The September 2019 cover of Memphis Magazine featured caricatures of the three mayoral candidates. While the caricatures of both African American candidates, former mayor Dr. Willie Herenton and Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, were troubling, the caricature of Sawyer was particularly disturbing, drawing on racist stereotypes.
This Teaching Idea is designed to help you explore questions around this magazine cover and the history of stereotypical caricatures of African Americans with your students. Below are some considerations for how to approach teaching this challenging material, but please reach out to us at [email protected] for additional support and guidance.
Note to teachers: To learn more about the caricatures on the cover of the Memphis Magazine issue and the bias contained in the depiction of Tami Sawyer, read the MLK50 article When They (Don’t) See Us by Deborah Douglas.
As a class, brainstorm definitions for stereotype and caricature. Ask your students:
Read the following passage from the PBS article Racist Images and Messages in Jim Crow Era with your students:
“All groups, all racial and ethnic groups in this country have been caricatured. None of them has been caricatured as often and in so many ways as have Africans and their American descendants,” says David Pilgrim, founder of the Jim Crow Museum.
He continues, “You could take any piece that you see in [the Jim Crow Museum], and they do two things. The first thing is they reflect existing attitudes toward black people, but the other thing, and maybe more important is, they shaped future attitudes toward black people.”1
Ask your students:
Then, ask your students:
Show your students examples of how African American women have been stereotypically caricatured in the media, such as the image of Serena Williams or Michelle Obama from the MLK50 article When They (Don’t) See Us. Discuss with your students:
How do these images seek to undermine the women they portray?
Read the following passage, written by Frederick Douglass in 1849 and published in his abolitionist newspaper, North Star, with your students:
Negroes can never have impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists. It seems next to impossible for white men to take likenesses of black men without most grossly exaggerating their distinctive features. Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy. We have heard many white persons say that “Negroes look all alike,” and that they could not distinguish between the old and the young. They associate with the Negro face, high cheek bones, distended nostril, depressed nose, thick lips, and retreating foreheads. This theory impressed strongly upon the mind of an artist exercises a powerful influence over his pencil, and very naturally leads him to distort and exaggerate those peculiarities, even when they scarcely exist in the original.2
Ask your students:
If you choose to show the image used in the magazine to your students, you can display it now, along with a photo of Tami Sawyer. Ask your students:
After your discussion, you can share a portion of the analysis from the MLK50 article When They (Don’t) See Us:
“Wow!” said Dr. Kali Gross, the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University and co-author of “A Black Woman’s History of the United States” with Dr. Daina Ramey Berry due out in February by Beacon Press. For a few seconds after she viewed the image on her cellphone, she was speechless. Then Gross offered:
“The rendering is definitely a throwback to racist caricatures from the 19th century,” said Gross, evoking the mammy stereotype that accompanied others designed to denigrate the black body and psyche, ensconcing African-Americans on the bottom of the racial hierarchy. “The way they depict her hair, her nose, her face. It’s a distorted image that’s designed to objectify and humiliate.”
The fact that Ellis exaggerated Strickland and Herenton, too, is no excuse for the distorted image of Sawyer. This false equivalency aims to suggest that misogynoir—hatred directed toward black women, as defined by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey—cannot exist on a page that lampoons two male candidates.
And yet, Ellis excels at the phenomenon by offering up a humiliating disfiguration in the shape of Sawyer’s head and nose. A black mass of scribbles become Sawyer’s clothing. Strickland and Herenton are fully clothed in smart suits, reflecting the white supremacist tendency to impugn black women “with respect to race and gender, so she is othered in every possible way,” Gross said.
. . . The magazine’s approach, too, appears to undermine Sawyer’s femininity, casting her, like so many outspoken black women, as creatures, not as human beings.3
Consider the following questions with your students:
Use our lesson “Reflections of Race in Nineteenth-Century Media” from our resource The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy (see page 197) to explore the harmful stereotyping of African Americans in the media during Reconstruction. Use our Teaching Idea Responding to #LivingWhileBlack to learn more about implicit bias and everyday racism.
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