Coverage of Other Minorities
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The portrayals of Japanese and Japanese Americans were less offensive than the
depictions of America’s two most numerically significant minorities, African
Americans and Hispanics. (In 1940 the U.S. Census counted 12.9 million black citizens
and 1.9 million Hispanics.)
The popular press in 1940-41 especially savaged blacks. We can take some small
solace in the fact that none of these drawings/cartoons could be published today.
However, at the time mass market publications ran them without much thought. Today
such material is either too racist or too obscure to be funny, a testimony to our
If I understand the joke, it’s that this nightclub singer never had it so good. He’s
wearing a tux and performing in an exclusive white club. Yet he’s singing about his
body being racked with pain. (The lines come from “Ol’ Man River.”) Notice the bug
eyes and huge lips and teeth, which make his mouth almost as large as his head. One
subtext here was that blacks greatly exaggerated when bemoaning their fate.
The punchline here depends on knowing that bearing children out of wedlock was
considered shameful in 1940, for any race. In the average reader’s mind, the humor
lies in the mother’s ignorance of the fact that her failure to marry undoubtedly led to
her child’s delinquency.
The cartoon below had no caption, but I assume the scene was understood to take
place in Harlem. It mimics military weddings, except that here the “soldiers” do not
hold upraised swords for the bride and groom but upraised straight razors.
Like the Japanese, African Americans often appeared in popular magazines as
servants, as in this advertisement for Pullman (railroad passenger cars).
Serial stories featuring "black folks" from the country speaking Amos n’ Andy
dialect were popular and ran regularly in Collier’s and the Saturday Evening
Post. Serials featured drawings that captured key moments in the story and
attracted readers. The drawing below is typical. I assume that whites read these
novelettes for laughs.
Stories such as the one above were fiction, but this bit of coverage in Life magazine
Actually the only outdated aspects of this story was the fact that the competition took
place at a "31 year old all-Negro fair" and the use of the disparaging term
"pickaninnies." They competed, by the way, in a "healthiest baby contest." Otherwise
the reporter opined on how cute the babies were -- an entire page of baby pictures
followed the one above -- and their equanimity in the face of victory and defeat in the
The feature below, also from Life, treated black people as exotics capable of inspiring
white fashion designers. The text is hard to read in the original, but it tells the story of
the great white huntress/designer who takes the bargain safari to South Carolina to
absorb “the wealth of inspiration [found in] the great Southland and its colorful
Negroes.” Life commissioned an artist to do a series of sketches in the South and in
Los Angeles and reproduces nine of them in association with this article. “Inspiration
for Miss Lee’s sketches were mostly Negroes in the region around Beaufort, S.C. She
reports that these ‘low country’ Negroes, more primitive than elsewhere, have a flair
for color, a ‘proportion oddity’, great resourcefulness and ingenuity especially in their
adaptation of castoffs." As was typical of the era, all models were white.
With war seemingly imminent, the NAACP’s Secretary, Walter White, foresaw that
military service might open doors and argued that African Americans should become
part of U.S. fighting forces.
White noted in the article, “The Negro insists upon doing his part, and the Army and
Navy want none of him.”
One possible explanation for the U.S. military’s attitude appeared in this cartoon in
the usually progressive New Yorker.
Portrayals of blacks were abominable but at least they were viewed as Americans.
Hispanics usually appeared as foreigners.
This luncheon of Mexican food by Home Economics students – all girls of course – in
Buffalo, NY taught them “what our Latin American neighbors eat and wear, how they
live in their homes and spend their leisure."
I assume such classes are no longer necessary. CitySearch now lists 45 Mexican
restaurants in Buffalo and the U.S. Census found more than 20,000 Hispanics
(7.5% of the population) living in Buffalo as of 2000.
The “Negro dialect” put in the mouths of blacks was insulting, but not as much as
the mangled English used by Hispanics. Consider this drawing illustrating a story
The caption in the lower left reads, “'Senorita!' she announced, 'I sweep heem the
room, not!' Roger growled and almost clicked his heels."
One of the most recognizable Hispanics in 1940 was the Sanka Mexican. Short of leg,
big of sombrero, mustachioed, fat, and lazy, this little larcenist appeared in ads for
Sanka Coffee in the issues of dozens of major magazines. Each ad told a little story in
which he wound up drinking Sanka (“97% caffeine free”) before falling asleep like his
fellow countrymen glimpsed in the background.
1. Everyone takes the siesta in the heat of the day, except I, poor Juan. While all are asleep, the shops are closed. Except my
shop, where I sell pottery to the American tourists for ten times what it costs in America.
2. An American senorita comes one afternoon to buy the pottery. “How is it that you do not take the siesta?” she asked,
speaking that strange language which I have heard called Highschool Spanish. “Ah, senorita,” I signed, “I cannot sleep!”
3. “It is the coffee!” I explained. “I love the coffee. I cannot resist it. But when I drink it with the lunch, then all afternoon I am
wide awake!” She nodded. “It is good business to be open when other shops are closed!”
4. “I would give all the beezness for a good siesta!” I cried. “Then you should drink Sanka Coffee,” she said. “It’s 97%
caffeine-free, and can’t keep you awake!” “It is an American trick!” I scoffed. “How can it be good coffee?”
5. “It’s wonderful! A blend of fine Central and South American coffees!” she replied. “And the Council on Foods of the
American Medical Association says: “Sanka Coffee is free from caffein effect, and can be used when other coffee has been
6. So in gratitude I charge her only five times what the pottery is worth. Later I try Sanka Coffee. Delicious. And I sleep each
day during the afternoon. My pottery beezness, he is ruin but ah, amigo ... how I enjoy the siesta!
Tokyo Rose /
A Dual Biography
Notice the monkey-like faces, especially on the painfully hideous bride.
For an interesting study arguing that African Americans are portrayed even today as ape-like, see "Not Yet Human" in the Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 94, issue 2 (February 2008), pp. 292-306. See a news story on the study at