Conjuring of Historical Stereotypes?
This is not simply an isolated incident, and it is more than an argument over taste vs. inappropriateness. Nor is it solely a discussion about freedom of expression. These drawings reflect a national consciousness that has been festering since Barack Obama first took office, and such images can be seen throughout mass media and within nationwide political rhetoric. Now we see them in the easily moldable minds of junior high school students working on art projects.
As this conversation shifts from creative expression to issues of race and representation in the United States, this depiction of President Obama as an animal to be hunted and destroyed like game also reflects yet another national consciousness that has deep roots in historic Black stereotypes and racism. Another conversation needs to be had regarding intent vs. perception when using political satire to depict African Americans.
Following slavery and in the early 20th Century as African Americans attempted to adjust as freedmen in American society, the caricature of the “savage brute” developed. Novels, cartoons, plays and movies adopted the image of Black men as innately animalistic, criminal and destructive. The mythical argument was that without the institution of slavery, Black men would revert to savagery and barbarism, posing a threat to all of society and especially White women. Scientists then actualized this myth by conducting experiments in desperate attempts to genetically prove Blacks’ savagery. Meanwhile, education, political and social systems encouraged Whites to believe in the authenticity of these stereotypes through an unjust, but legal system of segregation and Jim Crown that falsely intimated the inferiority of African-Americans.
Still, it is unlikely that Boyet Junior high students ever learned about Charles Davenport and the Eugenics movement or Hoffman’s “Extinction Thesis” in science class. Nor have they read Charles H. Smith’s “Have Negroes Too Much Liberty?” or Thomas Dixon, Jr.,’s “Clansman”. They likely have not seen “Birth of a Nation, the 1915 film based on Dixon’s novel. That does not mean, however, that these students have not been exposed to these stereotypes through contemporary images within present day popular culture and political rhetoric.
Unlike the historic portrayals of the savage brute, President Obama is not portrayed as preying on White women; instead, there are blatant notions of him raping the country through wild spending and uncontrollable healthcare policies. He is imaged as an out of control and destructive being who must be stopped or eliminated to preserve the Constitution and country.
Perhaps while researching the Internet for inspiration, the student came across The New York Post cartoon that depicted two White police officers shooting a chimpanzee to death. In the cartoon one of the officers says, “they’ll have to find someone else to write the next Stimulus Bill.” According to The Post, the cartoon’s intent was “to mock an ineptly written federal stimulus bill.” The following page contained an actual picture of President Obama signing that bill. As a result, many people took racial offense, including Civil Rights activist Al Sharpton, who called for people to ban the newspaper.
In response, The New York Post accused Sharpton of being an opportunist and making something out of nothing. Conservative editorial cartoonist Mike Lester said that race relations would improve if Black people lightened up a bit. “They’re not too good (at being) made fun of. We can all take a joke,” he said. To a community of people who experienced lynch mobs, who hear and see political rhetoric and public commentary both directly and indirectly referencing the death of the first African-American President, a satirical depiction of cops killing a monkey as a representation of Obama isn’t funny. And it is not just a cartoon.
Perhaps in looking for examples of what is and what is not appropriate to say, the child clicked on a Facebook link, and came across articles discussing racist rhetoric by several political figures. In 2011, Tea Party member and failed Carson City Council candidate Jules Manson was questioned by U.S. Secret Service agents following his Facebook post about President Obama which stated, “Assassinate the f---n (N-word) and his monkey children.” His statements were a blatant dehumanization of the President and his family in addition to being a racially charged call for their assassination. This past January, Kansas House Speaker Mike O’Neal was criticized for a controversial e-mail in which he uses Psalm 109:8 as a prayer to end Obama’s Presidency. O’Neal’s e-mail read, “I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our President! Look it up — it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray.” The passage states “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.” It continues, “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.”
Not only does O’Neal exhibit a blatant irresponsibility in his choice of words, he manipulates the Bible passage by making it an open interpretation to justify killing the President. Could this rhetoric inspire a child to create a piece of political art depicting President Obama with bullet piercing his temple?
Maybe when this child went to church, he heard a sermon similar to that of Pastor Steven Anderson’s sermon titled “Why I hate Obama.” In this sermon, Pastor Anderson not only calls Obama the Devil, but prays for him to die and go to hell. Chris Broughton, was in attendance during that sermon. The next day, Broughton showed up to an Obama event with an AR-15 assault rifle, stating that he was prepared to use forceful resistance against the Obama administration.
Perhaps this child was on Twitter and came across Jay Martin’s Twitter feed. Martin was questioned by the Secret Service after tweeting about his commitment to assassinate President Obama. When we now look at these images of hunting and killing Obama as they compare to statements by various political figures that reference his death, in addition to actual events that have already taken place during Obama’s term, a scary reality begins to shape.
In Roland Kessler’s book In the President’s Secret Service, Kessler notes that since Obama has taken office, there has been a 400 percent increase in death threats against the President, far beyond what has been experienced with any other president. One can argue that these people are sensationalists who are using their freedom of speech to walk a thin line for publicity; however, when people like Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez who in November 2011, used a long range rifle to fire nine rounds at the White House, that fine line of sensationalism turns into a platform of justification.
These children’s art projects are reflections of a national attitude that has deemed appropriate and acceptable. By condoning such behavior, intentionally and unintentionally, we condone the deep history in which these images are entrenched.
Whether a magazine’s political parody, a pastor’s sermon, a politician’s ruthless critique or a middle school student’s art project, a level of cultural competency and racial respect must be present. Satirical intent, freedom of speech or creative expression do not serve as excuses to create, incite or reference the racial dehumanization or destruction of another human being, including and especially the President of the United States. And yes, these representations of Obama are racial. In discussing her book “Living With Lynching,” Ohio State Professor Koritha Mitchell states that lynching was a reaction to the threat of Black achievement and success during the early 1900’s. Though there can be significant criticisms about our President, it cannot be argued that he has not made very significant contributions and accomplishments while serving his first presidential term. By visually skewing this narrative by depicting images Obama as this symbolic savage brute, or by warping his place in history, as we have seen in the Texas Board of Education when recommending there be no mention of the 44th President of the United States in their history text books, we are reliving the system and thought pattern that supported lynch mobs. It is not only an attack on President Obama, it is an attack on achievement and accomplishment by African Americans.
Schools, religious institutions, media outlets and political leaders should be held responsible and accountable for images that directly or indirectly make such references. And as parents, teachers, and standard-setting adults, we need to make clear to our children that it is not okay to refer to our President as an animal to be hunted, or as Hitler, or as the Devil who should burn in Hell, or to draw a picture with a bullet in his head. Because that is inhuman and uncivilized.