Friday, March 23, 2007

Racist stereotype or progressive protest?

My favorite poster had been hanging in my office for a week or so when one of my students looked closely at it and said, "That's offensive." She may be right, but I'm not sure what to do about it.

Here's the story: the poster, created by the Ohio Preservation Council (view it here), encourages viewers to "Preserve Ohio's Book Heritage"; it features full-color photos of first editions of books by such early Ohio authors as Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Dean Howells, Lafcadio Hearn, and even Harriett Beecher Stowe (not a native Ohioan, but she did a lot of writing here). Many of the covers are richly decorated: William Dean Howells's Tuscan Cities (1886) is festooned with architectural elements, while Paul Laurence Dunbar's Candle-Lightin' Time (1901) features a moon shining over a mass of lovely white flowers.

The cover that provoked my student's comment comes from Charles Chesnutt's first collection of short stories, The Conjure Woman (1899). The brown cover is mostly bare with a trio of figures at the top: two long-eared white rabbits and a grinning African-American man. (View a close-up of the cover here.) Displayed out of context, this image would certainly suggest a grinning Sambo figure, an unfortunate racist stereotype that I would not want hanging on my wall.

But a closer look reveals that the two rabbits are winking knowingly, as if aware that there's more to the story. And there is: the man on the cover represents not Joel Chandler Harris's appeasing Uncle Remus but Chesnutt's more subtle character, Uncle Julius, who is not nearly as simple as he seems. An ex-slave, Uncle Julius has no real resources except his tongue, which he employs to tell tall tales that seem frivolous at first but nevertheless manage to passionately portray the evils of racial discrimination while challenging white readers' assumptions about race.

The problem is that not everyone looking at the poster is aware of Chesnutt's groundbreaking work. If I leave the poster up, I risk offending people--but I also have the opportunity to spread the word about Charles Chesnutt. If I take it down, I lose my favorite poster.

The obvious solution is to require everyone who comes in my office to read The Conjure Woman, but that's unlikely to happen. So for now, the poster stays up until someone gives me a compelling reason to remove it.

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