In the last few weeks, a great deal of furor has arisen over the choice for this year’s poster for the Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula. This past week, the committee for the event issued a public apology after pressure from the NAACP, and the public in general. To some, the poster is racist as it depicts two black children rendered in a style that is reminiscent of a form that was common during the Jim Crow period; called “pickaninny,” this stereotypical depiction was used in everything from advertisements to home and lawn decorations. Others assert that this is not the case. Ultimately, when it comes to art people will see what they see, so I won’t argue the poster’s merits or lack-there-of, or make any statements about the motives of the artist or the organizers of the festival. I will attempt to explain why people took issue with the image, and discuss the subsequent public argument concerning it.
The outcry against this poster is symptomatic of the current zeitgeist surrounding race relations in the United States and the depictions of African Americans in popular culture. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 – which many people asserted at the time alleviated responsibility for the horrors done historically and contemporarily in the name of race, gender, class and orientation – race has been thrust back on to the pop culture landscape in a huge way. From Empire to hip-hop to Fox News to Richard Sherman being called a thug, activists are attacking how popular culture depicts black people and stereotypes them. The reason for this is simple: stereotypes about black people get them murdered.
Currently, the news is full of videos of police beating unarmed black men or killing them. What cases like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice, and Renisha McBride all have in common is that pervading stereotypes were used to justify their deaths. It doesn’t help matters that when these conversations arise, people try to mute them with “race card” remarks or statements about the black on black crime rate – the former with is entirely dismissive and the latter which is a roundabout way of justifying the murder of black people, as if they were more prone to crime compared to white people, which is empirically false. It is frustrating because it seems so easy for people to identify with comic characters or a time traveling alien in a phone booth depicted in popular media, but not the fear of being stalked by a stranger on your way back from the convenience store because he thinks you look suspicious.
Stereotypes about black people get them murdered.
We have trouble with these kinds of conversations because it makes people uncomfortable. Black history makes America squeamish because it cuts the legs out of the American “Land of the Free” story about itself. People get defensive. I think we can all agree there has never been a post-racial United States. Black people have only truly been free in America for about 45 years, if you start in 1970 when most of the Civil Rights laws had a discernable effect. We are less than one generation removed from the height of the Civil Rights violence in this country, in particular in Louisiana. Still, to this day, people who are disproportionately black are being thrown into Louisiana’s massive prison industrial complex to the point where we are the most incarcerated place on the planet. As long as we refuse to actually have the necessary conversation and consider the history and the facts of what has happened here, little-to-no progress will be made.
Now, how does all of this relate to the Ponchatoula Strawberry festival poster? Those images are not neutral, nor devoid of historical context. It shouldn’t be lost on people that the height of the use of “pickaninny” coincided with the height of white society’s terrorism of black communities by the Ku Klux Klan and public lynchings. It is this terrorism that has so many activists ready to attack anything they identify as promoting a negative stereotype of black people. It doesn’t matter if the racism is overt or, as many scholars suggest, more subtle. It only matters that it is still there and that lives are being lost because of it. The poster strikes a very real contemporary and historical nerve.
American Pop is a bi-monthly column critiquing modern American pop-culture and its impact on society. It is written by Louisiana State University Doctoral Candidate Nicholaus Mitchell.