Mz. Nikita gave me the lowdown on a t-shirt made by a woman from Russia. The name of the t-shirt is the ‘Funny Pickaninny T-Shirt” as it appears on the spreadshirt.com website. The image on the t-shirt appears to be a caricature of a someone with apparent African features, with a sign at the bottom right that reads, “Start every day with a smile AND GET IT OVER WITH.” Since with website is an online print shop, the image could appear on a variety of items.
The obvious problem with this image is the name ‘pickaninny’.
The pickaninny (picaninny) is a racist caricature of black children. No different in appearance to the racist image of blacks i.e. big bulging eyes, clown-like red lips, nappy hair, speaking in mock ebonics or racist black vernacular (I is, You is, We is), opoorly dressed or not dressed at all and mostly seen as gleefully stuffing their faces with (stolen) watermelon and chicken. They are often seen as neglected kids, shiftless, dumb, running from alligators and have a disturbing level of sexualization. In short, the pickaninny was the children’s version of the coon.
Pickaninnies are part of American’s history of storytelling. According to Ferris State University’s online Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, the first famous pickaninny was a slave girl named Topsy who appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The character was used to help expose the evils of slavery, and she was used as the end result of it by being poorly dressed and untamable.
Pickaninnes made their way into the imaginations of film making, always as the only representation of how black children are. The most famous, earliest examples are seen in the Our Gang (The Little Rascals) films with characters such as Sunshine Sammy, Farina Pineapple, Stymie and of course, Buckwheat. Some argued that in the series, all children, including the white ones, were buffoons always getting into trouble. However, the antics of the black children were likely seen as definitive of their race.
The earliest known images of black children on film are traced back to Thomas Edison’s inventions of the kinetoscope and the kinetograph in 1891, the prototypes of early motion picture technology. He experimented using black children as “interesting side effects”. In 1904, he produced Ten Pickaninnies where black children are seen as running and playing. The nameless children were referred to such names as inky kids, black lambs, and bad chillun, among others.
Cartoons were not off limits. The pickaninny caricature was seen as main characters to their own shorts, which would eventually be banned from television. Popular cartoons from Looney Tunes, Hanna Barbara and Disney would end up briefly looking like pickaninnies as wild takes or as a result of some mishap usually from accidents involving dark and black objects such as charcoal or mud or from explosions. The character would emerge with a black face large lips, big eyes and even picky hair.
As a quick side note, the pickaninny was also spotted in the video game world. The game Doki Doki Panic, which would be converted into Super Mario Bros. 2 for the West, is a glaring example.
The pickaninny shirt that is being sold is haunting example of old racism coming back in full force. Then again, some will argue that the caricature has always been around in some form. However, like racism itself, it has masked itself into a not-so-obvious form of entertainment. Some would say that it has morphed into a new image while retaining the same demeaning stereotypes of black youth. After all, most people today, as they did since day one a couple of centuries ago, think that black children are, by nature, slow and wild. And there’s no need for anyone to use black face to illustrate that racist stereotype. Though, some have still tried.