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Caricatures of African Americans: The Brute
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The Brute Caricature
The brute is perhaps the only anti-Black caricature that did not show up in popular culture during the days of slavery. Brutes are hideous, savage, violent male predators who target helpless victims, especially White women. The brute caricature existed during slavery, but only as the White slave owner's worst nightmare of what his slaves, who outnumbered him, would really like to do to him. Due to a variety of circumstances, Back-on-White violence was much more prevalent in other Western hemisphere slave
societies than it was in the United States. Slaves managed to take over the country of Haiti in 1804. In the United States, slave owners were much better organized than they were in other countries, and when the slave trade ended in 1808, the population thereafter was sustained only through native births, quickly creating a whole new generation that did not know anything but slavery. Nevertheless, fear of rebellion, like the one led by Nat Turner in 1831 which seemed to have no long-term goal beyond slaughtering White people, was always in the back of the slave owner's mind. The brute was the imagined manifestation of that fear, but it was not given visual manifestation for fear that it would become a self-fulling prophecy.
1831 Engraving of Nat Turner Rebellion
1831 Engraving of Nat Turner Rebellion
c.1880s Engraving of the capture of Nat Turner
c.1880s Engraving of the capture of Nat Turner
The Negro a Beast, 1900
The Negro a Beast, 1900
During Reconstruction (1867-1877), White fear of the brute caricature they had created found expression in arguments that the animalistic instincts of Black men had been kept in check only by the paternalistic hand of slavery. Without it, they were resorting to criminal savagery. The Black race was being caricatured into a kind of "black peril," a depiction which lasted into the early 1900s. Anti-Black propaganda was common fodder in so-called scientific journals, including those promoting elimination of racial undesirables through eugenics, and in crime novels, which frequently resorted to the Black rapist as a plot device. One of these publications was the lengthy volume, The Negro a Beast, written by Charles Carroll and published by American Book and Bible House, St. Louis, in 1900. The title page points out that Mr. Carroll spent fifteen years of his life and $20,000 compiling his work. The Negro a Beast is a complete rejection of Darwinian evolution. The book then attempts to produce "biblical and scientific evidence" that Blacks were not descended from Adam, and are not part of the human family. Miscegenation (inter-racial breeding), the book claims, produces beasts without souls and
is the reason God decided that his Son had to be sacrificed--to save the world from the sins of man's amalgamation with Negroes. Carroll even suggests that Blacks were "the tempter of Eve". In 1903 the journal Medicine published an article by Dr. William Howard in which he claimed that, "the attacks on defenseless white woman are evidence of racial instincts that are about as amenable to ethical culture as is the inherent odor of the race...the African's birthright is 'sexual madness and excess.'" Such pseudo science gave rise to the eugenics movement in the United States, which sought to improve the genetic and moral status of the human race by continually cutting out the "lower tenth" of the population (whom they identified mostly along ethnic lines)
through forced sterilization. Some eugenicists even advocated the use of death chambers. Reaction to the so-called "Black peril" was evident not just in so-called scientific literature and popular culture, but in the the dramatic increase in the lynching of Blacks. According to Tuskegee Institute data, between the years 1882 and 1951, 4,730 people were lynched in the United States: 3,437 Black and 1,293 White (many of the Whites were immigrants, or members of oppressed religious groups). By the early 1900s White mobs were lynching Blacks for actual or perceived crimes. Simply looking at a White woman the wrong way could be a death sentence. These mobs often took body parts as souvenirs and posed for photographs in front of the corpse without hiding their identities. Some of these photographs were turned into Real Photo Postcards and sent through the official U.S. mail. Almost 90 percent of all the lynching of Blacks occurred in Southern or border states.
Real Photo Postcard of the lynching of Jesse Washington, 1916
Real Photo Postcard of the lynching of Jesse Washington, 1916. The backside reads, "This is the BBQ we had last night" (2 views)
Jack Johnson Photo
Jack Johnson Photo
1911 Jack Johnson Card
1911 Jack Johnson Card (2 views)
In this atmosphere, Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight champion of the world when he defeated Tommy Burns for the title in 1908. Blacks had been allowed to fight for championships in lower weight classes, but the heavyweight division had special status as the one sporting contest in which pure physical prowess could be unequivocally measured. The perverse racism of the time dictated that only a White could hold the championship. But Johnson's record demanded he be given a shot, which he took full advantage of. Depictions of Johnson in the press alternated between that of the coon and the brute caricatures. Fighting skills that were seen as evidence of superior intellect in White boxers, like being able to avoid punches, were ascribed to Johnson as evidence of "the yellow streak," that he was a coward. When he pummeled a series of "Great White Hopes" to the canvas, or showed his ability to take a punch, it was evidence of his brutishness. Johnson lived his private life very much in the
public eye, and made no attempt to hide his proclivity to dating White women, nor to decline to exercise his right to decide for himself whom his mate should be. Ultimately, when the White-controlled power structure was unable to defeat him in the ring, they used the political system to put him away, charging and convicting him with violating the Mann Act, a Progressive-Era reform that had been aimed at ameliorating the White middle class obsession with White slave trafficking. The evidence used against him was testimony about a relationship of Johnson's which had taken place before the Mann Act been passed, thus violating the Constitutional protection from ex post facto laws. The all-White jury essentially convicted him for being, in their eyes, a black brute.
 
America's movie industry also developed in the racial and political atmosphere of the early 1900s, and the medium became a propaganda tool to sell the brute caricature. D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation, historic because of its technical innovations as much as for its infamous portrayal of all of the anti-Black caricatures, included numerous brutes. Telling the story of one White Southern family from the days of slavery through the Civil War and into Reconstruction, the film showed images of brutes abusing their newfound freedom by perpetuating violence against Whites. Worse was their portrayal of the Brute as a sexual predator. One brute, played by a White actor in blackface, stalks a White girl, forcing her to kill herself by jumping off
Birth of a Nation (1915): Free Black shoots White man
Birth of a Nation (1915): Free Black shoots a White man
Birth of a Nation (1915): Black man about to rape a White girl
Birth of a Nation (1915): Black man about to rape a White girl (3 sequential views)
 
Movie Poster: Regeneration (1923)
Movie Poster: Regeneration (1923)
Hallelujah! (1929)
Hallelujah! (1929)
of a cliff rather than submitting to him. The Ku Klux Klan were portrayed as the heroes of the day, riding in to save the South, and especially the White woman, from the clutches of the evil Black brutes.

Throughout the silent era, Blacks in film were usually typecast as coons or toms. However, the brute still made appearances, especially in the rare, "all colored cast" films. These films, made to cash in on the musical and dance skills of Blacks, which were held in mythical esteem by Whites, were set in either the antebellum South, or in present-day Harlem, where shifty coons and violent brutes vied for power. The most prominent of these films were Hearts in Dixie (1929), and Hallelujah! (1929). These films were box office failures, and opportunities for Black actors further diminished.
Spicy-Adventure Stories #22, 1936
Spicy-Adventure Stories #22, 1936
Jumbo Comics #40, 1942
Jumbo Comics #40, 1942
Coo Coo Comics #14, 1943
Coo Coo Comics #14, 1943
The brute caricature was a staple villain of the low-brow print mediums of entertainment, especially the pulp novels and, after 1937, comic books. Catering to a young, White, adventure-seeking audience, these works often set the White hero off in some foreign land, either "the Orient", or in the "dark continent" of Africa, where he championed civilization by saving it's most iconic symbol--the helpless White girl, from the primitive, cannibalistic, evil, savage intentions of natives. Tarzan was perhaps the most successful of these heroes, but from the 1930s-1960, images of brutish natives adorned the covers of pulps and comics with names like Spicy-Adventure Stories, Spicy Mysteries, and Jumbo Comics. Several generations of American youth, mostly White, absorbed these caricatures. In more recent years, the
Black brute made something of a return in such comics as Conan the Barbarian. Black cannibal imagery also found its way into other popular culture that targeted children, including American cartoons. The 1938 production, Jungle Jitters, depicted the savage brute as well as other anti-Black caricatures. It was withdrawn from syndication in 1968. The Black savage cannibal can also be found in cultural artifacts ranging from figurines to postcards, some of which are still being produced today.

The brute caricature faded from American films for a generation. But as a result of the Civil Rights movement, Black Americans were hungry for
Postcard: Well, Fry Mah Hide!...Ah'm Having Chicken For Breakfast!
Postcard: Well, Fry Mah Hide!...Ah'm Having Chicken For Breakfast!
Jungle Jitters cartoon
movie Jungle Jitters cartoon (1938)

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)
Shaft (1971)
Shaft (1971)
Super Fly (1972)
Super Fly (1972)
movie depictions of Blacks as confident, strong characters. Movie studios recognized an opportunity, and began producing such films. Some of them fit the "buck" caricature--badass Black male heroes that don't take crap from anybody. Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972) fall into this category. Others depicted more aggressive, brutish characters. For example, Melvin Van Peeble's "hero" in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) assaults several men, rapes a Black woman, and murders corrupt police officers. The movie ends with the message, "A Baadassss nigger is coming back to collect some dues." These films are known today as the "Blaxploitation" genre. The rebel imagery was popular with Black youth, tired of the old coon characters played by Stepin' Fetchit. They didn't recognize that many of these films were perpetuating the brute caricature in the minds of White audiences.
One of the most obvious brutes in film after the Blaxploitation era was the character of Clubber Lang in Rocky III (1982). Played to the hilt by Mr. T, Clubber is a nasty, terrifying Black male, whose viciousness has propelled him to the top. He confronts Rocky during a public unveiling of a statue of the Italian Stallion, and accuses the champ of dodging him. In classic Brute form, Lang makes sexually suggestive remarks toward Rocky's diminutive White wife, Adrian. Clearly this Black menace must be put down. But Rocky is unprepared for Lang's brutish onslaught, and is knocked out. To set things right, not just for White America, but for the more "civilized" Blacks, Rocky's former nemesis from the first two films, Apollo Creed, rehabilitates the champ both physically and spiritually. Creed has been
Super-brute Clubber Lang, from Rocky III (1982)
Super-brute Clubber Lang, from Rocky III (1982)
transformed into a Tom, who watches ringside and cheers, along with the White audience, as Rocky makes things right. Other brutes made cinematic appearances in the 1980s and early 1990s. Mister Albert, in The Color Purple (1985), is a savage predator who abuses his wife Celie, physically and mentally. The cinematic take on music icon Tina Turner's biography, What's Love Got To Do With It? (1993), has a nightmarish scene in which her husband, Ike Turner, slaps and punches her, and then drags her screaming past the children and into the bedroom, where the abuse continues. These cinematic brutes were main characters. More often,
Celie is beaten by Mister Albert in The Color Purple (1985)
Celie is beaten by Mister Albert in The Color Purple (1985)
Ike Turner beats his wife Tina in What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
Ike Turner beats his wife Tina in What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
they were nameless, sometimes faceless urban monsters, who created conflict for Whites, and sometimes Black protagonists through their seemingly random acts of extreme violence. Brutes made numerous appearances on television shows like Law and Order, Homicide: Life on the Streets, ER, and NYPD Blue, as gangbangers, drug dealers, murderers, and rapists. In one episode of E.R., the amiable White doctor Mark Greene does not act quickly enough to please a young brute, whose brothers dies on the table. In revenge, Greene is assaulted in the staff restroom and brutally beaten. Even at work, even when trying to help, Whites were not safe from Black brutes.
Typical Black criminal, Homocide: Life on the Streets
Typical Black criminal, Homicide: Life on the Streets
Dr. Greene brutally beaten in an episode of E.R.
Dr. Greene brutally beaten in an episode of E.R.

1988 Bush campaign "Willie Horton Ad"
1988 Bush campaign "Willie Horton Ad" |
movie Watch the ad

During the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush's election committee sought to portray his opponent, Michael Dukakis, as weak on crime. Several times during campaign, Bush brought up the specific case of Willie Horton who, while out of prison on an unguarded 48-hour furlough in Dukakasis' Massachusetts, kidnapped a young White suburban couple. He repeatedly stabbed the man and raped the woman. On September 21, 1988, the Americans for Bush arm of the National Security PAC began running an ad titled, "Weekend Passes," which showed a menacing mug shot of Willie Horton, and a list of his crimes. The image of Horton's threatening face looking directly into the heart of the White voter helped Bush win the election. Whether consciously or not, the image reinforced the belief that Black men are brutes.
In 1994, several high-profile criminal cases dominated the news. After an infamous low-speed chase by law enforcement, football hero O.J. Simpson was arrested and charged with the brutal murders of his ex-wife Nicole, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Newspaper and magazines around the country published the photograph of Simpson's arrest. Both Newsweek and Time put the photo on their covers. When sitting side-by-side on newsstands, it quickly became evident that something was amiss. Staff at Time had manipulated the photo, had substantially darkened Simpson's features. The result was a more ominous, more brutish, more guilty-looking mug shot. When confronted by the media, Time admitted that they had intentionally manipulated the photograph.
1994 Newsweek magazine Cover
1994 Newsweek magazine Cover
1994 Time magazine Cover
1994 Time magazine Cover
Police artist sketch of suspect in Susan Smith case, 1994
Police artist sketch of suspect in Susan Smith case, 1994
That same year, the country was riveted by what initially appeared to be a carjacking case involving a young mother named Susan Smith from Union, South Carolina, and her two children. Smith claimed that a a "Black male in his late 20s to early 30s, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans, and a toboggan-type hat," had carjacked her and her two boys, 14-month old Alex, and 3-year-old Michael, while stopped at an intersection. The car and the boys were nowhere to be found. A composite of her description was published in newspapers, nationally and locally. Smith made numerous, tearful appearances on television in which she begged for the safe return of her children. The image of the Black brute, and White reaction to that image, resurfaced. The Reverend Mark Long, the pastor of the church where Smith's family attended services, said in reference to the Black suspect, "There are some people that would like to see this man's brains bashed in." In the end, the entire story was a hoax. Smith had allowed her vehicle to roll into a nearby lake, with her two children strapped in their car seats. In a two-page handwritten confession she apologized to her sons, but she did not apologize to Blacks. "It was hard to be Black this week in Union," said Hester Booker, a local Black man. "The Whites acted so different.
They wouldn't speak (to Blacks); they'd look at you and then reach over and lock their doors. And all because that lady lied."
 
In some cases, celebrity Black Americans have aided the stereotyping of Black males as brutes. Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, embraced the brute image. Tyson's troubled youth was used to market him as a savage warrior, perhaps capable of killing an opponent. An impressive string of early knockouts in his professional fights added to this reputation. Later in his career, Tyson faced several criminal charges, including the rape of a beauty pageant contestant (for which he served three years of a six year sentence), and assault against two motorists. His short first marriage to actress Robin Givens wa a public train wreck, with allegations from Givens of violence, spousal abuse, and mental instability. During an interview on ABC's 20/20 program, Givens described life with Tyson as "torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine." During his comeback attempt in the 1990s, Tyson famously bit off a piece of the ear of his opponent, Evander Holyfield. In a 2000 interview, referring to heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, Tyson said,
Mike Tyson
Mike Tyson
"If he ever tries to intimidate me, I'm gonna put a fu--ing bullet through his fu--ing skull." Tyson benefited financially from the brute image. He became the wealthiest and best known athlete on earth. But to the American public, he was simply a Black brute. Many White Americans could not separate Tyson's boxing skill from his criminal behavior and his Blackness.

In recent years, the rap music genre has come under increasing scrutiny for its role in perpetuating anti-Black stereotypes. Black rappers have been compared to the old minstrel performers, but the anti-authority culture of violence, pimping, drugs, and objectification of women as "hoes" has more often conjured up images of the brute.

Rapper 50 Cent
Rapper 50 Cent (2 views)
Rapper 50 Cent
c.1994 cartoon: Can You Rap?, by Mike Luckovich
c.1994 cartoon: Can You Rap?, by Mike Luckovich
2001 cartoon by Mike Luckovich
2011 cartoon by Mike Luckovich
Although there are successful White rappers, most notably Eminem, the music evolved out the urban angst of 1970s Bronx, New York, and today the vast majority of the performers are Black. Additionally, the violence in the real lives of many of these rappers has merely perpetuated the notion that Blacks are brutes. In the early 1990s, Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Constitution published a cartoon in which Black rappers are holding an audition. The sign above reads, "Auditions to join group that portrays blacks as violent, animalistic, and demeaning to women." The person who has responded to the ad, standing at the bottom of the stairs, is a White supremacist in KKK garb. By embracing the brute caricature, critics claim,
Blacks are merely confirming White impressions of Black males as brutes. One of the most outspoken critics of rap culture is the Black movie director Spike Lee. In 2006, at a talk at the University of Florida, Lee said, "We are bombarded by these ('gangsta') images again and again and again and again . . . They do make a difference on human behavior...No one gets upset that pimpdom gets elevated on a pedestal." Lee specifically criticized Black rapper Snoop Dogg, and accused Black rappers of "cooning" in music videos. Other Blacks who have publicly criticized the urban youth culture glamorized by rap music include the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and comedian Bill Cosby. At a public appearance in 2004, Cosby told the mostly Black audience, "Let me tell you something...your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing and calling each other nigger as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip.
Spike Lee
Spike Lee
They can't read. They can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere." In addition to rap music, the urban Black scene has been embraced in video games. In the Grand Theft Auto series, for example, Black brutes roam the streets with 40 oz bottles of malt liquor in hand. In the open-ended worlds of Grand Theft Auto, one can assume the role of a Black brute and indiscriminately bash people's heads in with a baseball bat while walking down the street. Gamers progress in these games by committing a plethora of violent crimes.

Evidence of the impact that the mainstreaming of this violent anti-Black imagery has had on the rest of the culture can be seen in some of the anti-Black novelty items that have been produced in recent
Grand Theft Auto video game image
Grand Theft Auto video game image
Trash Talking Pimp Doll, 2003
sound Trash Talking Pimp Doll, 2003

Ghettopoly, 2003 (5 views)
2007 Novelty Item: Hoodie: Arrest Black Babies (2 views)
2007 Novelty Item: Hoodie: Arrest Black Babies (2 views)
years. In 2003, a company called Phat Pimp Clothing produced an extremely racist "Trash Talking Pimp Doll." Dressed up in outrageous clothing, when whacked on the head the doll says extremely crude things in a stereotypical urban pimp dialect. Another 2003 item, parodied the rap culture with a ghettoized version of Monopoly. Ghettopoly game pieces include a 40 oz bottle of malt liquor, a basketball, a handgun, a rock of crack cocaine, and a marijuana leaf. Properties include crack houses, peep shows, chop shops, and liquor stores. The Chance and Community Chest cards have been replaced with Hustle and Ghetto Stash cards, and players have to contend with such unforeseen circumstances as car jackings and drug overdoses.
In 2007, a black hoodie was being produced and sold on the Internet with the slogan, "Arrest Black Babies Before They Become Criminals." It showed a small, nearly nude Black child, pacifier in his mouth, sitting on the ground in hand cuffs. The message is clear: Blacks are inherently brutes. In 2008, the candidacy and election of Barack Obama inspired a whole new round of racist imagery. Some of these images depict Obama as the brute. And then there's Tiger Woods. For years the sports superstar was marketed as the kind of Black that Whites could cheer for. Following his high profile adultery issues and divorce, Vanity Fair chose to do a cover shoot of the scandalized athlete with imagery much more reminiscent of the brute. He is nearly nude, wearing a black cap, and is pumping iron. If
Photoshopped Image: Obama as ghettoized brute
Photoshopped Image: Obama as ghettoized brute
Vanity Fair cover of Tiger Woods, after his sex scandal, 2010
Vanity Fair cover of Tiger Woods, after his sex scandal, 2010
2011 McDonald's Hoax: African Americans to be charged more due to theft
2011 McDonald's Hoax: African Americans to be charged more due to theft
Wood is no longer marketable as the wholesome Black, is the brute caricature the only alternative? And in 2011, a McDonald's hoax made the Twitter rounds and was believed by many thousands of Americans. It seems likely that the general acceptance of the brute caricature in American culture explains how an obvious prank was given credence by so many.
 
Additional Brute Imagery
Niggerhair brand Tobacco Tin, c.1880s
Niggerhair brand Tobacco Tin, c.1880s (2 views)
Carter's Kongo Black Ink
Carter's Kongo Black Ink
Spicy-Adventure Stories #2, 1934
Spicy-Adventure Stories #2, 1934
Spicy-Adventure Stories #7, 1935
Spicy-Adventure Stories #7, 1935
Spicy-Adventure Stories #12, 1935
Spicy-Adventure Stories #12, 1935
Spicy-Adventure Stories #17, 1936
Spicy-Adventure Stories #17, 1936
Spicy-Adventure Stories #25, 1936
Spicy-Adventure Stories #25, 1936
Spicy-Adventure Stories #33, 1937
Spicy-Adventure Stories #33, 1937
Spicy-Adventure Stories #34, 1937
Spicy-Adventure Stories #34, 1937
Old Maid Card: Ubangi Bess, c.1940s
Old Maid Card: Ubangi Bess, c.1940s
Ad for Saraka constipation relief product, 1943
Ad for Saraka constipation relief product, 1943
Zulu-Lulu Swizzle Sticks
Zulu-Lulu Swizzle Sticks
1952 Van Huisen Shirt Ad
1952 Van Huisen Shirt Ad
Drummer Figurine
Drummer Figurine
Boat Ticket, 1970s
Boat Ticket, 1970s
Card: Keep Your Hands Off the Food!
Card: Keep Your Hands Off the Food!
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Witch Doctor, 2010
Photoshopped Image: Obama as Witch Doctor, 2010
     
 
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Last modified November 25, 2012