The Media and Racism in Post-Civil War History

Johns Hopkins University sponsors the online version of The Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection. On the website, you learn:

The Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music consists of over 29,000 pieces of American popular music. This music was generously donated to The Johns Hopkins University by Lester S. Levy over a period of years starting in 1976 and is now housed in the Special Collections Division of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library. The collection spans the years 1780 to 1980, but its strength is its thorough documentation of nineteenth-century America through popular music.”

By perusing the titles in this collection, you can learn a lot about the state of the country. As Mr. Levy wrote:

It was soon evident that music of a period was closely tied to the history and mores of the country’s development.”

What can we discover, therefore, about what the country thought about blacks during the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, a period also marked by the recrudescence of racist prohibitions and violence against blacks? Just to show a few examples…

From 1896, for instance, we can see this offering:


In 1897, we have another interesting take on that repulsive sentiment:


From 1899:


From 1903:


The advent of moving pictures allowed for even more impressive images to be embedded in popular culture. Some notable examples:

“The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 told a story about two families during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era. Under President Woodrow Wilson’s administration it was the first American motion picture to be screened inside the White House. The film portrayed black men (using white actors in blackface) as stupid, venal, and having uncontrollable sexual desires for white women. The Ku Klux Klan was shown as a heroic force. Thus the film is credited as one of the factors inspiring the formation of the advent of the “second era” Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the same year.

Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan in a still from 'The Birth of a Nation.' (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan in a still from ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The 1939 blockbuster movie “Gone With the Wind,” based on the book of the same name and promulgating the idea of the happy slave, is still a perennial favorite. (In the book, Mammy, personal slave to Scarlett O’Hara, is introduced thusly: “Mammy felt that she owned the O’Haras, body and soul, and their secrets were her secrets . . . Mammy emerged from the hall, a huge old woman with the small shrewd eyes of an elephant.  She was shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras…”)  The loyal, overweight, asexual “mammy” image remains a staple in popular culture.  

Mammy tending to Scarlett in Gone With the Wind

Mammy tending to Scarlett in Gone With the Wind

But that is not the only enduring legacy of this movie. The movie and the book played an enormous role in helping to perpetuate the idea of a lost world of a gallant and genteel society, rather than a society based on millions of people kept in slavery to aristocrats who auctioned off human beings as if they were horses; who terrorized by rape and separation of families; and who employed constant violence and/or threat of violence that included brutal whippings, mutilation, and even murder (not favored however since it would mean the loss of income for the owner).

Moving on to 1946, Walt Disney gave us the very racist “Song of the South,” which features happy, subservient Uncle Remus. Jason Sperb, in his book Disney’s Most Notorious Film, calls “Song of the South” “one of Hollywood’s most resiliently offensive racist texts.”

Perhaps the most repulsive movie at all came out in 1971, when movie audiences were presented with the Italian film, “Goodbye Uncle Tom,” dubbed as one of the most racist movies ever made. The movie purported to be a documentary about slavery, showing black people as evil monsters who “deserved” everything they got.

From "Goodbye Uncle Tom"

From “Goodbye Uncle Tom”

You may think racism in media is a thing of the past, but unfortunately, you would not be correct. As Stephen Balkaran wrote in the 1999 article “Mass Media and Racism,” the media today is overwhelmingly focused on “crime, drug use, gang violence, and other forms of anti-social behavior among African-Americans,” thus fostering “a distorted and pernicious public perception of African-Americans.”

Even television news channels are complicit. According to a study by professor Travis Dixon of the University of California at Los Angeles, mug shots and orange jumpsuits are more likely to be shown in TV reports when the accused is a person of color. The image has become so engrained, wrote Dixon, that even when a perpetrator is not shown in a story, viewers tend to think of the accused as being a person of color.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the FBI’s 2012 Uniform Crime Reports shows whites twice as likely as African Americans to be arrested and charged with committing most listed crimes. Nevertheless, African Americans continue to be overrepresented in crime stories.

The media may be less overtly racist than it was at the turn of the 20th Century, but it still helps to promulgate deleterious images that help perpetuate the racial divide. The uproar over the whiteness of awards during the Oscars is only the tip of the iceberg. Movies about people of color are not often made, and even when they are, the actors and actresses are usually either white or light-skinned blacks. In the case of the new movie about dark-skinned Nina Simone, Zoe Saldana actually got “colored” all over by make-up so she would seem darker, albeit with more “white-friendly” features. You can read more about whitewashing, especially with respect to Asian characters here.

You can also watch John Oliver’s recent video on Hollywood whitewashing here:


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