By the turn of the twentieth century, American visual culture had cleaved two distinct paths for white and black children. Images found in advertising, literature, and social science journals painted a delinquent, diseased, and dehumanized portrait of black childhood. Those visuals stood in marked contrast to angelic profiles of white children. Such a divide held profound consequence, both ideological and practical, in the post-emancipation era—helping to define the boundaries of childhood innocence; the terms of full citizenship; and, among other concerns, the bodily integrity of black Americans.
Take, for example, the two trade cards above. Both advertised Cottolene-brand shortening, made of animal fat and cottonseed oil. Published in 1870, the first card (left) uses a young black girl as a mascot of sorts. Her round face frames features not entirely lifelike, but not impossibly inhuman either. With warm eyes and an inviting smile, she is unequivocally cute—a descriptor often denied to black children in visual culture at this time. The Cottolene girl lifts her apron to cradle a plush bundle of cotton. Ivy and cotton bolls arch along the borders of the card, framing the girl like a decorative palm frond.
At first glance, the Cottolene advertisement might seem innocuous. But compare it the card at right. Another child, this time white, adorns the card. He too is very cute. This child, though, is not inextricably connected to cotton. Instead, he appears to be an accomplished student. A graduation cap rests on top of his soft brown curls. His graduation gown bunches at the shoulder as he lifts one arm to point to the text above: “Shorten your Food and Lengthen your Life.” With his other hand, he gestures to a large can of Cottolene shortening. The boy is untouched by its contents and removed from its production. In fact, cotton itself remains almost entirely absent from the trade card, found only on the cover of a pamphlet splayed at the bottom of the frame.
Herein lay the nefarious distinction between the two illustrations. The second Cottolene advertisement not only detached its white mascot from cotton, but offered him a future of comfort and possibility. The first card did not afford its black mascot that same future. Although it did not explicitly depict the black girl laboring over a field of cotton, the illustration certainly implied that she had. Moreover, her wide smile and wide embrace of the cotton suggested she enjoyed such labor. The advertisement—published just five years after slave emancipation in the United States—obscured the toil and pain inherent to cotton picking.
It was pain, argues scholar Robin Bernstein, that served as the “wedge” dividing “tender white children” from their black counterparts. Popular imagery portrayed black children not as deserving of care and protection, but as “insensate pickanninies.” Likely a derivation of a Portuguese term reserved for small children, “pickanniny” initially served as a descriptive word early in the African slave trade. It would evolve from its seventeenth-century origins to become a demeaning racial caricature, most especially in the United States and Britain.
While pickanninies were employed as visual stand-ins for all black children, their cleanliness and conduct ranged. One pickanniny may have worn tattered rags, while another served as a tidy domestic servant. Some pickanninies were simpleminded, others clever. Many acted without inhibition, feral and frightening, but nearly an equal number were docile, even good-natured. Despite these differences, all pickanninies shared one unifying characteristic: They all appeared impervious to lasting physical and emotional harm. In turn, “insensate pickanninies” suggested the same of actual black children—ultimately denying real life children not only their vulnerability but their very humanity.
The artist perhaps most responsible for the popularization of the pickanniny in American culture was E. W. Kemble. Best known as an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly, Kemble was prolific. His work appeared on a number of everyday products, from trading cards to dish soap. He also frequently illustrated the covers and pages of popular literature, including the first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884 and the 1892 edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1898, Kemble tried his hand at an independent project: a children’s book, entitled A Coon Alphabet. Here he sketched acts of violence inflicted upon black children—a child kicked off a donkey, another flung into the sky by a firecracker, and a string of other grisly scenarios.
See here for a digitized copy of A Coon Alphabet.
Designed and marketed for children learning how to read, A Coon Alphabet conformed to the conventions of a traditional alphabet book. The text’s language, however, crudely parodied a rural, black American dialect: “A is fo Amos/what rides an ole mule/so he can be early/each monin ter school,” “B is fo bumble bee/cute little thing/but when yer sit on one/Doan sit on his sting,” and so on.
Kemble’s work did not deviate from this structure, presenting a world both predictable and ordered. Without fail, it devoted two pages of rhyme and illustration to each letter of the alphabet. Significantly, however, a total of four pages comprised each letter entry—two pages with material, two without. By leaving blank the left-hand side of the book’s fold, Kemble obscured the second half of the rhyme until the reader turned the page. The first page would introduce a letter and its corresponding fictional character, usually a black child in pickanniny form; the second page then depicted the black child falling prey to a violent animal, sustaining blows from an angry adult, or stumbling into some other physical mishap.
For readers, turning the page satiated a natural desire for closure. Here A Coon Alphabet did more than desensitize them to its brutal imagery—it gratified. But the experience of reading Kemble’s work did not amount to passive amusement. Rather, formatting the alphabet book in such a way made the violence in its pages contingent on the active participation of its young readers. With each turn of the page, they constructed the narrative as much as Kemble did. The reader would quite literally cause “characters to meet their violent fate,” writes Bernstein, all while the book “configure[d] th
at fate as an objective, phenomenological part of the world, as apparently unconstructed and discoverable as an apple.”
A history of the alphabet book from scholar Patricia Crain
proves instructive. In The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlett Letter, Crain writes that alphabet books have always been uniquely positioned to socialize young people. By virtue of being amongst the first books children read, alphabet books hold special influence. But as Bernstein offered in her own analysis of Kemble’s work, the methodical arrangement of alphabet books also asserts that the pages hold objective truth. The truth as told by A Coon Alphabet rested on violent assumptions of racial difference—inducting young readers into a universe of subhuman black children resistant or even immune to physical injury.
Consider the set of illustrations that Kemble drew for the letter R. A swarm of bees attack Rastus, a child searching for honey inside a tree. By the time the reader reaches this sketch, she has already witnessed burns, falls, and beatings, all exaggerated for comic effect. Amos is kicked off his donkey; Ezra is flung into a tree; Joseph is swung through the air by his ears; Lulu tumbles headfirst into a pig pen. Though Rastus appears frightened as the bees surround him, A Coon Alphabet has long established that he will survive the onslaught unscathed. Pickanninies are one and the same in Kemble’s universe. Page after page, violent scene after violent scene, the book promoted a kind of schadenfreude that denied its young characters the concern and care normally extended to children.
As the alphabet reaches its end, the stakes of Kemble’s project become ever more clear. Take the rhyme and illustrations for the letter X. A black boy named Xerky sits on a stoop, his hands resting above his head on the ridge of a paint bucket. A sign in the background reads: “White washin’ done clear hear.” “X is fo’ ‘Xerky,’/de blackest dat grew/he wished he was white—,” the first page tells readers. An em dash dividing the rhyme builds anticipation. On the second page, the text snidely proclaims: “—and his wish it came true.” Xerky has accidently tipped the bucket over. He is now covered in white paint.
These taunting frames not only asserted a strict racial binary, but advocated for its permanence. No matter black Americans’ claims to full citizenship, or even to full personhood, nothing could mask their supposed inferiority. A Coon Alphabet rendered any semblance of social progress, any iota of black success, purely superficial—like a coat of paint. Under the guise of a harmless alphabet book, Kemble’s work was part and parcel of far-reaching racial mythologies rooted in slavery and concretized by the turn of the century. Those mythologies served to justify not only segregation, disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation, but also brutal, unrestrained violence against black Americans.
Indeed, Kemble’s creations were hardly unique. In the burgeoning consumer culture of the late-nineteenth century, manufacturers plastered racist caricature on a vast array of merchandise—board games, figurines, textiles, household cleaning products, and, of course, trading cards. At the same time, technological advancements spurred the mass distribution of print at low cost and high return. Along with newspapers, journals, and magazines, books and primers like Kemble’s saw their readerships boom, rendering racist caricature ubiquitous. Whether they conformed to the grotesque types of A Coon Alphabet or to the more romanticized figure of the Cottolene trading card, commercialized “pickanninies” charted a single trajectory for black children—one that promised to draw the specter of slavery into the present, and ultimately, into the future.