The piccaninny stereotype (c. 1852-1950s) was the common way that White Americans pictured little black children in the late 1800s and early 1900s:
- eyes: big and wide
- lips: big and red on a wide mouth
- hair: sticks out in all directions
- dress: ill-clothed to naked
- favourite foods: watermelon, chicken
- parents: where are they?
- language: Coon English – “I is”, etc.
- threats: alligators and other wild animals
- intelligence: low
- darkie status: a helpless darkie meant for amusement
- 1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Topsy
- 1899: Little Black Sambo: Little Black Sambo
- 1922-1944: The Little Rascals: Farina, Buckwheat
- 1939: Gone With the Wind: Prissy – “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout
- birthin’ babies.”
- 1980s: Saturday Night Live: Buckweat again, played by Eddie Murphy
- coons – grown-up piccaninnies;
- golliwogs – a common toy in Europe in the early 1900s with the same eyes and lips;
- helpless darkies – what they are an example of.
The word “piccaninny”, also written “picaninny” or “pickaninny”, means a little black child. It seems to come from the Portuguese slave traders, who probably called them pequeninhos, “little ones”. In the Caribbean, Nigeria, Melanesia and Australia forms of the word are used as mere description. It seems it was used that way in America too, but since at least the 1920s it has become a racist slur.
The first recorded use of the piccaninny stereotype was Topsy in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The book was written against slavery so Topsy was meant to show the bad effects of slavery on children. But she quickly became a character to laugh at in the minstrel shows.
From the minstrel shows they made it onto film, like “The ‘Gator and the Pickaninny” (1900), Thomas Edison’s own “Ten Picaninnies” (1904) and Hal Roach’s “The Little Rascals”.
One of the old minstrel songs was made into a book for children: “Ten Little Nigger Girls” (c. 1900) by G.H. Thompson. It shows ten girls, drawn as piccaninnies, disappearing one by one, sometimes harmlessly by, say, leaving the room, but sometimes in presumably deadly ways, like by being burnt alive, taken by a bear or eaten by a fish.
The hero of Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo” (1899) is not a pure piccaninny: he is well-dressed, speaks Standard English, outwits his enemies and is the hero of the story – no helpless darkie, he. Yet he is threatened by wild animals and is drawn like a piccaninny. Also, even in Bannerman’s time “sambo” was a racist slur. The book’s huge success makes the Little Black Sambo the most damaging piccaninny of all.
What is so wrong about piccaninnies:
- They stereotype blacks as bad parents. This part of the stereotype still seems to be alive.
- They make black children seem less than human through:
- their not-human appearance,
- frequent nakedness,
- being threatened by wild animals as a form of entertainment for whites
That last bit about wild animals is utterly sick. So sick that I have to seriously wonder about the minds of white people.
Thanks to commenter Eshowoman for suggesting this post.