The Human Stain

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Chalk wipes off with water or disappears with time. The racist image, however, isn’t as easily erased. It’s a stain — a human stain. The artifacts of institutional racism in the United States are apparent in many vintage advertisements, comic books, cartoons, product packages, board games, novelty toys, picture postcards and every other kind of popular art or entertainment from representation of minstrel shows to radio’s Amos and Andy.

Some of these artifacts appear (and pretend) to be harmless and witty, but the cultural ridicule has a devastating effect. It extended not just to African Americans, who endured the brunt of image victimization, but most ethnic and racial groups that jumped into the American melting pot – and don’t forget Native Americans (Redskins football).

Racist imagery was designed wittingly or at best unwittingly to stratify the social structure and repress the targets of the humor. (Visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia). A race of people were no longer slaves in the literal sense, but victims of those who were slaves to casual racism.

Humor can be a sharp sword for as well as against. The package for “Happy Harry” chalk below is clever and horrific, the kind of trivial insult that impacted the viewer and user of the chalk — children — in unspeakable ways. The roots of today’s racism was potent in the everyday world of mass, popular graphic art and was not more heinous than lynching but decidedly insidious in its long-term damage.


Additional ResourceFor more articles by Steven Heller, pick up a copy of the current issue of Print, the Design and Storytelling issue.