The Westerners’ Imaginings

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Ellen Poteet

White on Black:
Blacks in Western Popular Culture
by Jan Nederveen Pieterse
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992, $35.

IN A POST-modem age of shifting, intractable realities, there are certain enduring images. The shelves in my neighborhood grocery store in Ann Arbor, like the shelves in the grocery store I went to as a child in New Orleans, still hold the boxes of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix, of Nabisco Cream of Wheat—with the ever reassuring, ever genial faces of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and the (Black) Cream of Wheat chef.

Admittedly the permutations of time continue, if in unexpected form. At some point, missed by me, Aunt Jemima lost about thirty years. Instead of an ageless woman in her mid-fifties, she is now an ageless woman in her mid- to late-twenties, a college graduate perhaps unable to land a job who has decided, evidently quite – happily, to re-enter the kitchens of a pre-Civil Rights generation.

Aunt Jemima joined the “American” household in 1890, the Cream of Wheat chef in 1893, Uncle Ben in 1946. So Jan Nederveen Pieterse tells us in his impressive study White on Black images of Africa and hats in Western Popular Culture (155) White on Black is a book about “the imagery of Eurocentrism.” Its focus is perceptions of Africa and of Blacks in the West, through the visual images of A white Western culture. Because the visual image creates associations and cross-references in the consciousness of the viewer it reinforces the contours and angled vision of popular culture’s perspective.

Nederveen Pieterse divides his study into three parts. The first deals with European images (imaginings is as useful a word to reflect the book’s arguments) of Africa, beginning with a historical overview of “Europe’s Africa.” It then explores the painted reflections of Europe’s fascination with the savage (sometimes noble but mostly otheiwise); with adventurous and treacherous lands of exploration to be subdued and civilized; with the reforming zeal of the Christian mission by which the lone white figure brings to the un-Christian and inevitably uncivilized population the peaceful order of Western social priorities; and with the confrontations and encounters of colonialism.

Included here are chapters on apartheid and on U.S. slavery, the latter perhaps better saved for Part II, “Blacks in the West’ Organized thematically, it has chapters on servants, entertainers, popular character roles imposed upon Blacks including the United States’ Sambo and Mammy, children’s illustrated literature, sexual stereotypes, and advertising.

Part III is less cohesive but not therefore tangential to the themes of the book Its first chapter looks at ‘white negroes,’ specifically the Irish, Chinese and Jews, and their relegation to the sidelines of a Western European or white U.S. identity through distorting imagery. The last chapter discusses the ideological and historical implications of “otherness” especially in a visual context.

The “Others” And Self-Image

According to Nederveen Pieterse, European and U.S. images of Africa and Blacks are more about Europe and the West than about Africa and the Black. The representations of “others” reflect the obsessions, fears circumscribed imagination of a white western culture in the self-chosen role of re-Creator.
Neither the West nor its “others,” however, are static. Even stereotypes change in meaning with the shifting social and cultural maps of a white society.

Thus, despite the condescension and patronizing which surrounded the image, abolitionists used the figure of an Uncle Tom to demand emancipation of slaves.

Still later, Uncle Tom became a trademark of segregationist oppression. (61) Whatever the variations and ambiguities in depictions of “others,” this book argues, one overriding feature has remained: the imagery of Eurocentrism supports Western hegemony and the social inequality upon which it depends. White on Black is not always an easy book to read, though for reasons beyond the control of its author. Its plethora of illustrations, from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century drawings to magazines, book illustrations, toy figurines, and cereal boxes to even a cartoon from The Militant, makes for constant diversion from the written text Nederveen Pieterse is right: the visual image has a unique pull all of its own.

In other respects the book is eminently readable. The translation from Dutch is by the author himself, insuring a reliable faithfulness to the original, and the language while at times academic is never inaccessible. Nederveen Pieterse is well aware that his study extends beyond strictly academic interests and he speaks to an audience of the politically observant.

The book’s comparative approach provides valuable insights into the scope and range of Eurocentrism’s hold over Western popular culture. For over a century children in the West have chanted rhymes counting down from ten with the memory aids of illustrated rhyme books. In England there were the “Ten Little Niggers,” in the United States the “Ten Little Indians.”

And through the recitations and accompanying images, Western children “have been learning to count by making non-Western children disappear, usually in not such pleasant ways.” (156)

England’s Golliwog, a mainstay of comics and children’s doll collections, was also the mascot for the Beatles. (156) The Netherlands’ Black Peter, the servant of St. Nicholas, is an integral part of Dutch festivities on December 5, St Nicholas Day. (163) Anti-racist campaigns in both England and the Netherlands have demanded the retraction of the Golliwog and Black Peter from their respective countries of origin. But the general public reaction has been similar in both countries, despite the protests. These images are “just a part of the culture.” In the Netherlands one response to the Black Peter controversy was “We only do it for the children.” (164)

The book’s comparisons also yield intriguing differences between national cultures of the West. Whereas the images of English popular culture evoke visions of Africa as the Dark Continent, in France Africa is linked to the sun. This, Nederveen Pieterse explains1 has a partly geographical base since French colonialism concentrated on the Sudan, but the distinction, he argues, is also cultural. French colonialism worked from an ideology of assimilation. L’ art negre and the cult of negritude began in France, not England.

Variations in the expression of “white on black” appear as well between Europe and the United States. Without the U.S. history of slavery, Europe’s images of Blacks in the West have not criminalized the Black male as U.S. popular culture in the media and advertising has so thoroughly accomplished. (174-176) “The equivalent of the ‘black brute of the American South,” writes Nederveen Pieterse, “is the ‘primitive savage’ of Europe’s Africa.” (179)

Additionally, this book argues that the experience of slavery created a hypocritical divide between the imaganery and the reality of Black women in U.S. culture. While sexually exploited as slaves, Black women in a Southern plantation context were often desexualized. The Aunt Jemima and the childlike maid servants of the plantation seemingly lived outside any conventional sexual framework The images projected of these women were ageless, sexless—suspended from the harsh realities which Black women actually endured and resisted. In Europe on the other hand, especially in the 1920s and 1930s, artists, poets and novelists explicitly fostered a cult of Black female eroticism in their art and writing. (178)

Identities and Interconnections

The cultural differences perceived between Europe and the U.S. are among White on Mack’s noteworthy contributions. They also raise some of the problems in assuming that the two sides of the Atlantic share a comparable Western identity. One of the insights to emerge from reading this book is that the configuration of ‘West” from a European perspective is not always applicable to U. S. history and culture.

Nederveen Pieterse studies “white on black” from two angles: the white West’s invasion and domination of an African interior and of African peoples, and the white West’s response to colonialism’s handmaiden, a Black underclass in its own midst. Yet the internal colonialism of the United States has intertwined the histories of white and Black to produce cultural interconnections and divides peculiar to U.S. experiences of racism and social inequality.

The inclusion of U.S. slavery and abolitionism in the first part of the book reflects a difficulty in knowing where to place the slave society of the American South in an organization of themes essentially drawn from European experience of nineteenth-century colonialism and its twentieth-century ramifications.

Nederveen Pieteise stresses “the historical relativity of social representations, and the fact that images of blacks, like ideologies of ‘race,’ are social constructions.” (12) However, he tends to construe the changing brush strokes of “white on black” in terms of a European imperialism that leaves the West’s own culture impervious to non-Western influences. There is a sense that the historical line of images he traces from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries has incorporated minimally, if at all, the reactions, reinterpretations, and protests of colonized peoples themselves.

While the scope of the book does not allow for a social history of Africa and of African responses to Western imperialism, it nevertheless risks overschematizing the West and its “others” as if the “others” were an unreactive canvass. It is an ironic aspect of a book which itself makes a plea for rethinking the polarities of “white on black.”

Nederveen Pieterse hints at the idea that Blacks have responded to images of themselves, shifting the terrain to a Black perspective, in his comments on Josephine Baker. On the one hand he notes that, while Baker’s talents were her own, “her so-called wildness was a quality carefully constructed by impresarios and avant-garde artists.” (142) Yet he adds that “Taking her leopard for a stroll in a Paris park, Josephine Baker played herself with this imagery.” (142-143)

An unclear delineation of the audiences for these images helps create a rigid divide between West and “other.” Since the book does not explicitly define “popular culture” the contexts for reception and translation into meaning of the imagery of Eurocentrism blur. Is the intended audience solely white? What happens to the perception of these images when they are pulled into a context of a blue-collar household of the United States in the 1950s versus an Edwardian country estate of early twentieth-century England?

In the U.S. South in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were images that infantilized African-Americans, that depicted white superiority through stereotypes of Black servants, and that criminalized the African-American male, meant for slaves, Black sharecroppers and laborers, or for a white ruling class seeking unquestioned cultural affirmation of its dominance? Or were they directed towards a poor white population in order that its members should overlook the social inequalities of class in a racially divided region?

Much of the power and fascination of this book derive from the compilation of so many images of “white on black” in such a relatively small space. Yet outside the book’s covers, the audiences for the majority of these images a neither uniform, constant, nor dependably attentive. Few but the academically inclined study the logo of Uncle, more than a passing recognition.

Uncle Ben on a box of converted rice, the pictures of laborers in the West Indies on many rum labels, and other such images, slip in and out of consciousness. Therein lies their political importance and also their elusive tie to existing social relations.

Marxism and Eurocentrism

There is a story that a woman of considerable means once commissioned Matisse to paint her portrait. When she saw the complete work she was aghast, declaring that it didn’t look at all like her. The artist answered, “Madam, l think you have confused the painting of a lady with the lady herself.”

Nederveen Pieterse acutely observes the caricatures and distortions embedded in white depictions of Africa and Blacks, In so doing, he opens the way for further studies to investigate how societies, in Europe, the U.S. and Africa have mediated these caricatures with the real people and places they “represent” or, more often, fictionalize.

Max Raphael, noted art critic and Marxist thinker, wrote that a Marxist theory of art cannot stop with a categorization of the materialist base for artistic production. Since social forms in art can absorb the present, past and (imaginary) future—embodying those varying times simultaneously–a Marxist sociology of art requires continual evaluation of the dynamic relations “between affirmation of real world and escape from it, between social reason and social utopianism.”(1) In the context of White on Black one might add the criteria of whose social reason and whose social utopianism.

Nederveen Pieterse’s own perspective definitely challenges the cultural and political hegemony of Eurocentrism. His theoretical formulations are vaguer. His references to Marx (and Engels) and to a Marxist tradition of historical and social analysis are unconnected and cursory. Thus, Marx and Engels, along with Hegel, are mentioned as commonly subscribing to a view of Africans as “peoples without history.” (34-35)

Two pages later Nederveen Pieterse comments that social evolutionism, via Louis Morgan, influenced Marxist orthodoxy, without further discussion of the intellectual interaction. And he notes that Marx, Sartre, and Conrad all sharply criticized European imperialism. (100) There is no overall evaluation of the value, or not, of a Marxist analysis in considerations of Eurocentrism ‘s visual communications.

In his final chapter “Image and Power,” Nederveen Pieterse reviews different schools of thought on “otherness” and seem to situate himself within the camp of cultural studies, but it is a broad, almost amorphous camp as he describes it “a loosely coherent ensemble combining the methodologies of Marxism, psychoanalysis, anthropology, feminism, and deconstruction.” (225)

Such a generalized interpretation can be inadequate for analyzing the relations between social groups and movements. The Introduction poses the question “How does modem pluralism deal with the legacy of the culture of hierarchy?” (15) as the book’s central issue. Yet the book’s chapters answer that question obliquely; or, when political links between social movements are cited, the conclusions are tentative and abbreviated.

At the end of his chapter on the West’s constructions of Black sexuality, Nederveen Pieterse notes the conjuncture of the Harlem Renaissance with the “loose” Twenties, and of the Civil Rights movement with the 1960s “sexual revolution.” He concludes that “there may, then, be a nexus between sexual liberation, the emancipation of women and that of blacks and ‘others’ generally.” (187) The proposal is provocative but without further elaboration fleeting in its implications.

Who’s Us White Men?

Similarly, the discussion of “white negroes” raises interesting connections without a firm theoretical base on which to analyze twentieth-century pluralism and its relation to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century imperialism.

Nederveen Pieterse describes the denigration of Irish, Chinese and Jews by means of their association with the negative imagery of blackness and of Blacks themselves. A cartoon in Harper’s Weekly (A Journal of Civilization) from December 1876, for example, showed caricatures of a freed slave and an Irishman balancing hanging scale with the inscription “voting booth.” Only a clay pipe distinguishes the Irishman from the Black

Because of the parallels in stereotypes between social groups, “racialism,” according to Nederveen Pietexse, ceases to be the crux of Eurocentrism’s distorted gaze. “White negroes” include the poor and women as well. Common oppression through the visual image demonstrates the interconnection between racism, sexism, and class bias.

In Part III the underlying theme of Eurocentrism’s imagery becomes “social inequality,” yet in that term’s broadness many of the important details about Europe’s re-conceptualizations of Africa and Blacks in the West lose their distinctive force. Social inequality is a larger umbrella for the oppressions of race, sex, and class, but not therefore a more effective analytic category—and leaves open to question twentieth-century pluralism itself, since the social inequalities of class, gender, and race hierarchies are hardly the children of recent decades.

What the careful research of this book does provide is an understanding of the vital role the visual has had in buttressing European aspirations to hegemony. It reveals the power and prevalence of pictorial representation long before the age of electronic mass media.

Through the history of visual accounts of “others” a more fully articulated history of Eurocentrism comes to the fore. And as it does so the hegemony itself of a white West curiously recedes. For what Nederveen Pieterse tells his readers by implication is that in so far as the West fabricates the foreignness and tractability of “others’ it fictionalizes its own boundaries and its own ability to draw the world’s map by the diminutive scale of its shadow.

The criticisms of White on Black expressed here are not so much negative responses as a desire for a longer sojourn with a perceptive author. One of the pleasures in moving through the book’s sections is the growing realization that one is in the hands of a generous scholar who acknowledges the work of others, offers his own contributions, and suggests ways for crossing boundaries of literary, historical, and sociological studies.

The last illustration of White on Black is of a 1991 Oxfam advertisement showing an emaciated mother and child. Nederveen Pieterse writes: “Post colonial imagery presents the Third World as spectacle…. The abnormal is the norm in the representation of the non-Western world. The logic of centre and periphery is mirrored in the dual imagery of stability and crisis, life and death, with death, famine, disaster and upheaval expelled to the margins… it is a deceptive formula which territorializes poverty, ignores the similarities between North and South, and conceals global economic and political links.” (235)

He warns against the European West’s illusions of distance from a world portrayed as almost non-human. Indeed, as if in an epilogue to Nederveen Pieterse’s final comments, the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri has recently written of the people behind the hollowed faces, confronted by Western photographers and curious on- lookers: “I opened my eyes for the last time. I saw the cameras on us all. To them, we were the dead. As I passed through the agony of light, I saw them as the dead, marooned in a world  Without pity or love.”(2)


  1. Max Raphael, Proudhon, Picasso: Three Studies in the Sociology of Art (Trans. by Inge Marcuse, (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1980), 86.
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  2. Op-Ed page, New York Times 1/29/93.
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