African Americans

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Henry's Carbolic Salve features a subservient black woman offering advice from the background, ca. 1885. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.  

From the mid-nineteenth century well into the twentieth century, African Americans were frequently portrayed derogatorily in American advertisements. Advertisers often depicted blacks as slaves subservient to white people. Racial stereotypes took the forms of Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo, and Jim Crow. Black Americans were sometimes represented with exaggerated facial features, such as large lips and bulging eyes. Another stereotype presented African Americans as country folks with a fondness for watermelon and fried chicken and showed them barefoot and dressed in “rough country clothing,” like overalls and straw hats.

These images often showed African Americans offering advice to white people in a deferential manner. African Americans were also presented in cartoons with “humorous anecdotes” in which the joke hinged on the reader’s understanding of the gullible or simple nature of black characters—discriminatory cultural assumptions of the period that today read as racially charged defamation. These images were pervasive and served not only to promote a vast array of consumer products, but also helped to perpetuate negative attitudes and opinions.