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Removal of the Pickaninny “Art” from the Dentzel Carousel: Keeping the Facts Straight

Op/Ed By Howard Eagle


howard newAn interesting, unsolicited, but welcomed op-ed appeared in the Minority Reporter recently, regarding the eight-month long, successful struggle the Take It Down Planning Committee waged to have the disgusting, racist, dehumanizing, “pickaninny,” or “picaninny,” so-called “art” removed from the Dentzel Carousel, located at Ontario Beach Park.

The reason we felt compelled to respond to the opinion-piece is because it is filled with inaccurate, and erroneous information, upon which I will elaborate momentarily.

First, however, I would like to make it crystal clear, that no one associated with the Take It Down Planning Committee is the least bit interested in “seeking to search and destroy [anyone], just because [they] do not agree with [our] philosophy, movement, or concerns.”

Therefore, where we’re concerned, there is no “need [for anyone] to duck.”

While some have claimed “the [Pickaninny, so-called] artwork in question has had [no] impact on [their] psyche, self-esteem, or upbringing in this community” –  there are others (black people) who have told us, when they first discovered the “Pickaninny” panel, they wept at the thought of having it spinning around above their grandchildren’s heads, as they rode on the carousel.

Thus, the dehumanizing, so-called “art” clearly has not had the exact, same, affect on all of us. And, we maintain that no individual’s experience regarding this matter is automatically, or necessarily, any more important than the experiences of others.

We are in complete agreement that “what has impacted [us] the most [and is continuing to impact us] has been the live, and in-your-face racists and bigots in this community, many of whom are employed by local radio, TV,  print media outlets,” and governmental entities  – with two of the most glaring and outstanding, recent examples being: 1) inaction on the part of former Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks regarding this particular issue, and 2) foul, vitriolic, public, statements about black, Rochester residents, spewed by Henrietta Town Supervisor Jack Moore.

In our humble, but staunch view, it is not enough to merely be “concerned” about such persons. Instead, it is vitally important to call them out (by name).

We recognize the author of the aforementioned piece may have found it possible to formulate a thoroughly conflated, convoluted, argument, and position that removal of the dehumanizing, racist, so-called “art” from the Dentzel Carousel represented a matter of “ignoring the rights of others; their right to free speech.”

However, if we extended this ludicrous argument to its logical conclusion, then we would necessarily need to consider re-hanging “whites only;” “No coloreds allowed,” and “colored section” – type signs in places such as public bus and train stations, libraries, and yes, at beaches as well.

We challenge the editorialist to explain the difference. We understand that such signs were commonplace, and accepted in “1901,” which, by the way, was a time in which the U.S. of A. was routinely experiencing race riots in many parts of the thoroughly racist, white supremacist-based, nation-state.

However, this is 2016 (115 years later), and, just as “whites only,” and “coloreds-only” signs are no longer tolerated at Ontario Park Beach Park, and/or other public facilities,  neither should be racist, dehumanizing, Pickaninny, so-called “art”  – period.

We have given deep and serious thought, i.e., searched our brains (repeatedly) regarding the idea that, because we are involved in the ongoing fight for “freedom and justice,” our successful “call to remove this image,” somehow, (and apparently, magically) represents “hypocrisy.”

We cannot find a connection between the two ideas, mainly because, there isn’t one. Thus, this particular claim is clearly a matter of the editorialist ‘grasping for straws,’ as is the ludicrous idea the Take It Down effort is somehow comparable to “burning all the books, like they did in China, in an effort to keep people ignorant [,and] destroying or removing every reminder of our history that may contain controversial passages…” What?

Throughout our eight-month long struggle to have the dehumanizing “art” removed from the public carousel, we have constantly, and consistently emphasized that we are NOT attempting to “amend, rewrite, ignore, destroy, or change HISTORY.” On the contrary, we are attempting to elucidate, and enhance the historical record by having the “art” placed in an appropriate context (within a museum-type setting, just as “whites only” and “coloreds-only” signs, and other racist relics of the past are), where people can learn, not only about the racist “art” itself, but also, and more importantly, can learn about the HISTORY surrounding the racist “art,” via a thorough, accurate, comprehensive educational process. This is how people can “learn the [FULL] truth.”

Additionally, and very importantly, I have no idea which “research and fact-checking” sources the editorialist used, but, indeed, she needs to go back to the “research and fact-checking”-drawing board.

I think I understand the assertion that “the word pickanniny has not always been considered racist, or negative. Dating back to the 1500’s, the word pickanniny had been used as a term of endearment, much like the word NI##&R has been used in our culture today.”

However, the FACTUAL truth of the matter is, as it relates to etymology of the term “pickaninny,” it is believed to have derived from the Portuguese term “pequenino.”

One thing is for certain, the origin of the term definitely is NOT rooted in English. It did not appear in the English language prior to the late 1700’s (at the earliest).

“The picaninny was the dominant racial caricature of black children for most of this country’s history. They were “child coons,” miniature versions of Stepin Fetchit (see Pilgrim (2000)). Picaninnies had bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips, and wide mouths into which they stuffed huge slices of watermelon. They were routinely shown on postcards, posters, and other ephemera being chased or eaten. Picaninnies were portrayed as nameless, shiftless natural buffoons running from alligators and toward fried chicken. The first famous picaninny was Topsy — a poorly dressed, disreputable, neglected slave girl. Topsy appeared in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Topsy was created to show the evils of slavery. Stowe hoped that readers would be heartbroken by the tribulations of Topsy, and would help end slavery — which, she believed, produced many similar children. Her book, while leading some Americans to question the morality of slavery, was used by others to trivialize slavery’s brutality. Topsy, for example, was soon a staple character in minstrel shows. The stage Topsy, unlike Stowe’s version, was a happy, mirthful character who reveled in her misfortune. Topsy was still dirty, with kinky hair and ragged clothes, but these traits were transformed into comic props–as was her misuse of the English language. No longer a sympathetic figure, Topsy became, simply, a harmless coon. The stage Topsy and her imitators remained popular from the early 1850s well into the twentieth century.” (Ferris State University, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia).

Thus, the author’s statement that “pickanniny had been used as a term of endearment, much like the word NI##&R has been used in [white supremacist, as opposed to] our [African/African American] culture today” — is merely a reflection of the fundamentally racist nature of U.S. society.

That is, the historical development of both terms has been thoroughly grounded in racism, and the perpetuation of white supremacy – period. And, the fact that many people of African descent would adopt the utilization of such terms as representing “terms of endearment” (in both cases), simply speaks to the ongoing, depth of illness, and psychological injury that resulted from centuries of systematic, chattel slavery, i.e., what Dr. Joy Degruy has defined as, lectured, and written extensively about, as “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.”

The thoroughly ludicrous idea that “televised pickaninnies, like Buckwheat and Stymie, who appeared in The Little Rascals, or Our Gang, also served a purpose, in breaking the [still existing] glass ceiling for black actors” — is also a grossly conflated, and thoroughly convoluted assertion. That is to say, early black actors, and actresses, just as in the cases of many today, faced a “Hobson’s choice,” i.e., go hungry, and/or find a new profession, or accept racist, stereotypical, disgusting, demeaning, lower-animal-like, dehumanizing roles.

It is an utterly ridiculous idea that, unless we have a disgusting, dehumanizing, pickaninny “art” panel on the Dentzel Carousel, we may “forget [that] the pickannines, whether in art form, or on stage, are the shoulders on which our modern day artists, actors, and actresses stand.”

How ludicrous.

My name is Howard J. Eagle, and the necessity of this response represents a classic example of the reason why we (the Take It Down Planning Committee) will see this issue through, until the very end, i.e., in order to help counter dangerous, mis-education, which is rampant and pervasive within OUR community.

It’s brought!!!

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