Confronting Racist Imagery in the Memphis Mayoral Race

Last Updated: September 6, 2019

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.

  1. Consider the Historical Roots of Racial Stereotyping in the United States

    As a class, brainstorm definitions for stereotype and caricature. Ask your students:

    • What are the differences between stereotypes and caricatures?
    • How can it be problematic when a caricature uses stereotypes?

    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:

    • Why do you think stereotypical images of African Americans have existed throughout US history and continue to exist today?
    • How can media images, news images, conversations that we have, and our education contribute to the messages we absorb about other individuals and groups? Are there other ways that we absorb these messages?

    Then, ask your students:

    • In what ways can stereotypical images impact African American women specifically?

    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:

    • What is Douglass suggesting about the power of stereotypes?
    • Why does he think white artists have a tendency to draw stereotypical images of black people?
  2. Discuss the Harmful Stereotyping in the Caricatures of Women of Color

    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:

    • Do you notice any of the racist stereotyping that Frederick Douglass describes in the caricature of Sawyer?
    • How does the depiction of Sawyer differ from the depictions of Strickland and Herenton? For example, are there differences in the way that they are dressed?
    • How could using a stereotypical caricature of Sawyer affect the way people view her and her campaign?

    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

  3. Explore Community Responses to Racial Stereotyping

    Consider the following questions with your students:

    • What are some ways that we can become aware of and counter our own biases?
    • How can media organizations ensure that they do not use racist depictions?
    • What can communities do after an incident like this to try to repair the damage done?

Go Deeper

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.


  • 1 : “Racist Images and Messages in Jim Crow Era,” PBS website, accessed September 6, 2019.
  • 2 : Quoted in Joshua Brown, “True Likenesses,” from Eric Foner, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction (Vintage Books, 2006), 35.
  • 3 : Deborah Douglas, “When They (Don’t) See Us,” MLK 50: Justice through Journalism, August 30, 2019.

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