28 Images of the Outsider in American Law and Culture
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28 Images of the Outsider in American Law and Culture RICHARD DELGADO AND JEAN STEFANCIC Several museums have featured displays of racial memorabilia from the past.1 Each of these collections depicts a shocking parade of Sambos, mammies, coons, uncles-bestial or happy-go-lucky, watermelon-eating African-Americans. They show advertising logos and household commodities in the shape of blacks with grotesquely exaggerated facial features. They include minstrel shows and film clips depicting blacks as so incQmpetent, shuffling, and dim-witted that it is hard to see how they survived to adulthood. Other images depict primitive, terrifying, larger-than-life black men in threatening garb and postures, often with apparent designs on white women. Seeing these haunting images today, one is tempted to ask: "How could their authorscartoonists , writers, film-makers, and graphic designers-individuals of higher than average education, create such appalling images? And why did no one protest?/I The collections mentioned focus on African-Americans, but the two of us, motivated by curiosity, examined the history of ethnic depiction for each of the four main minority subgroups of color-Mexicans, African-Americans, Asians, and Native Americans-in the United States.2 African-Americans Early in our history, slave traders rounded up African villagers and transported them to the New World in chains. En route, many died; those who survived were sold and forced to work in the fields and houses of a colonial nation bent on economic development and expansion. Slave codes regulated behavior, deterring rebellion and forbidding intermarriage. They also prohibited Southern blacks from learning to read and write, denying them access to the world of print then replete with arguments about" the rights of man. /I The dominant image of blacks in the popular theater and literature of the late eighteenth century was that of the docile and contented slave-childlike , lazy, illiterate, and dependent on the protection and care of a white master. The first appearance of Sambo, a /I comic Negro/l stereotype, occurred in 1781 in a play called The Divorce. This black male character, portrayed by a white in blackface, danced, sang, 77 CORNELL L. REV. 1258 (1992). Copyright © 1992 by Cornell University. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Cornell University and Fred B. Rothman & Company. Copyrighted Material Images of the Outsider in American Law and Culture 171 spoke nonsense, and acted the buffoon. The black man's potential as a sexual and economic competitor was minimized by portraying him as an object of laughter. Blackface minstrelsy found a new popularity in the 1830s when Thomas D. Rice created Jim Crow, modeled on an elderly crippled black slave who shuffle-danced and sang. It is thought that Rice even borrowed the old man's shabby clothes for a more authentic stage performance. Rice's performance of Jump Jim Crow won him immediate success in the United States and England. By the 1840s minstrel shows were standard fare in American music halls. In these shows, whites in blackface created and disseminated stereotypes of African-Americans as inept urban dandies or happy child-like slaves.3 Probably more whites-at least in the North-received their understanding of African-American culture from minstrel shows than from first hand acquaintance with blacks. Because laws forbade slaves to learn to read or write, slave culture was primarily oral. Thus, it is highly significant that former slaves such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown published accounts of captivity, life on plantations, and escapes to freedom.4 These early slave narratives, published in the North and circulated among abolitionist societies , presented counterimages to the prevailing myths of the dominant culture. The abolitionist movement reached its apogee with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Though Stowe was successful in presenting the slave master as villain, her portrayal of Uncle Tom changed the stereotype of the black slave only a little: Previously he had been docile, content, or comic, while in her depiction he became gentle, longsuffering , and imbued with Christian piety. After the Civil War, the black image bifurcated. The "good slave" image continued, but was soon joined by an ominous "shadow" figure. The Uncle Tom character became romanticized , a black mouthpiece espousing an apologia for the beliefs of the old genteel white Confederacy. Though never overtly sexual, his masculine form re-emerged as the avuncular storyteller Uncle Remus, as well as various other "uncles." His feminine form evolved into a "mammy" figure-cook washerwoman, nanny, and all-round domestic...