Ethnic Notions

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Ethnic Notions was the first major work of acclaimed African American filmmaker Marlon Riggs (1957–1994). Narrated by actress Esther Rolle and featuring commentary by noted scholar Barbara Christian, legendary filmmaker Carlton Moss, and others, the documentary explores the origins and evolution of black stereotypes in America.
Riggs traces the development of the loyal Tom and faithful Mammy, the carefree Sambo and childlike Coon, the savage Brute and animal-like Pickaninny in popular media such as songs, cartoons, films, advertising, and common household artifacts. As he locates each figure within its proper historical context, it becomes evident that they were not simply arbitrary products created for mass entertainment. To the white ruling class, these caricatures functioned as important elements of social control.
In particular, Riggs's insightful analysis of the Sambo figure demonstrates how racial myths were constructed according to the shifting politics of white supremacy. During enslavement, it was necessary for white slaveowners to maintain support for the system by presenting slavery as a benign institution in which enslaved Africans were content with their oppressed condition. In accordance with this theory, Sambo was characterized as ignorant, shiftless, and unable to function outside the confines of the slave system.
By the mid-1800s, impersonations of Sambo by white minstrel performers had become a mainstay in popular stage productions throughout the North. As the abolitionist movement grew, the illusion of the docile figure helped ease white fears of black resistance. And as Riggs notes, the fact that Sambo was so popular with Northern audiences during this period dispels the myth of an utterly benevolent North sympathetic to the antislavery cause. After enslavement, Sambo was transformed into several manifestations of the Coon, a figure whose unsuccessful efforts to adopt white speech and mannerisms presumably confirmed the inherent inferiority of blacks and their inability to assimilate into the dominant culture. The emergence of the Zip Coon was a thinly veiled attempt by the white ruling class to undermine black political agency during Reconstruction.
In the early 1900s, white anxiety over an expanding black labor force in the North gave birth to the Urban Coon, whose carefree lifestyle revolved around liquor, gambling, and raucous behavior. This more dangerous version of the Zip Coon served to legitimize increased violence against blacks and the suppression of black advocacy for quality employment, housing, and education. These caricatures permeated American popular culture, despite the fact that neither the slave system nor the urban industrial economy could have succeeded with the existence of such indolent characters as Sambo and Coon.
The psychological damage suffered by blacks because of these dehumanizing stereotypes is explored in Ethnic Notions through actor Leni Sloan's dramatization of the life and career of black minstrel Bert Williams. In a tragicomic monologue, Williams articulates the shame and irony of having to perform in blackface in order to secure employment in the mainstream theater industry. His poignant statement, “It's no disgrace being black, but sometimes it's terribly inconvenient,” reveals the internal conflict suffered by many black performers whose exploitation of black cultural norms ultimately negated the reality of the black experience.
Ethnic Notions concludes that any system of oppression is successful once the oppressed group willingly perpetuates negative stereotypes of itself, and contemporary blacks in the media must accept some responsibility for the present-day manifestation of racial myths. However, with increased representation in major media outlets, black creative artists as well as audiences are now in the best political and economic position to challenge and eventually eradicate stereotypes with more conscious, authentic images of black history and culture. Ethnic Notions handles the complex subject of American race relations with great clarity and insight, and the Emmywinning documentary has become required viewing in many high school and university classrooms.

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Further Reading

  • Bogle, Donald. (2000). Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum. Bogle identifies the main racist characters that pervaded American cinema for a long time.
  • Guerrero, E. (1993). Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. This book provides an insightful analysis of how devastating images have effectively undermined black agency.
  • Ross, K. (1996). Black and White Media: Black Images in Popular Film and Television. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press. Ross surveys and contrasts the portrayal of black and white people on television and in films.