How negative stereotypes in material culture impact global politics

Duchess Harris, PhD
Assistant Professor
African-American Studies &
Political Science
Macalester College

        What I would like to do in this lecture is discuss how negative stereotypes
in material culture impact global politics.  In 1991 African-American
Harvard trained Cultural Anthropologist John G. Russell wrote a book called
Nihonjin no Kokujin-kan: Mondai wa Chibikuro sambo dake de wa nai (Japanese
Perception of Blacks: The Problem is More Than Little Black Sambo).  In this
work he addresses the issue of the commodification of American Blackness in
Japan.  He has two primary foci: 1) contemporary Japanese constructions of
Blackness in the context of the growing discourse on Black male sexuality;
2) how Black icons have been appropriated and rendered into what the
Japanese popularly refer to as the koujin karucha bomu Black culture boom.
  Dr. Russell's discussion of icons centers around blackface minstrelsy.  I
would like to use his research as a theoretical framework for my own
original research pertaining to material culture.
         In 1996 I wrote a review essay for American Quarterly entitled, From
Celebration to
Uncritical Consumption : Are We Reclaiming our Culture or Commodifying
Contempt with Black Collectibles?   In this article I look at two books
about Black memorabilia, Mammy and Uncle Mose:  Black Collectibles and
American Stereotyping (Kenneth W. Goings. Indiana University Press
Bloomington and Indianapolis 1994) and Ceramic Uncles & Celluloid Mammies:
Black Images and Their Influence on Culture  Patricia A. Turner  Anchor
Books New York 1994.
    I argue that these two authors show the complexity of the collecting
phenomenon, and present a well argued thesis that cookie jars can be an
expression of cultural ideology, or a venture in simple economic
exploitation.  It is interesting to note that the Black artifacts discussed
in these texts were created during periods of Black resistance.  Both Turner
and Goings argue that the dissemination of the Aunt Jemima image undermined
the political work of leaders such as Ida B. Wells.  The company that made
Aunt Jemima famous was founded in the early 1890s by a white man named Chris
Rutt, who hired Nancy Green, a Black woman, to dress in costume and flip
pancakes at the 1893 World's Fair. There are many ironies implicit in the
fact that the Colombian Exposition was used to launch Aunt Jemima products.
As Turner notes, Nancy Green was flipping pancakes while anti-lynching
advocate Ida B. Wells was distributing a protest pamphlet entitled "The
Reason Why:  The Colored American is not in the World's Colombian
Exposition."  Wells and her supporters wanted the public to know how
inadequate they believed the fair's attention to Black Americans was.
Goings' text illuminates how this pamphlet was further undermined by another
pamphlet created around the same time by Purd Wright entitled,  "When the
Robert E. Lee Stopped at Aunt Jemima's Cabin."
       Aunt Jemima's fictionalized biography is told by an aging Confederate
general who returned to the Old South after twenty years looking to revisit
the best meal he ever had.  (Goings p, 31)  According to Goings, who holds
this "biography" in his personal collection,   the story is that Aunt Jemima
had worked her whole life on the Higbee plantation in Louisiana.  In 1864,
the general and his orderly became separated from the other troops and
almost starved to death.  On their third day of hunger they came across a
cabin where the "mammy" fed them pancakes like they had never had before.
Years later, the general wanted to return to the cabin to see if she was
still there.  She was, and he persuaded her to sell him the recipe, which
allowed him to introduce the product to Northern consumers at a sizeable
profit. (31)  Goings' critique of this biography is apropos.  He notes that
it is only in the fictionalized minds of White America that Aunt Jemima
would not have joined the migration north, but would have instead remained
on her plantation like a "happy" former slave waiting to make pancakes for
Robert E. Lee. I would like to add to this critique the fact that the
authenticity of this biography was not challenged in the way that many slave
narratives were sixty years later.
    Beyond the question of authenticity, Goings also notes that this
biography was published at the height of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro
Improvement Association, and at a time when the NAACP was quite active.  It
was also the period of the Harlem Renaissance. Despite the increasingly high
profile of Black intellectuals and activists, no strong Black opposition
developed to the production and sale of racist artifacts.  This lack of
opposition demonstrates the extent to which Black activism was confined to
politics and culture, and kept out of the economic sphere.  Goings argues
that it was difficult for Blacks to combat the racist representations in
popular material culture because they were mass produced and distributed in
a market economy over which Blacks had no influence or control. Patricia
Turner reminds us that Mammy was so beloved in the mass market at this
time that the Daughters of the American Revolution petitioned Congress to
erect a monument in her likeness in Washington D.C.
      When referring to the real-life objectification of Aunt Jemima
Patricia Turner states: "In her homespun calico garb with a turban around
her head, Aunt Jemima comforted the public; in her businesslike attire with
a fashionable hat on her head, Ida B. Wells vexed the public.  Aunt Jemima's
was the kind of face people wanted to remember; Ida B. Wells was the kind
they wanted to forget.  And that is exactly what happened." (50)
      A generation later, we can insert Rosa Parks in place of Ida B. Wells.
   By 1955 Aylene Lewis was cooking pancakes as Aunt Jemima at Disneyland.
Goings asserts that well into the 1960s many people believed that they had
met the real Aunt Jemima. (Goings, 73)    When Aunt Jemima was being
responded to as a historical figure as opposed to a fantasy-like creation it
is no wonder that our country was in so much trouble at this time. In laying
out this history, neither author fully addresses the issue of what
consumption of these artifacts meant to White consumers.  One possible
explanation is that the artifacts placed Black and white women at odds.
Aunt Jemima's juxtaposition to Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty
in 1955 in Disneyland can be deconstructed in numerous ways.  First of all,
to what extent did  Black Americans have to Disneyland in 1955?  What kind
of aesthetic validation did Aylene Lewis provide for her all-white audience?
  The message that is sent is that if you have pure white skin you are the
fairest of them all and some day your prince will come.  On the other hand,
if you are a large dark-skinned Black woman, you belong in the kitchen, more
than likely making pancakes for Cinderella. Were the White Americans who
were so familiar with Aunt Jemima as knowledgeable about a seamstress in
Montgomery, Alabama whose claim to fame had nothing to do with breakfast
     Secondly, if white people wanted to remember Aunt Jemima while
forgetting Rosa Parks and Ida B. Wells, how was the historical memory of
Black America affected?  Neither author pays enough attention to how the
stereotypical Black image was manifested in the Black mind at this time. How
were these representations internalized historically to promote feelings and
behaviors of self-hatred and contempt among Blacks?  Not attending to theses
issues weakens both analyses.
   Also, Turner does not fully address the issue of audience. She does not
distinguish between the Black and White voyeur.   Similarly, neither Goings
nor Turner makes adequate distinctions among who collects memorabilia and
     In the remaining part of this lecture I would like to discuss the
impact of negative Black American stereotypes and their impact on Japanese
mindset and behaviors.  I will outline three important issues: 1) the
reinforcement of Blackness as negative and dangerous by white American GIs
2) the current controversial rape allegations against US Air Force officer
Timothy Woodland, and 3) the new prominence of Black Americans in President
Bushes' cabinet.
        One of the reasons that this lecture has devoted so much time to
Americana is because Japanese literary and visual representations rely
heavily on imagery derived from Western conventions.  In Japan as is the
United States, the color black has traditionally carried negative symbolic
connotations (corruption, death, evil, illness, impurity), and certainly
aesthetic tastes in Japan's classical court culture leave no doubt as to the
value associated with white skin.  Japanese proverbs testify to the positive
aesthetic valuation of the color white as a marker of beauty: iro no shiroi
no meshi to onna wa shiroi hodo yoi (IN RICE AND WOMEN, THE WHITER THE
BETTER).   The value of whiteness with female beauty is significant when you
think of the influx of Black American men in Japan in the last fifty years.
     Recent trends in Japanese literary representation of the Black other
tend to portray Black men as sexual objects, studs, fashion accessories, and
performers.  These are images that imported American media reinforce daily.
Consider the following passage from a Japanese guidebook to New York's
ethnic diversity:

At parties thrown by whites, just having a fashionable [B]lack guest who
dances skillfully adds life to the party.  The effect is so well known in
New York that [whites] boast that they have stylish [B]lack friends.  In
fact, when [white] New Yorkers assemble with their friends to sing, dance,
and drink, if there are just a few [B]lacks the party will come to life.
They may be natural entertainers.  However, more than anything else [B]lacks
themselves seem to enjoy playing the role of the entertainer. (Nagasawa and
Miyamoto 1986:136)

Just as the image of the Blacks in the United States as a bumbling Stepin
Fetchit was eventually replaced with the threatening superstuds of 1970s
[B]laxploitation films such as Shaft and Superfly, a similar evolution has
taken place in Japanese mass culture.  Though stereotypes of Blacks as
sexual athletes and born entertainers is not new, they were perhaps given
distributive currency during the Occupation and the Korean War with the
influx of Black GIs and American popular culture through Japanese exposure
to racist white Gis.  Many white GIs were not above spreading the seeds of
racism oversees: once warned by government propaganda of the propensities of
Americans for rape and carnage, Japanese were now being told similar horror
stories about Blacks by white American Gis.
     The Occupation not only helped export anti-Black racism to Japan, it
also gave the Japanese the means of reproducing it for white consumption
back in the States by encouraging production of stereotyped Black figurines
under the Made in Occupied Japan label.  Other stereotypes are not so
benign.  The image of the Black GI as rapist has become something of a
staple in Japanese pornography and films about the Occupation (Buruma
1984:57).  The Black rapist trope also appears in Matsumoto Seicho's short
story, Kuroji no E (PICTURE ON BLACK CLOTH, 1965) and in adult comic
     This lecture is in no way an attempt to excuse actual sexually violent
behavior conducted by Black men.  The present day relevance of this topic
can be linked to the August 27, 2001 issue of TIME Magazine.  In this issue
there is an article entitled, Sex and Race in Okinawa: U.S. Servicemen and
Local Women can Be a Volatile Mix.  A Rape Allegation Against An Airman
Casts Harsh Light on the Island's Race Relations. This article highlights
the fact that in recent years that US troops of all races have committed
atrocities in Okinawa, particularly sexual assaults.  However, the crimes
committed by Blacks are particularly noted and remembered by Okinawans.  The
final part of my lecture will focus on the most recent controversial issue
Black U.S./Japan relations in 2002: the incarceration of Timothy Woodland.
Not Out of the Woods
     24 year old Air Force Staff sergeant Timothy Woodland is charged with
raping a young Japanese woman in the early morning hours of June 29, 2001.
If he is found guilty, he could spend 15 years in a Japanese prison.  The
Woodland incident has sparked a crisis in U.S./Japanese relations.  For four
days after an arrest warrant was issued on July 2nd, the U.S. Refused to
hand Woodland over to Okinawa police, infuriating Okinawans and many other
Japanese.  Under the Status of Forces Agreement between Japan and the
U.S.--the so-called SOFA, which dictates service members legal rights in
Japan--those charged with a criminal offense are protected from
incarceration by the Japanese until they are indicted.  The U.S. Has always
seen this action as overly harsh, but after a 12 years old school girl was
raped by three Black servicemen in 1995, the U.S. bent its objections and
promised to consider handing over suspects of heinous crimes.
     Okinawa has been transformed by the 1995 attack, and rage against the
presence of U.S. Forces overflowed into the streets.  Over every incident,
big and small that has followed, politicians pelted the U.S. military with
demands that it impose curfews, change treaties and shut down bases.  The
three men are serving seven - year sentences in a special Japanese prison
ward for U.S. Servicemen south of Tokyo--in which Woodland will probably be
placed if he loses his case.  After serving their sentence, the men will
receive dishonorable discharges and be returned to the U.S.
     Incensed over the perceived foot dragging in the Woodland case, hundred
of Okinawans protested.  The uproar reached all the way to President Bush
and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, upsetting their first summit meeting
in Washington.  The U.S. Air Force eventually gave Woodland up.  He was
arrested by the Japanese on July 6, a week after the incident and indicted
on rape charges 15 days later.
     For a feminist theorist like myself, the question is simple: Did
Woodland rape the woman or didn't he? For some in Okinawa however, this is
not the prevailing concern.  One of the greatest concerns is the emergence
of a kokuju sub-culture in an extremely Americanized Okinawa.  The word
kokujo refers to girls who like Black men.  They paint their skin cocoa,
weave their hair in cornrows, and dress like the rap artist Lil Kim.
Because the defendant in the Woodland case has been associated with this
lifestyle, she has taken a beating in the court of public opinion.  Makiko
Tanaka, Japans female Foreign Minister, is reported to have said to
colleagues there must have been something wrong with the girl, going out so
late. The Establishment however, was not the alleged victim's biggest
critic.  Her kokujo peers accused her of dating Woodland and being shamed
into calling their consensual relationship a rape.
Sins of the Fathers
    What are some of the lessons to be learned from the growing tensions
around this provocative issue?  #1 Americans have taught the Japanese how to
think about Blacks.  For example, Japanese mainstream media coverage of the
1995 rape incident did NOT focus on the race of the servicemen.  Although
some newspapers had referred to them as kokujin, most had not, until
relatives of the accused held a press conference in which they expressed
doubts that the defendants could receive a fair trial under Japanese law.
Once race was introduced, it lingered.  Photographs of the three defendants
were aired repeatedly in news broadcasts about the incident, Black
servicemen were interviewed about it, and film crews were dispatched to
Okinawa to report on Black male/Japanese female couples.  Japanese
commentators drew parallels to another celebrated criminal case: the O.J.
Simpson trial. If Americans have taught the Japanese how to think about
Black men with women that aren't theirs then the second question is, will
America's political image and economy suffer from these lessons?
    What makes this lecture different from the information in TIME magazine
is that their reporting failed to address the important changes that have
occurred in Presidential appointments between 1986 and 2000.  On September
22, 1986 Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone Yasuhiro addressed a National
Study Council meeting of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, blaming the
presence of Blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans for the decline of American
intelligence levels. In the same address, Nakasone praised Japan as a
high-level information society (kodo joho shakai).  Although America
during this Reagan era protested these comments, they focused on homogeneity
as a weakness, but they ignored the continuity of Japanese and Western
anti-Black racism. In 1988 Congressman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat
and member of the Congressional Black Caucus urged Prime Minister Noboru
Takeshita to convene a meeting of Japanese executives to end the negative
stereotypic representations of Black Americans. TIME magazine failed to ask
what do these tensions mean now that our Secretary of State and National
Security Advisor are both African-American.
        Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice were very significant figures
during the 2000 Presidential Election.  At the Republican convention, they
were two of the three African Americans given prime time slots to address
the delegates, with Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, J.C. Watts, being
the third.  As part of the strategy of appealing to African American voters,
Powell and Rice had very different roles, with Powell playing the conscience
of the Republican Party, and Rice playing the cheerleader.  In his speech,
Powell charged the party to remember those moments in history when they had
injured Black Americans.  Without making a direct statement about racism,
per se, Powell addressed many of the political issues that have continually
allied Black Americans with the Democrats, including Affirmative Action,
welfare, universal health care, education, and criminal justice.  Very early
in his speech, Powell stated
The issue of race still casts a shadow over our society, despite the
impressive progress we have made over the last 40 years to overcome the
legacy of our troubled past.  So, with all the success we have enjoyed and
with all the wealth we have created, we have much more work to do and a long
way to go to bring the promise of America to every American.

Powell went on to state
The party must follow Governor Bush's lead and reach out to minority
communities and particularly the African-American community--and not just
during an election year campaign.

It must be a sustained effort. It must be every day. It must be for real.
The party must listen to and speak with all leaders of the Black community,
regardless of political affiliation or philosophy.

We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community. The
kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss
no opportunity to loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few
thousand Black kids get an education, but hardly a whimper is heard from
them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes
with preferences for special interests.

     Taken out of context, this bit of rhetoric could be easily mistaken for
a sound bite from the Democratic National Convention, or even from a more
progressive organization like the Black Radical Congress.  Powells defense
of Affirmative Action is unprecedented.  His final statement about
affirmative action for special interests could very easily be read as an
attack on the types of tax incentives and federal aid offered to
corporations: a form of welfare that, as many liberals and leftists have
pointed out, is far more expensive than AFDC ever was.  In addition, by
using the term special interests to characterize people, groups, and
organizations who are not Black Americans, Powell moves away from recent
lines of Republican discourse that cast African Americans as another special
interest begging for special rights that are not granted to other Americans.
     As the conscience of the party, Powells speech was the sharpest
critique that the Republicans were willing to receive during their own
convention.  It was a well orchestrated finale to George W. Bushs speech
before the NAACP, incorporating Bushs rhetoric about the Republican Party
again assuming responsibility as the Party of Lincoln.  Powells speech was
targeted to the Black working-class and poor, the people whom William Julius
Wilson describes as the truly disadvantaged.   Powells appeal to the
Republican Party was meant to be overheard by those Black Americans whose
economic status is still overdetermined by their racial identity and who may
require federal assistance in order to sustain their lives and the lives of
their families.  More so than anything else, Powell appealed to African
Americans sense of themselves as a heterogeneous social group in the United
States that has suffered and continues to suffer from the material and
psychological impact of racism.  He called for Black Americans, en masse, to
look to the Republican Party for leadership in the new century.
     Once George W. Bush won the election, and Powell became the third
highest ranking person in the U.S. Government, why shouldnt the Japanese
look at him as either a Timothy Woodland or O.J. Simpson, and if they
do--who taught them this?
       In this lecture I was hoping that the audience might question if
Black US/Japananese relations have improved in the last decade.   I have
tried to outline the manifestation of the Black Other in response to
changes in the Japanese social and political-economic landscape. Of
particular interest here is the fact that the Japanese contemporary
discourse on Blackness not only decontextualizes Blackness, but
depoliticizes it.  Just as Americans didnt want to acknowledge pre-Civil
Rights Black leaders such as Ida B. Wells and Rosa Parks, will Japanese
leadership ignore the Congressional Black Caucus?  This question might not
have been as significant when Blacks sat on the margins of America--but as
we become central political figures in mainstream US politics, global heads
of State will have to decide if we can join them at the public policy table.
  When it comes to partaking of this political feast, American Studies
Scholar Angela Dillard, says it best, Guess Whos Coming to Dinner Now?
Its time to consider multiculturalism, regardless if it is  Charles Rangel
liberal or Colin Powell conservative.  Black male political leadership can
not be merged with discussions of law-breaking GIs.

Edited by M.Yasue , 2002.Jan.15.