Marlon Riggs (1957-1994)
Ethnic Notions (1986)
Ethnic Notions is Marlon Riggs' Emmy-winning documentary that takes viewers on a disturbing voyage through American history, tracing for the first time the deep-rooted stereotypes which have fueled anti-black prejudice. Through these images we can begin to understand the evolution of racial consciousness in America.

Loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies roll across the screen in cartoons, feature films, popular songs, minstrel shows, advertisements, folklore, household artifacts, even children's rhymes. These dehumanizing caricatures permeated popular culture from the 1820s to the Civil Rights period and implanted themselves deep in the American psyche.

Narration by Esther Rolle and commentary by respected scholars shed light on the origins and devastating consequences of this 150 yearlong parade of bigotry. Ethnic Notions situates each stereotype historically in white society's shifting needs to justify racist oppression from slavery to the present day. The insidious images exacted a devastating toll on black Americans and continue to undermine race relations.


Back in 1932, T.D.Rice brought the caricature of Jim Crow, a white man portraying a black man, happily singing and dancing, to Ohio and Louisiana territory, places where they had never seen a black person before. The minstrel movement took off at the same time as the abolitionist movement. In order to deceive those who had little actual contact with blacks, they were presented as "happy sambo" to allay fears that slavery was bad or uncomfortable. Later Jim Crow's partner, Zip Coon, was added to the show, as a "maladjusted dandy" giving the idea that even if blacks were freed, they'd never be able to fit into "regular" society. To round out the cast, the "happy mammy" defended slavery by being docile, loyal, and protective of "the big house". The first cartoon image the video covers is from 1941, with the Mammy cartoons, reinforcing the ideas in the minds of young children. Once the slaves were freed, images were produced suggesting that the blacks were, "reverting to savagery" in movies such as, "Birth of a Nation"; and later, the "noble savage", "The Emperor Jones" in 1935; and more recently, the license-to-be-violent, "Black Rambo." The video expresses the view that, "the happy images are o.k. except when they are to the exclusion of other images." The video was excellent in organizing myriad, random images from the past and presenting analyses strongly supporting the intention and purpose behind those images.


NARRATOR: The mammy … the pickaninny … the coon … the sambo … the uncle: Well into the middle of the twentieth century , these were some of the most popular depictions of black Americans.