Outcault's fickle treatment of African-Americans has roots
in minstrel shows as well as illustrations that made blacks the punchline of many
jokes—and a way to sell products. The influence of minstrel
shows on popular culture might be summed up by the story
of how Aunt Jemima came into existence, as told by M.M. Manring.
According to legend, Chris Rutt, one of the inventors of
the self-rising pancake flour, walked into a minstrel show
in St. Joseph, Massachusetts in 1898, where he happened upon
the blackface comedy of Baker and Farrell; one of the men
was dressed in drag as Aunt Jemima, and Rutt found his inspiration
for advertising his product.1 Whites
could exploit black stereotypes to make money, either in
entertainment or in advertising, but they felt comfortable
with blacks portrayed through "only a few stereotyped roles:
as contented subordinates on the plantation, as ignorant
low-comedy fools, and as ludicrous, pretentious incompetents."2 A traditional means
of advertising was to sell status; buying so-and-so product will
make you look like a person of higher status to others. Blackface
entertainers sold status by making the audience feel superior
to the entertainers. But unlike in Outcault's work, there
were some African-Americans who authored their own blackface
acts, creating a doubling effect in which white laughter
is directed at blacks, and blacks profit from the laughter
while controlling the audience.
The illustrations on this page from Life magazine demonstrate how deeply embedded racism affected the art work and the mode of comedy during the late 19th century.
1 Manring, M.M. Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. 61.
2 Toll, Robert C. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America. London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. 179.