I was appalled like many people to see a responsible company like H & M make an unwise decision to place a black male child in a hoodie that read, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Before this product was advertised did any of the executives understand the cultural and racist ramifications associating Blacks and monkeys? Comparing Black people to apes and monkeys is a stain on the fabric of America sown together with a sordid history.
In the antebellum south, the justification for Blacks lacking fundamental rights were tied to the belief that Blacks were simian, ape like, and subhuman. This subhuman stereotype was perpetuated by an abundance of literary propaganda where blacks were depicted as “coons”. The “coon” caricatures were illustrated with exacerbated features of apes including oversized lips drastically unproportioned to the face along with huge teeth. The “coon caricature” depicted blacks as inferior, incapable of making choices and decisions independently, and childish beyond measure. The most striking contrast or underlying assumption here is that blacks will never be able to fully assimilate into the “mainstream” society due to perceived cognitive limitations and physical features.
The 1930’s saw the release of King Kong, the wrongful conviction, trials, and imprisonment of Scottsboro boys, and the start of World War II. These three events were used perpetuate the association between Blacks and apes. The Scottsboro boys, as they were collectively known, were 9 African males between the ages of 13-19 (trials and convictions occurred form 1931-1937) who were accused of “gang raping” 2 Caucasian females. The young men were deemed guilty by the public and to add insult to injury a picture book on the matter was published by artist Lin Shi Khan and the lithographer Toni Perez. This book contained 56 images where the accused young men were portrayed as grotesques ape like creatures with large gnashing teeth and grabbing a helpless white female.
In semblance to this, the movie King Kong depicted an “ape” being taking from his homeland in chains and brought to New York City. While in New York City, Kong breaks free of his chains and destroys the city. After Kong is shot dead by the squadron of airplanes, his captor Jack Denim remarks, “It was beauty that killed the beast.” The subliminal underlying racist assumption between Kong and the Scottsboro case is that the beast will always lust after beauty because he is inferior.
The propagation of Blacks as animals was not contained to the US. During the WWII era, many European women were told that Black soldiers had tails like monkeys that would come out at 10pm in an attempt to stop British women from dating Black soldiers.
Fast forward to present day. It is hard to believe that H & M executive had no idea about the many comparisons and caricatures to apes that were used to described President and Mrs. Obama over 8 years of his presidency. In November 2016, before leaving the White House, Mrs. Obama was called an “ape in heels” via Facebook by a small-town mayor in West Virginia.
Each time these incidents happen as the case of Dove, as in the case with Shea Moisture, as in the case of Pepsi ignorance is claimed. Rather than claiming ignorance, I am hoping in the future that H&M and other companies take opportunities to make cultural education and sensitivity a priority to avoid offenses such as this in the future.
By: Priscilla Wright, Ph.D,LPC,NCC
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