After the US Open, a History of Racial Caricature

2018 US Open Tennis Tournament- Day Thirteen. Winner Naomi Osaka of Japan in tears alongside Serena Williams of the United States at the presentations after the Women's Singles Final on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2018 US Open Tennis Tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 8th, 2018 in Flushing, Queens, New York City. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Last weekend’s contentious women’s final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open has been much written about, by many writers I admire. Historian Brooke Newman’s story in the Washington Post focuses on the cartoon Mark Knight drew for the Herald Sun in Australia the day after the match. I wondered, reading comments as the cartoon made its rounds on Twitter, how anyone could deny its racist underpinnings and intent to degrade. Newman thoroughly traces a history of racial caricature, especially as it relates to Black women in the West.

Beginning in the late 18th century, as the abolitionist movement gave rise to widespread popular protest against the transatlantic slave trade, British cartoonists published numerous visual caricatures of people of African descent, particularly enslaved women. As sexualized objects of public consumption, the racialized bodies of nameless black women in these caricatures played a central role in public debates over the future of slave trading, slavery and the incorporation of free people descended from enslaved ancestors into the social and political worlds of Georgian England and antebellum America.

In late 18th- and early 19th century London, visual artists such as Isaac Cruikshank, James Gillray, Richard Newton and Thomas Rowlandson focused public attention on the unsuitability of women of African ancestry, not only as sexual partners for British men but also as free and equal imperial subjects. Caricaturists depicted African-descended women as simultaneously comical and frighteningly brutish, with jet-black skin, voluptuous bodies, thick lips and insatiable appetites. Black women, cartoonists suggested, posed a danger to the nation unless subject to white male control.

Similarly, in Jacksonian America, the lithographic cartoonist Edward W. Clay offered a scathing portrait of free black behavior, lampooning educated, urban African Americans for dressing in the latest fashions. His “Life in Philadelphia” series of 1828 to 1830 represents middle-class African Americans as pompous, buffoonish characters, unequal to the task of mimicking white social norms, speech patterns, courtship practices and clothing. The popularity of Clay’s cartoons prompted the publication of additional visual satires in the 1830s caricaturing the pretensions of middle-class African Americans in New York and ridiculing the claims of racial minorities to equal citizenship rights and legal protections.

In both 19th century England and the U.S., anti-abolitionist images played on and attempted to heighten public fears of interracial sex. Cartoonists insinuated that abolitionists, by trumpeting freedom and black equality, were radicals who sought racial amalgamation. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, racist imagery and cultural fears of miscegenation flourished in tandem with violence against African Americans.

As recently as February 2018, Australians were debating whether the time had finally come to shift blackface “Golliwog” dolls (also known as “Gollies”) from their prominent position in Australian shop fronts, or even to ban their sale entirely.

The Golliwog doll originated in an 1895 children’s book by Anglo-American illustrator Florence Kate Upton called “The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a ‘Golliwogg.’ ” Inspired by caricatures of black-faced minstrel performers, the Golliwog had coal-black skin, unruly hair, large lips and leering white eyes and teeth. Because Upton did not own the copyright to the character, the Golliwog figure soon took on a life of its own. In addition to a line of dolls, the Golliwog became associated with a number of now-defunct 20th century consumer products, from English marmalade to Australian chocolate biscuits.

Read the story