The Washington Pickaninnies, Anyone?

True confessions.

As a kid I watched the Go-Go Gophers cartoon. It was one of those “shorts” that was part of a serial cartoon series, in this case the Underdog Show. The Go-Go Gophers were buck-toothed, anthropomorphic gophers dressed in stereotypical Native American garb, replete with feathered headdress. They were the last of their tribe and lived in a teepee. Their chief nemesis was Colonel Kit Coyote and his factotum Sergeant Okey Homa, both anthropomorphic coyotes (or foxes, or something like that). So, OK, you have foxes and coyotes chasing gophers, which probably happens in real life, but in this case they are dressed up as cowboys and Indians. Hilarity ensues.

It’s easy to dismiss Go-Go Gophers as harmless pap from a bygone day — the cartoons were produced in the 1960s — when childhood was an innocent place and we all ran around the house doing fake war dances and other ephemera. The problem is that it wasn’t really ephemera. And today, cartoons like Go-Go Gophers are largely recognized for what they are: racists stereotypes that demean an oppressed minority group.

One place that fails to recognize anti-Native American bigotry and stereotypes is the front office of the Washington Redskins football team. Despite increasingly louder calls to rid the team of its offensive name the owner, Daniel Snyder, refuses to even consider such a change, citing that it was a “tradition.”

He is correct, in a sense. Anti-Native American bigotry has been a tradition in this country for centuries. During the time period depicted in the Gopher cartoons — the mid-19th century — real Native Americans were driven from their homes, their land stolen, their children kidnapped and raised by missionaries, and of course whole populations were systematically exterminated. “Redskin” was the dismissive name given to the people who were “in the way” of Manifest Destiny. As I’ve stated before, one must demean a people totally in order to justify their ill-treatment. So yes, bigotry is part of the US tradition towards Native Americans. But it’s a tradition whose day has long past.

It’s not difficult for me to imagine how offensive the Washington NFL franchise name and mascot are to Native Americans. All I have to do is change the name of the team to the Washington Pickaninnies, and include a stereotypical picture of a pickaninny character, to see just how wrong the Redskin name and emblem really are.

The pickaninny, and its relatives the jigaboo, the coon, the mammy, and the golliwog, were all racist caricatures for African Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. The racist societies of that era despised and feared black folks. So they came up with offensive imagery to belittle and control them. I’ve always held a fascination for the pickaninny, with its big red lips, nappy hair, and ever-present smile as it’s about to chomp down on a huge slice of watermelon. African American men were portrayed as docile idiots, shucking and jiving and African American women were motherly souls who took care of everyone’s children. Black folks were little people, to be controlled and cared for.

Pickaninny, jigaboo, and mammy images appeared in advertisements in this country as late as the 1960s, until the Civil Rights Movement gave the country a long-needed wake up call. Still today, though, vestiges of these images, looking more refined than in days of old, haunt supermarket shelves. Have you bought Uncle Ben’s Rice or Aunt Jamima Syrup lately?

Needless to say, none of this racist creatures has any cache these days. If anyone tried to bring them back, the backlash would be swift and decisive. Look what happened during Halloween last year, when some college kids tried dressing up in black face as rappers, etc. It did not go well for them.

I can think of other racist imagery that one rarely finds these days, including the napping Mexican wearing a sombrero, usually surrounded by flies, and the buck-toothed Asian with slanted slits for eyes, typically wearing a conical straw hat. The loathsome Abercrombie & Fitch tried putting the latter image on some t-shirts recently, and it did not go well for them, either.

So in this era of awareness, where belittling minorities with offensive imagery and language is less and less tolerated, why does Daniel Snyder still think it is OK to name his team “The Redskins” and use as its logo the head of a dark-skinned man in a feathered headdress? Could he call them the Pickaninnies? Or the Coolies? Or the Wetbacks? Of course not.

Therefore, it is gratifying to see that the US Patent and Trade Office stripped the team of its trademark claim over the racist imagery the team uses for its logo. The office called the name “disparaging.” As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid noted on the Senate floor, “The writing is on the wall, on the wall in giant, blinking neon lights.”

The name does not honor the bravery of Native Americans, as Snyder and the NFL claim. It’s an throwback to a decidedly unkind and ungentle age. And like the old Go-Go Gopher cartoons, it’s time to be put to rest for good.

© 2014, gar. All rights reserved.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.