Daily Archives: April 11, 2011

Ideologies of Black Masculinity

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an abolitionist novel that counters the arguments against the emancipation of black slaves. Due to the colour of his skin, Uncle Tom is subjected to the ideologies of black masculinity. An ideology points to “the ways that people think, act, and understand themselves and their relationship to society” (Fiske, 311). Fiske’s article, “Interpellation,” explains the processes which are recognized in the social order. He argues that you do not get to be an individual until you are recognized in the social order. Consequently, Uncle Tom is identified as a black slave, rather than an individual man, because he is not recognized in the social order. At the beginning of the semester, Humphrey’s pointed out that Uncle Tom as a character “fights the ideologies of black masculinity as a frightening force of savage sexual violence; uncivilized behaviour; immoral behaviour that needed to be controlled and regulated” (Humphreys, 2011). Stowe had to drastically shift how black men were interpellated, which is the process “whereby language constructs social relations for both parties in an act of communication and thus locates them in the broader map of social relations in general (Fiske, 313). Therefore, Stowe’s novel is attempting to re-categorize Uncle Tom from a scary, male, black slave who could easily enact revenge on his owner to an individual who merely stands up for what he believes in.

The reason I am bringing this up is because I came across a cover page from a 1943 Classics Illustrated comic book featuring Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While I could not find the entire comic book,  the cover alone speaks wonders. I mentioned in a previous post titled “Things and Literature” that paraphernalia produced around the novel often reinforces the negative messages and highlights the racism in the text. Well, in the same way, this illustration frames how the literature was interpreted. Uncle Tom is depicted as a superhero in the comic, which can be related to his heroism in the novel. However, once again, we can see that the illustrations accentuate the negative and racist dimensions of the text. First off, in a number of other images and videos regarding Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom is predominately illustrated as an older man. Yet, the comic illustrates a sexualized young, muscular man, who is literally bulging out of his clothing.  The fact that his hands are forming fists enforces the idea that he is ready to fight. Also, the placement of his bare feet (one in front of the other) suggests that he is ready to ‘pounce’ at any moment.

When we first meet Uncle Tom in the novel, he is exceptionally loyal to his master and is treated well at the Shelby farm. He is a child-like slave who ‘knows his place,’ and follows orders (Humphreys). While this may be true on Mr. Shelby’s farm, where he felt no need to fight, once he was placed on Simon Legree’s evil plantation, the reader can see a shift in Uncle Tom’s character. For example, when Legree asserts that he would “have none o’ yer bawling, praying, singing niggers on [his] place” and proclaimed that he would replace Uncle Tom’s church, “something within the silent black man answered No!” (Stowe, 481). The narrator then states that “that voice is one [Legree] shall never hear,” which is quite the opposite (Stowe, 481). In fact, while working at Legree’s plantation, Uncle Tom felt that he had no choice but to disobey orders from his master. In other words, he obeys a higher law. For instance, not only does Uncle Tom reject Legree’s demands, he also encourages two of Legree’s female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to escape. On top of that, Uncle Tom refuses to help Legree and his men capture the two women. Uncle Tom was “willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breathe in [him],” but he refuses to act in a way that compromises his beliefs (Stowe, 508). I could not help but compare this image of Uncle Tom to the Incredible Hulk. Similar to Uncle Tom, the Hulk is a good character who continually tries to help others. He only hurts people who are trying to hurt him or other innocent individuals. However, it is important to note that in the novel Uncle Tom defeats Legree through the power of speech rather than physical violence, which the Hulk enforces. In spite of this, the depiction of Uncle Tom in the comic illustration indicates physical violence. Clearly, the comic is another example that demonstrates the durability of a certain representation of black male identity, as it works against Stowe’s attempt to reshape black masculinity from sexual savagery to innocence and loyalty.

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Seeing is Believing

Throughout the course, we have learned that visual rhetoric is a form of communicating through visual images to create cultural meaning. In the short adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin below, we can see how black men and women were interpellated at the time the cartoon was featured. The six minute, 1944 cartoon, “Eliza on Ice,” portrays a very dark Eliza crossing on ice that pours out of a slot machine when she puts a nickel in and wins the jackpot.

Eliza's Leap

There are a number of things that come to mind after watching this clip. Even though I am aware that racial stereotypes were extremely common during the Golden Age of cinema, when I first watched this video, it shocked me that this cartoon manages to make a huge joke out of the entire institution of slavery. The scene shown is a vital scene in the novel that symbolizes a leap from slavery to freedom. Eliza’s leap literally represents her jump from the slave-holding states to the non-slave holding states. In the same manner, the cabin is a symbol of freedom as well, which is illustrated in the cartoon as a safe place where Eliza runs in order to escape Simon Legree. However, what caught me off-guard was the fact that the African-American characters in the cartoon, like Uncle Tom, Eliza, and her baby, are presented in blackface, which is exaggerated make-up worn by a white actor is playing a black person (Humphreys, 2011).

Blackface

In a previous post, I mentioned how blackface was a common method used in acting during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Humphrey’s pointed out in lecture, “African-American identity was dislodged from its powerful position, and through blackface, interpellated back into the era of slavery” (Humphrey, 2011). Eric Lott’s, “Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class” argues that blackface defines slavery as ‘amusing,’ which is exactly what this cartoon seems to be doing, especially with the comical music. The song “Dixie” was utilized in the cartoon, which is one of the best known songs of black minstrelsy (Wikipedia). Furthermore, there is an associate meaning that African-American’s use ‘proper’ English poorly. For example, Uncle Tom and Eliza do not speak proper English, whereas Simon Legree and even his dogs do. Therefore, ‘proper’ English remains a naturalized set of signs that stratifies classes, races, and citizens. The idea of an educated form of English encodes a certain framework of knowledge that excludes and dominates a number of cultural and social groups (Humphreys, 2011).

Little Eva

Additionally, the portrayal of Little Eva in the cartoon caught my attention. First off, I am sure you immediately noticed that she is illustrated much differently than depicted in the novel. For instance, her figure resembles a matured woman rather than a young girl, and she is wearing a lot of make-up. As a result, she is extremely sexualized in the cartoon. Nonetheless, she is still represented as a Christ-like figure, just as she is in the novel. For instance, she lives in a cloud, looking down on the community below, with angel wings, and a desire to help those in need. Stuart Hall’s, “Encoding/Decoding” in Media and Cultural Studies, mentions that superheroes stand outside of society and must do something to protect the society they are not a part of.  In the case of the cartoon, Little Eva resides above the society in heaven and literally looks down on the community below her, which may be interpreted in a number of ways. Therefore, even though Mr. Mighty Mouse saves the day, Little Eva is the one who called him in the first place. Thus, she can be seen as a heroic character in the video as well, just as she is in the novel.

Seeing is Believing

Our class syllabus states that “literature and its material culture mediates the ways in which we measure the value of each other, ourselves, and our contexts” (Humphreys, 2011). Thus, the portrayal of Little Eva is given value, whereas Uncle Tom and Eliza appear more animalistic and clownish. The ways in which African-American identity is depicted in the cartoon directly effects how these individuals are treated in the real world. After all, seeing is believing. Mieke Bal’s, “Double Exposure: The Subject of Cultural Analysis” emphasizes that common notion that “what you see must be real, true, present, or otherwise reliable,” which implies that when material is presented to us, we assume that it is displaying the truth (5). Similarly, Mark Poster’s, “Digital Networks and Citizenship” asserts that no one “can doubt the role of print and television…profoundly [altering] the way people think, fantasize and behave” (103). Therefore, the medium that carries the message is extremely powerful. As a result, the cartoon reproduces stereotypes and ideologies that create a reality for people to believe. Viewers of the cartoon, most likely children, are basically encouraged to see African-American identity in this manner. In the end, this short adaptation enforces that mediums “transmit cultural lessons and knowledge” (Humphreys, 2011).

I cannot help but think of popular cartoons today and the stereotypes they produce. Take “The Simpsons” for example. Cops loving donuts, senior citizens constantly complaining, and a convenience store owned by an Indian man are simply some of the common stereotypes used by the writers to make people laugh. Similarly, “Family Guy” works in much the same way. Both extremely successful animated cartoons overly exaggerate stereotypical characteristics for a satirical and comical effect, which seems to be working for the audience. Does it make it right? Has society really changed or are we just more accepting of stereotypes?

Here are some clips to show my point:

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