by at least 200 years. They were most likely born as science tried to justify racial capitalism with eugenic drawings; Nigger Aesthetics is a racial capitalist aesthetic.

The Nigger Aesthetic is the representation of the Black body, Black life and the corresponding way of seeing and thinking about the Black body, as informed by white supremacy’s stigmatization of the Black body and Black life. Elements of the Nigger Aesthetic are the material qualities of the Black body and Black life, i.e. dark skin, nappy hair, singing, dancing, even pain and suffering, that have been stigmatized by white supremacy. The Nigger Aesthetic differs from the Black Aesthetic in the Nigger Aesthetic’s function of stigmatizing. Black Aesthetic doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the stigmatization of the Black body or Black life. The power of the Nigger Aesthetic is aptly summed up in the words of then President Woodrow Wilson, after a White House screening of (cinema’s first great application of Nigger Aesthetics): “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Nigger Aesthetics have been an entertainment commodity for nearly as long as “nigers” have been a labor commodity, and Nigger Aesthetic was capitalized and exploited as a commodity separate from the Black body from the beginning. Is this because the act of chattel slavery was itself a form of mechanical mass production?

While Black involvement in the production of Nigger Aesthetics doesn’t ensure any particular political value of Nigger Aesthetics, I believe Black involvement within the production and performance of Nigger Aesthetics retards Nigger Aesthetics’ reproduction of the white supremacist ideology. I believe the presence of Black personhood itself erodes the lie of white supremacist aesthetics. The juxtaposition of the Black body and its inherent personhood with the reductive Nigger Aesthetics activates a political subjectivity. Like seeing, touching, smelling a human body vs. seeing a drawing of a human body. The presence of the body and its personhood is a material anchor to reality and therefore acknowledges the aesthetics and the political constructs relative to that reality.

The tradition of the exploitation of the Nigger Aesthetic independent of the nigger embodied goes back at least to 19th century minstrelsy. In the 1830s a New Yorker named Thomas “Dartmouth” Rice developed a black face minstrel act, pulling together bits of aesthetic technology he appropriated from his own ethnically mixed New York neighborhood as well as his travels through the American south. “Dartmouth” made his name and his fortune, performing as the black faced “Jim Crow.” By the 1840s Dartmouth’s Jim Crow performance had minted Jim Crow as a new pejorative for Black people. Dartmouth is the first white man on record to get famous commodifying the Nigger Aesthetic, but he wasn’t the last. The tradition would continue and form the foundation of an American aesthetic tradition.

Black performers would also capitalize on the Nigger Aesthetic, performing it for white and Black audiences alike. At the turn of the 19th century Bert Williams, a black Bahamian, would gain wide renown with the Nigger aesthetic. Bert painted his face black and donned a nappy wig, performing the very Jim Crow character popularized by Dartmouth 50 years prior.[4] That performance was what we might today call “representation.” William’s minstrel performances paved the way for the black artists and performers of today — including myself.

We cannot untangle this history. Dartmouth and Bert Williams’ bodies within their work (the minstrel show) provide more opportunity to see the political subjectivity of the work. The gulf between the organic, material reality of Black bodies and Black life (the Dark Matter) and the spectacle of the Nigger Aesthetic is an uncanny valley. Dartmouth and Williams had to become Niggers and the audience had to reconcile the aesthetics of the performance with the the material reality of the performers as well as with the material reality of Black life happening all around them in their world.

When George C. Marshal commissioned Frank Capra to produce propaganda for the U.S. WWII effort, Capra watched Leni Reifenstahl’s Reifenstahl deftly employed the language of cinema to build the white supremacist Nazi meta-narrative of the Aryan right to rule the world. Capra found Reifenstahl’s propaganda so compelling, he decided the best way to counter it would be to sample it; Capra produced a suite of films that effectively appropriated Nazi aesthetics as U.S. war propaganda.

Radical misappropriation of Nigger Aesthetics begins with arranging and presenting aesthetic elements in a way that politically subjectifies Nigger Aesthetics; in other words, subversive Nigger Aesthetics acknowledge the history of Nigger Aesthetics and the political intent of Nigger Aesthetics, thus allowing a critique of the political function of Nigger Aesthetics and in some case a dismantling of Nigger Aesthetics’ stigmatization the Black body. Works like Jean Michel Basquiat’s Kerry James Marshall’s Kara Walker’s all quietly provoke a subjective framing of Nigger Aesthetics. acknowledges the object/subject paradigm with the visual rhyme of a pair of eggs on a skillet and the pair of white eyes on the black face of the man wielding the skillet; As the years pass, its irony and its symbolic value increases with its price. With Kerry James Marshall stacked black values to build portrait of himself that, with the title, acknowledges both the beauty and the reductive nature of the Nigger Aesthetic. With Kara Walker sculpted a giant sugar Sambo/Mammy sphynx and her melting molasses babies in the gutted Brooklyn Domino Sugar factory, sitting in the current epicenter of New York gentrification, simultaneously framing the Nigger Aesthetic historically, economically, and spacially.

The danger with using Nigger Aesthetics is that because the context and the audience are as important as the Aesthetic product, any Nigger Aesthetics, decontextualized, can be put to any use. But I suppose this is the whole point of a radical framing of Nigger Aesthetics: it inherently acknowledges the political subjectivity of the aesthetic product and of the audience. As Dave Chapelle discovered.

In magazine, Dave recalled how a white audience member’s reaction to his “Black Pixie” skit precipitated his quitting his show. In “Black Pixie,” Chapelle uses the Nigger Aesthetic to lampoon the anxiety of performing against stereotype. We see how a character struggles with double consciousness, surrounded by white people, not wanting to order fried chicken, taunted by a black-faced porter (also played by Chapelle). In Time Magazine, Christopher John Farley wrote:

Out of context, Dave realized the potential “Black Pixie” had of reproducing the original white supremacist function of the Nigger Aesthetic. Ultimately he decided it wasn’t worth it.

A cartoon can be produced with few material “receipts”; the hand is nearly untraceable. Just like the words “the witch flew through the air” produces a more believable illusion than seeing it produced on stage, the Nigger Aesthetic produced in a cartoon world summons a more cohesive illusion than a live minstrel show. Also the nigger aesthetic in cartoon form can be reproduced from a previous artifact, its connection to the original degrading and its strength as a symbol growing perpetually along the way.

Cartooning’s relationship to written language makes it an especially effective symbolic technology. Good drawing is writing off rails. Jean Cocteau once famously said, “Poets don’t draw. They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently.”[6] I’d say that poetry is drawing, except in a straight jacket; it has constraints. If the story of Babel were true, it would mean that Babel had no draughtsman, because drawing is truly the universal language of mankind. Lost and hungry in Tokyo, I once wrote a spell on a napkin. I conjured a chicken and a beer from a squall of ink on a paper scrap, and a stranger drew a map for me. Good cartooning uses aesthetic technology to quickly get across ideas. Cartooning is great at quickly getting across the ideas of racism.

Style is the collection and application of aesthetic technologies to solve problems in a unique way. When I first began drawing comics, I searched desperately for my cartooning language. Like any art school kid, I was looking for my style. Often a cartoonist will appropriate (regardless of intent) various aesthetic technologies to help them develop their style. To that end, once I set out to be a cartoonist in earnest, I became a student of cartoon history. I consumed comics voraciously, but I was mostly unaware of the rich history of the Black cartoonists like Jackie Ormes, Oliver Wendell Harrington, or Jay Jackson. What I mean here by Black cartoonists is that they employed a Black Aesthetic. If “Black,” contrasted with Negro or African American, is a political stance that defies white supremacy, then we can understand the Black Aesthetic in regard to cartooning as the application of the cartooning language (mark making, writing etc…) that dismantles white supremacist aesthetics if only in presenting Black life and bodies outside of the strictly white supremacist mode. Maybe the Black Aesthetic in comics is younger than the Nigger Aesthetic; maybe it is reactionary.

Anyway, I can’t say that I was surprised to find, tucked into some of the most renowned comics, dehumanizing cartoons of the Black body, and women’s bodies. These depictions were Aesthetic technology at the service of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy, i.e. the material oppression of the Black and female. This oppression is reproduced in comics and animation by aesthetic technologies like the Sambo or the Bimbo[7] that dehumanize by way of reduction of a subject to a collection of stereotypes. The Sambo was born from the Nigger Aesthetic. As a young cartoonist, this posed a new problem for me. I wouldn’t appropriate from some of my most admired forbears; I would have to develop new aesthetic technology to avoid reproducing the aesthetics of white supremacy. This is the work of the radical visual storyteller. But this also got me thinking: can the the Sambo and by extension the Nigger Aesthetic be bent to the service of liberation of the very subjects it humiliated and dehumanized? Of course the effort had already had been made with varying results.

In the animated music video “Story of OJ” (no relation to The Story of O although there are some thematic similarities) a Sambo version of Jay Z preaches a Black capitalist sermon — something like the bougie version of Notorious B.I.G.’s “The Ten Crack Commandments.” The Nigger Aesthetic is excellently executed by (from what I can tell from the credits) a mostly white animation staff. “The Story of OJ” successfully applies Nigger Aesthetics to subjectify the nigger, to make them more complex human characters, by contrasting the Nigger Aesthetics with nuanced artistic expression of Jay Z and (via appropriative black capitalist recuperation) Nina Simone. The refrain “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga/Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga/Still nigga, still nigga” paints Nigga life as a range: in the imagery we see the Sambo as slave, athlete, revolutionary, artist, and most notably black capitalist. Ironically, Jay Z does all this at the service of racial capitalism, even summoning the classic specter of “the property hoarding Jew.”[8] This reproduces the same ideology that produced the Nigger Aesthetics to begin with. Jay Z’s message is clear: racial capitalism is inevitable, so make it work for you. It makes no attempt to subvert the Bimbo Sambo and Mammy Sambo aesthetic.

I was going to write a whole thing on Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 film but I ran out of space and I’m not sure the work deserves my effort. Despite some great performances by Philip Michael Thomas, Barry White, Charles Gordone, and Scatman Crothers as well as Bakshi’s gorgeous designs, also fails to achieve escape velocity from the original function of Nigger Aesthetics. Though the performances begin to subvert the flattening function of the Nigger Aesthetic the story ultimately breaks down into a hollow spectacle for the white gaze of its director.

In my own art practice I deconstruct the elements of the Nigger Aesthetic and upcycle them into my designs. I started to do this because the aesthetic properties of the Sambo aren’t inherently loathsome and the great trick of white supremacy was to make them appear to be so even to Black people. If your skin is as dark as a Sambo’s, or your lips as big, your eyes as wide, you can be beautiful too. I honestly believe that the black cartoonist may be able to do for the Sambo what black people have collectively done with “nigger”; make a dagger into a spade, or vice versa.

  1. Did you know that the latin root for both “familiar” and “family” is “familus”? “Familus” means servant.
  2. 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.
  3. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1935.
  4. Here I will use “sambo” as a stand in for the black face cartoon Williams epitomized. It was a great success. He starred in the first Black Broadway musical, and was cast in 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.
  5. Magazine, “On the Beach With Dave Chappelle.” Sunday, May 15, 2005.
  6. (1924), as quoted by Pierre Chanel in , Jean Cocteau and the French Scene (1984).
  7. 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.”
  8. 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, Notable capitalist, Henry Ford championed the work in the US, funding its publication in English.

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