List of Early Literary Black Stereotypes
Sterling Brown, a black poet and scholar active primarily in the 1930s, parsed out seven black stereotypes propagated primarily by white writers. Most of these are instantly recognizable today. Brown points out that whether such stereotyping is racist or not, it is bad writing. However, a character's struggle against being stereotyped, as in stories such as "Not Your Singing, Dancing Spade" by Flannery O'Connor, made and still makes excellent literature.
The Contented Slave
From the inception of slavery in America, its supporters needed to find ways to rationalize its existence. One way was through the stereotyped "contented slave," a black person so lazily happy with his lot that he saw no reason for struggle. The contented slave was always paired with the "good master," a white owner who treated the slave as a lesser person but still with humanity and respect. This stereotype was used well into the 1940s and can frequently be spotted in 1930s literature and movies including "Gone with the Wind" and "The Little Colonel."
The Wretched Freeman
The "wretched freeman" was set up as a counterpoint to the contented slave. He was the embodiment of the slavery supporter's argument that a slave was never intended to be free. Freedom itself makes him miserable, and when freed, he desires nothing so much as to once again be a slave.
The Comic Negro
The "comic Negro" was a mainstay of minstrel shows for more than a century. This character was more of a caricature, with his personal and physical traits grossly exaggerated for the sake of humor. The comic Negro was never a main character but always a sidekick -- the comic relief. He laughed at himself just as everyone laughed at him. Topsy, a character in Uncle Tom's Cabin, is a comic Negro.
The Tragic Mulatto
The "tragic mulatto" is perhaps the only one of these stereotypes that has died out. Usually female, she has so many white ancestors she could "pass" for white. The tragic mulatto was first used by abolitionists to bring home the reality of slavery -- in which a girl as white as many in their audience was degraded and owned. Worse, however, was the implication that the white blood in a black slave was what gave that slave the impetus to escape, and that the black blood in that person tied them to the savagery and lack of control stereotypically associated with blacks. When slavery was ended, the tragic mulatto often tried to pass as a white person, always with terrible social and legal consequences; a frequent plot had her giving birth to a baby who was clearly of black origin. Most of these stories died out in the 1950s, at about the same time the Civil Rights Movement encouraged blacks to be proud of their heritage.
The Local Color Negro
These stereotyped characters were usually found in groups, like a Greek chorus, and took on whichever other stereotype was appropriate to the story. Most of the time, they were "contented slaves," though they might be "exotic primitives" in Africa or Barbados. These characters were treated as scenery, there only to give flavor and color to the setting of a story. You might see the same thing today in a novel about voodoo, where the blacks at a voodoo ritual are there only to set the scene.
The Exotic Primitive
This is perhaps the most offensive yet most lingering of the literary stereotypes listed. This stereotyped character embodies all the cliches about the "primitive African." Lust, sexual prowess, a wildly uncontrolled desire for drinking and drugs and often a lifestyle of casual violence mark this character. Its origins were in the "savage inheritance" that white writers believed belonged to descendants of Africans.
The Brute Negro
Early in the history of American literature, the "brute Negro" did not exist. His brutishness had been tamed out of him, domesticated through slavery. In fact, this alleged civilizing factor was one of the arguments in support of slavery. While historical figures such as Nat Turner brought up the specter of this stereotype, it did not gain traction until Reconstruction, when freed slaves competed with Southern whites still in shock at the upturning of their world. The brute Negro, manipulated and controlled by cunning Yankee carpetbaggers, became the literary repository of everything evil.
- "Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America"; Negro Character as Seen by White Authors by Sterling A. Brown; eds. James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross; 1968
- Ball State University; Sterling Brown's Seven Stereotypes; M.B. Montague
- Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute; Recognizing Stereotypical Images of African Americans in Television and Movies; Stephen F. Gray
- Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia: The Tragic Mulatto Myth; David Pilgrim; Nov. 2000
Jamie Wilson has written online content for over a decade on a wide variety of subjects. Currently, she is the Augusta Military Lifestyles expert for a prominent website. She is also a published fiction writer and experienced Web designer working on a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.