Jul 2, 2005, 8:26 PM
Post #19 of 36
On many levels, the Memin Piguin controversy seems absurd – so much hoo-hah about a comic book. But there are a number of things about it that are very interesting. Mainly the utter incomprehension on each side.
Re: [dtracy8671] Memin Pinguin stamp causes furor in US
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One of those is that Americans _ and, interestingly, many Mexican-American activists and academics _ look at the character and filter it through U.S. eyes and in a U.S. context. They have expressed horror – at least at the impact that the image will have on other Americans.
Memin is what was called a “pickaninny” in the United States, a cute little black boy – one here drawn to look a lot like a monkey, often with a stooping gait, thinning hair. His mother is a “mammy” of the original, pre-corrected Aunt Jemima sort.
Memin, in fact, is drawn after a 1940s American cartoon (see La Jornada of Saturday for details) .
Pickaninnies and Mammies were almost always sympathetic characters. Sympathetic but inferior. Often charmingly childish or simple. They were images so common they became clichés, stereotypes, which helped reinforce the idea that even good black folks weren’t quite on your level but should be treated with charity. It was an image that was a part and parcel of other stereotypes about blacks. That’s at least part of the reason why many people in the U.S., who had memories of being told they could not vote, could only work at inferior jobs, were not quite fully human, saw this as offensive to the roots of their being.
It doesn’t help that other characters in the books are drawn as relatively normal or realistic figures, so that Memin – who is often explicitly used as an image for a black boy _ is relatively freakish.
Now there's a lot of difference in stereotypes. There's a debate about the Uncle Remus series, with many seeing it as good stuff that was respectful of the culture overall. Others disagree. But there's a lot less debate about the value of blackface skits or about a lot of other black images, even supposedly sympathetic.
The fact, again, that they draw on U.S. images, has helped confuse Americans to the fact that Mexico’s racial context is very different, that Mexicans don’t bring the baggage of (recent) black segregation to this, that slavery was ended earlier. That there are relatively few visible Afro-Mexicans. That the whole concept of racial categories in Hispanic nations was very different and more subtle than that in the United States. The fact that people refer to one another as “blackie” and the like doesn’t have anything like the context it does in the U.S. – though one usually wouldn’t venture to suggest somebody was an ape-like simpleton even here.
Mexicans, whose nation served as a haven for many persecuted U.S. blacks, have reason to be proud of that fact. The stereotypes, even those imported from the U.S., have a different impact.
On the other hand, it does mean that recordings of the beloved song “Negrito Sandia”, or “Little Black Watermelon,” are very common. Elena Poniatowska, of all people, raised this as an example of racial harmony in Mexico.
Memin Pinguin often tried hard to impart anti-racist messages, even if the impact often could seem ambiguous in the eyes of people who had experienced the Civil Rights Movement.
Mexicans have been horrifically treated in the United States. In the 20s and 30s, poor Mexican women in California were sometimes sterilized without their consent – similar to what happened to some black women in the South. California, at least, introduced busing in the 1940s – to take Mexican children AWAY from Anglo schools (a fact I discovered as a child when at school I ran across a stock of ancient books in my elementary school storehouse that referred to a school in town I’d never heard of. And when I asked. . . ).
For those and all the other, well known reasons, folks here get irritated at suggestions they are racist.
But it’s fascinating that through the first few days of this issue, only the American press made any effort to find Afro-Mexicans – or even academic experts on Afro-Mexicans – and ask them what THEY thought about Memin. One radio program interviewed white Cuban-Americans about what they thought, but not Afro-Mexicans.
Oddly, most Afro-Mexicans I saw interviewed in the U.S. press were a lot less fond of the little “cultural treasure” than were their less moreno counterparts, and a lot less likely to dismiss the racism issue.
One very prominent Mexican newspaper columnist suggested that it was only the United States that had experienced slavery. Several others raised the very valid issue of segregation in the United States – but as if that answered the issue at home. No need to talk to black Mexicans. At one point during the colonial era, there were more Africans than Spaniards in Mexico. To be honest, I don’t know what happened to them. The happy version is that they were absorbed. I’m sure that’s at least partly true.
In the first few days of this, there was dramatically little examination in the Mexican press or among officials about the question of race in Mexico, other than to immediately blow it off as an issue and to insult those who felt offended as racist gringos.
The dozens of stories and radio broadcasts I saw also focused on the White House and Jesse Jackson. Extremely few (Reforma had one Saturday) mentioned in any detail the widespread outrage among Latino activists in the United States. Extremely few focused on how broad-based was African-American unhappiness with the image.