Monday, November 03, 2008

Armstrong Shoes and the Servitor

Every issue of the '20s New Yorker is bound to have a disturbing racial stereotype or two. I don't generally post them because they aren't usually very interesting, and also because I don't want to provide fodder for obnoxious preteen racists ("preteen" in either body OR mind).

More specifically, though...well, I often post New Yorker clips here in order to simultaneously draw attention to interesting finds, and to poke fun at them. The ham-fisted, surreal racist advertisements from the '20s ARE funny in a disturbing, groan-inducing, "I can't believe anybody would have CREATED this" way...but not to everybody.

Well, here's one that isn't particularly funny, but is so sustained that I can't help posting it. Why isn't it funny? Because its roots aren't in some vaudeville strain of ethnic humour. It is, rather, far too serious.

At first I thought I could make fun of the "What're YOU looking at?" aspect of this "Armstrong Shoes" advertisement, but then I read the description.
Sambo, or is it Mose, craves to carry the luggage of the lady of yon descending foot. For Sambo, or Mose, has identified by its shoe a person of quality, generous to her servitors.

"Body may be by Fisher," ruminates our hero, "but dem shoes am suttinly by Armstrong"...

...Sambo's perspicacity did not go unrewarded, you may be sure. That night he went home to Harlem richer by four bits.
See what I mean? This ad isn't about a cheap "black bellhop" gag. It's trying to be realistic. And that's ugly stuff.


Anonymous said...

Wow! I have not seen anything this "old-school" racist in a long time. Can you say, "Pardon me, boy, is this the Chattanooga choo-choo?"!!

However, in the context of the time in which the ad was published, the suppositions were probably acceptable to the magazine's typical readers: (that the porter's name could have been one of those; that it was a pleasure for him to be of service; that he certainly knows "quality" when he sees it; and that he knows his place - and will only survive by staying in his place).

As recently as 1948, E. B. White wrote in Here Is New York about a large-voiced Negro man singing as a theater let out, and was rewarded with quarters. He even wondered if this man could make a living by this street singing. (The play was "The Respectful Prostitute," and White says that the audience may be disposed to improving the circumstances of black people after seeing the show.)

Although White was probably just reporting what he saw, his suppositions could reflect the pre-welfare state -- but South-influenced -- view of a subservient and dependent colored underclass.

Not long ago I saw a news story on a collection of cast-iron mechanical savings banks, which included a number of racist ones. Let's face it, such images were once popular.

I feel that, like the unedited stories of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, we should not sweep these things under the rug, but intelligently understand their history - and how far we have come since then (I hope!).

Adam Thornton said...

I agree on all points, that we should be able to analyze these things without hiding them out of sight, and that we should also recognize contextual differences.

Somehow the totally over-the-top eye-rolling portrayals of black people in The New Yorker bother me far less than the condescending "real" portrayal, in which white writers thought they had a handle on race. Things are not much different now, really.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) these things become political very quickly.