Presidential ears

2008 November 17
LBJ and Him—or is it Her?

LBJ and Him—or is it Her?

Herbert Hoover and King Tut

Herbert Hoover and King Tut

Some presidents’ relationships with their dogs have been the focus of historical commentary–most notoriously Lyndon Johnson’s penchant for picking up his two beagles, “Him” and “Her,” by their floppy appendages (more benignly, Herbert Hoover’s love for his pack of pets, especially his German Shepherd King Tut, helped construct a more compassionate image for the more convincingly impersonal chief executive). But it was Johnson, whose own ears were a fairly prominent aspect of his appearance, who came to mind last weekend at a symposium on Picturing Politics sponsored by the Illustration Program of the Parsons New School of Design and the Politics Department of the New School for Social Research—as did those of our 43rd president—because the cartoonists and graphic artists gathered to talk about various approaches to visual commentary inevitably turned to the subject of our president-elect and how they might contend with the always knotty subject of the representation of race. That discussion was curtailed due to a very full program schedule, but one participant observed in a later conversation that, indeed, it was Obama’s ears that might become—have already become—the safest feature for caricaturists, wary of the hazards of racial physiognomy, to emphasize. Obama’s lankiness is another uncontroversial aspect that artists have already relied on; indeed, the surly conservative cartoonist Glenn McCoy has taken to drawing Obama with a pear-shaped figure in an effort, bereft of any actual inspirational feature, to manufacture a “negative” somatic sign for the future president.

How President Obama has been and will be drawn strikes me as a golden opportunity for history teaching because it so starkly links the present to the past, and especially how Americans have conceived of and seen race throughout our history. Visual racial stereotyping too often is avoided as a topic for classroom discussion because it is, without question, painful to its victims; but avoiding the subject leaves students locked in a simplified understanding of how such signs worked and how some somatic signs may have conveyed to viewers in the past specific class positions within broader racial and ethnic categories (an aspect also true for some nineteenth-century images of Irish immigrants, where the poorest, least Anglicized newcomers—the so-called “shanty Irish”—bore simian features while middle-class Irish lacked such invidious signs). Moreover, how racism could be conveyed without resort to such pictorial devices is equally important to get across: Barry Blitt’s controversial July 21, 2008 New Yorker cover was meant to be a satirical dig at the hysterical and vicious fictions about Obama promoted by the Right during the presidential campaign; although Blitt did not exaggerate any physical features, some people mistook the illustration as a racially-tinged attack because of the “terrorist” costumes, defiled Oval Office decor, and other items that composed the surrounding pictorial narrative (exacerbated, perhaps, by the lack of a contextualizing title or text). This particular confusion notwithstanding, Blitt’s actually sympathetic commentary as well as truly malevolent illustrations (such as this November 26, 1898 Collier’s Magazine cover, which propagated the lie that the Wilmington, North Carolina, race riots of that year were provoked by “gun-toting” African-American residents) demonstrate that “realism” is not the simple remedy for stereotyping and that, to truly evaluate the visual historical record, students need to do more than rely on first impressions and should imagine the ways people saw in the past.

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1 Comment
2008 November 18
Ellen Noonan permalink

Boy, is this post timely. Leah, Maceo, and I were just discussing how to use elements from 1890s political cartoons about US imperialism and the Philippines in a professional development activity where we ask teachers to create their own cartoons. For those who have seen these, their depictions of Philippinos (and Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, and Hawaiians) draw almost exclusively on the racist visual stereotyping so prevalent in that era (and before and after it). You don’t want to airbrush this element out–it was central to the cartoons and to debates over imperialism at the time–yet in this activity, where we are making teachers into creators of cartoons using these elements (rather than merely asking them to analyze them), it is problematic. It becomes even more problematic given that we do these kinds of activities with teachers in the hope that they will have their students do the activity as well. Making students creators using these kinds of materials, however historically accurate they are, can lead to a myriad of difficult classroom situations. So we will figure out a strategy around using the racist elements of these cartoons for this activity, but it leaves me feeling like we need to prioritize developing ways to address the racist visual vocabulary of these cartoons (and countless other historical images) quite directly with teachers, or we are doing a disservice to them and to our ideas about history.

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