Question of the Month
African Dip Carnival Game
Q: When I was a child growing in the Chicago area I remember going to a fair or carnival and seeing long lines of White customers waiting for a chance to throw baseballs at Blacks. How common was this?
-- Sarah Graf, Spokane, Washington
A: Before the Civil Rights Movement, it was not uncommon to see African Americans used as targets in carnival shows. A popular version was the game "African Dip." A Black person, usually a man, would sit on a plank and yell insults -- some racial -- at the White customers. The game's owner encouraged Blacks hired as "Africans" to verbally taunt Whites; thereby, ensuring long lines of angry, paying customers. The insulted White customers would try to hit a target device attached to the plank. When the target was hit squarely it caused the Black man to be dumped in the tank below. Typically, a huge crowd, some inebriated, would shout encouragement to the person throwing -- and shout insults at the Black man in the "cage." When a direct hit sent the Black men into the water there were shouts of joy. It was not uncommon for some Whites to throw the balls at the Black person -- protected by a net or cage -- instead of the painted, circular target.
The African Dip target game was found in many traveling carnival shows, seashore resorts, and fairgrounds across the United States. It is likely that the one you visited was at Chicago's Riverview amusement park, open from 1904 to 1967. In the early 1940s the game was called "Dunk the Nigger," by the late 1940s it had been renamed "African Dip." The NAACP pressured carnival officials to close the game, but the game remained a part of Riverview entertainment until the late 1950s. Chicago was, and remains, a town with many White Ethnics. African Dip allowed immigrants, many first generation Americans from Ireland, Yugoslavia, Poland and other European nations, to define themselves as "real Americans," racially white, united by skin color with the White immigrants who came earlier and were already assimilated. They were, after all, not like the Blacks in the tank.
The physical violence associated with the "African Dip" game occurred outside the cage -- in some instances, angry White customers would wait hours for the Black "target" to leave the protected area so they could assault him. This was not necessary with "Hit the Coon," also popular at resorts, fairs, and festivals. A Black man would stick his head through a hole in a banner and the White customers would throw baseballs at him. Although the Black victim tried to avoid the baseballs, many White customers inflicted the physical damage they desired. Some carnival operators provided human targets with protective wooden helmets covered with curly hair; most did not. The banner was painted with a stereotypical scene, for example, a cotton plantation. A direct blow to the head resulted in the thrower receiving a small prize -- and the psychological benefit of believing that he or she was superior to the victim.
By the late 1950s racialized carnival games were disappearing, though a small number of carnival operators had target games where wooden "Negro Heads" were used. These wooden heads were used by carnival operators who did not want to offend customers by using actual Black people as targets -- or who were unable to find Black people poor and desperate enough to take the jobs. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum -- and the White American public became more aware of the injustices associated with Jim Crow segregation -- human target games increasingly grated against public sensibilities. In contemporary America, there are still variations of the African Dip game, but Blacks are not usually the targets, and the game's racist past is unknown to most present-day Americans.
February 2007 response by David Pilgrim, Curator, Jim Crow Museum