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A Racist Love Note: Black Stereotypes in Valentines

Caricatures of African Americans perpetuated the status quo

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February 10, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- On Thursday, Feb. 16, Northwestern Professor Harvey Young will present “A Racist Love Note: Stereotypes and Caricatures on Early 20th Century Valentine’s Day Cards.” “Call it the darker side of Valentine’s Day,” he says.

The free and public event -- part of the Evanston Northwestern Humanities Lecture Series -- will take place at 7 p.m. in the Community Meeting Room of the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Ave.

A scholar of African American culture, Young calls the valentine cards indications of the widespread acceptance of African Americans stereotypes. “These were not greeting cards manufactured for members of the Klu Klux Klan,” he says.

“They were mainstream cards available for purchase at the Walgreens and Jewel of their day. Their caricatures of lazy and dimwitted black people helped to justify segregation.” Harvey adds.

The cards, for example, often make light-hearted references to lynching, slavery and impending violence. Almost always written in bastardized English – Is yo’ mah Valentine? – the cards, Harvey says “feed into a narrative that perpetuates the logic of discrimination.”

One such card – which the professor of theatre, performance studies and African American Studies will present Feb. 16 -- features a cartoonish black man drawn very much in the black face/minstrel tradition on a precipice with a rope around his neck that is tied to a tree. “BE MAH VALENTINE… I’ll be hanged if you’ is goin’ to say no!” it reads.

“Who purchased these cards is not clear,” says Harvey, who began his own card collection a year ago for a book project. “You’ll find them at auctions or on eBay. They’re the kind of things that people discover in their grandparents’ attics, but would be too embarrassed to sell at a garage sale today.“

Not surprisingly, images of watermelons and cotton bales with black adults and, in particular, children in tattered clothes abound in this genre. With images of playful black adults and, particularly children, they often strive to create a sense of blackness as “playful, childlike and joyous.”

“The cards helped keep alive stereotypes of black people as laughing, singing and dancing without a care in the world,” says. Harvey. “Slowly they began to decline but they didn’t simply end overnight. Even in the 1940s, you have war bonds promoted with a cartoon of Bugs Bunny in black face.” 

Harvey, who teaches performance studies in the School of Communication and African American studies in Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, is the author of “Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body,” winner of the 2011 Lilla A. Heston Award for Outstanding Scholarship.

The Evanston Northwestern Humanities Lecture Series is a collaboration of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and Evanston Public Library in which Northwestern faculty in the humanties share their research with Evanston community members. 

Professor Harvey Young can be reached via email at harvey@northwstern.edu