The term Jim Crow appears to have originated in the lyrics of a minstrel song from the nineteenth century. Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice is credited with popularizing the song “Jump Jim Crow” during his performances. The era witnessed the height of minstrel performances, featuring acts and songs that were meant to depict African Americans. The predominate element in the shows was buffoonery—including tattered dress, clowning, broken speech patterns, and inferior intellectual abilities—which was considered by many audiences to be an accurate representation of African Americans. This image follows that pattern, showing an African American man, presumably in the midst of a performance, in a full dress of very tattered clothing, including a shoe without a sole.
A number of caricatures of African Americans emerged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These racist caricatures of African American men, women and children shared the traits of either laziness or inaction. They depicted African Americans as being "distinctly different from mainstream white culture and dehumanized the entire race. Over the years, these and other negative depictions were reproduced in printed material such as postcards, games, comics, and children's books, as well as in radio and television shows, and in movies. The caricatures were also incorporated in the designs for children's toys, household goods, and commercial advertising campaigns.
The cumulative effect of these designs and shows was to ingrain negative stereotypes of Blacks into the American consciousness. The term “Jim Crow” came to represent laws that segregated African Americans in public facilities and in other areas including social behavior. Such laws segregated public transportation on trains and buses, movie theaters, water fountains, and public schools. Similar policies had been in existence in the United States for many years, but they were increasingly codified by southern states in the years after Reconstruction. Despite protests by African Americans, who filed suit claiming that such policies violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the United States Supreme Court sanctioned the practice in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which established “separate but equal” as the principle undergirding segregation. Fifty-eight years later, in 1954, the Supreme Court overturned this principle in its decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case.
1. What are the origins of Jim Crow?
2. What is a caricature? How does it relate to a stereotype?
3. What are some of the different caricatures featuring African Americans that are a part of American popular culture?
1. What is the relationship between a caricature, a stereotype, and social behavior? How do racist images fuel discrimination? Do you believe that the legacy of stereotypes made it more difficult to end legal discrimination in the twentieth century? Why or why not?
2. Are there contemporary examples of the use of caricatures and stereotypes?
Chafe, William Henry, ed. Remembering Jim Crow: African American Tell About Life in the Segregated South. New York: New Press, 2001.
Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955; reprinted in 1974, 2001.