Date: Friday, June 20, 2008
By: Jackie Jones,
You saw it coming: The suggestions of not enough brain power, the rumors about the “angry” spouse, the cartoons, the T-shirts.
The steady drumbeat racializing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has gotten increasingly louder.
There have been T-shirts featuring cartoon monkey Curious George eating a banana with the words “Obama ’08,” as well as a Japanese commercial for a mobile phone featuring a rally with people in the crowd holding signs calling for “Change” and a monkey in a suit, holding up the phone — clearly meant to represent Obama.
Then there is the SockObama monkey sock puppet. Its creators said they didn’t mean to offend anyone — and they question why people are upset by Obama’s portrayal as a monkey, but not when President George W. Bush is portrayed as a chimpanzee.
The company that made the doll stopped production after objections were raised, but the Salt Lake Tribune reported Thursday that David and Elizabeth Lawson, SockObama’s parents, found a new partner and are back in business.
President Bush is often portrayed as a chimpanzee, but I see that as different in some ways; it’s really a way of calling him dumb. But when any African-American is portrayed as monkey or a simian in some way, it’s not calling him dumb. They are questioning his humanity,” said David Pilgrim, a sociology professor and chief diversity officer at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
Pilgrim said it is pretty widely accepted that comparing black people to animals, especially monkeys, is considered racist. He pointed to the late ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, who was heavily criticized and essentially driven off the air the following season after saying, “Look at that little monkey run” to describe black receiver Alvin Garrett during a Monday Night Football telecast in 1983.
“And there are derivations, like porch monkey, and we have tons of images of African-American children being portrayed as if they were monkeys. It’s part of a continuum from the past, and I ask myself how could any adult American not know this?” he told
Pilgrim has been collecting Obama memorabilia and said he has been amazed by the volume and depth of negative depictions of the Democratic candidate — from a terrorist to an Uncle Tom to a transgendered person, to any and everything ranging from the mildly controversial to downright scary.
But there is something especially insidious about the sock puppet and T-shirt, Pilgrim said.
“It’s a doll where you have to do the talking for it, in other words, the opportunity for belittling the way African-Americans talk. Your attitudes about African-Americans are going to be displayed when you play with that doll,” Pilgrim said.
“People wear T-shirts” which suggest an endorsement of the messages on them, he added. “The functionality of these items increases the meaning. They’re walking advertisements for that kind of thing.”
Jabari Asim, editor of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, traced the history of the black men-monkey link in his book, “The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why.”
Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), “compared black male sexuality with that of the ‘oranootan’ which, he wrote, preferred black women over those of his own species,” Asim told in an e-mail.
Quoting from his book, Asim wrote: “Jefferson may have been familiar with William Smith’s New Voyage to Guinea, which in 1744 told of apes frequently carrying off and sexually assaulting black women in the jungles of Africa. In 1799, Britain’s Charles White, the last major ‘niggerologist’ of the period, specifically referred to Jefferson’s Notes to
bolster his own ‘research’ comparing black men with apes. In each of these perverse fantasies, black men are portrayed as wild, simian creatures, whereas black women are described as uninhibited, sexually licentious creatures, perfectly suited as targets for rampant libidinous attacks.”
Asim also noted in the e-mail the “furor over Annie Leibovitz‘s (Vogue) cover with LeBron James, and it’s worth recalling that Patrick Ewing was sometimes pelted with banana skins during his (Georgetown University) days. In Europe, soccer hooligans often heckle black players by making grunting sounds.”
It may be surprising to some that, in some ways, little has changed, “especially for those of us who live in relatively integrated cities,” said Amy Alexander, a 2008 Alfred Knobler Journalism Fellow at The Nation Institute, who is writing a book about race and the media. “We tend to forget there are still people who are very racist.”
“It’s biased, but the thing is it’s good because a lot of exposure is going to be healthy, and should Obama be elected, it’s really going to be on.
Because whether the racism comes from ignorance and a lack of knowledge of people who are different from you or one person had a run-in with a black person that wasn’t good and then applies that to the whole race, it’s going to e very challenging for Americans to finally have to confront their stuff,” Alexander told
“A core American issue has been ‘Are black people the same as everybody else?’” said diversity expert David Campt, a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, who teaches a course in American cultures. “We’re still dealing with the three-fifths clause (of the Constitution making male slaves equal to three-fifths of a man) and is the major issue we have been struggling with in our minds with the law and everything else.”
Campt, who also serves as a consultant to the university’s vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, said there has been progress when one considers that society in general tends to check its impulse to use loaded language, noting that comedian Michael Richards and radio show host Don Imus suffered consequences professionally when they made racist remarks in public.
The problem, however with trying to dismiss the strong reaction to black men portrayed as monkeys, especially with something like the Obama sock puppet, is what Campt called Mark Twain’s “too soon” theory.
“You don’t go to the home of a man who was hanged and talk about buying rope,” Campt said. “It doesn’t mean the conversation about rope is inherently insensitive, but it’s just too soon” to have that discussion.
“Any analogy to an animal is problematic because context matters,” Campt told
“As intelligent black observers, we have to take note of that and raise the level of discussion that the campaign can’t do and that the mainstream media can’t do,” he said, “People are so averse to the idea of saying that racial bias affects our politics that they are apt to dismiss it. And they shut down those who bring it up.”




1 Comment

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  1. wardrobemalfunctions

    To set the record straight, Howard Cosell DID NOT say “Look at that little monkey run” when he was referring to Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett. Cosell made this remark 11 years earlier in 1972 in reference to a play by Kansas City Chiefs Mike Adamle. It was 1983 on Monday Night Football when Cosell made his comment about Alvin Garrett which was “That little monkey gets loose doesn’t he.”

    I am still looking for a sound byte or video clip of Howard Cosell saying “Look at that little monkey run.” I hear that it might be contained in a Preseason 1972 K.C. Chiefs @ Giants 07/29/72 “Hall of Fame” Game. Can anyone locate the actual clip?

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