From Hostility to Reverence: 100 Years of African-American Imagery in Games
From Hostility to Reverence:
100 Years of African-American Imagery in Games
Denis Mercier, Ph.D.
Of all the American popular genres using African-American imagery, children's games have been among the most uniformly negative. Only in the last twenty years or so have white game manufacturers softened their depiction of Blacks. And only when Black lobbying has forced the elimination of derogatory racial stereotypes or when Blacks have invented and marketed games themselves, have the images turned from racial satirization to respect.
Like other popular media and genres, games communicate through graphics and text, but their messages are further expressed through the thoughts, actions, and strategies required to play them successfully. Because most players of children's games are young and impressionable, the imagery and action in those games may well promote racial stereotyping and prejudice, and reinforce or sanction those same attitudes among adult players.
The portrayal of African Americans in games over the past century has undergone an evolution that reflects three distinct eras in American race relations. Board games, first developed in the 1830s, grew in popularity among American middle-class families during the late nineteenth century, at a time when racial prejudice and segregation were on the rise not just in the American South, but also in many of the northern states due to massive immigration from Europe and the migration of southern Blacks to northern cities. Anglo-American fascination with the newcomers, as well as their racial and ethnic prejudices, were reflected throughout popular culture: in music, literature, advertisements, theater, and games. While images of other ethnic groups tended to soften during the first decades of the twentieth century, derogatory African-American imagery, often overtly hostile, was common in American games up to the Second World War. A transitional period, lasting from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s, saw African- American imagery all but disappear from most genres of American popular culture, including games. The Civil Rights Movement marked the beginning of another era in toy imagery which continues to today in which both Black and white-owned companies have introduced new, more realistic, and often strongly positive images of Black Americans.
The Years of Hostility
Games of the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected racial attitudes ranging from the benign to the aggressively violent. Although some of the games of the first period stereotyped African Americans as comical entertainers, many revealed an intense white hostility towards Blacks. This hostility was legitimated, even celebrated, by making it appear as if the Blacks depicted enjoyed the victimization to which the games subjected them. Many target games of the period portrayed the Black targets as smiling broadly. The unspoken message was that Blacks, unlike other people, felt no pain, so players could indulge in and enjoy aggressive assaults because no real pain was inflicted.
The target games found in traveling carnival shows, seashore resorts and fairgrounds throughout the nation were among the most racially aggressive of all popular games. One popular carnival game which featured names like "Dump the Nigger," "African Dip," or "Coon Dip" did not require directly hitting a Black person, but hitting the target device attached to a delicately balanced plank upon which a Black person sat. The target, if hit squarely, caused the sitter to be dumped into the tank below. An even more brutal cousin to "African Dip" was "Hit the Coon" or "African Dodger," also popular at resorts, fairs, and festivals. A painted canvas of a scene, usually a cotton plantation, had a hole through which a Black man stuck his head and tried to get out of the way of the ball. Small prizes were awarded for a direct hit. In 1878 the C.W.F. Dare Company of New York offered painted "Negro Head Canvases" and "Negro Heads" made of wood since live targets were not always easy to come by. Some operators provided human targets with protective wooden helmets covered with curly hair. Eventually such games grated against public sensibilities and were declared illegal.
Other target games of the era came in a wide variety of forms [Color Plate 1]. A ring-toss called "Garden Aunt Sally" featured a mammy figure smoking a pipe. "The Game of Sambo," a standup target game produced by Parker Brothers in the early 1900s, had targets which were meant to be comic caricatures of African- American faces. "Bean-Em," was a beanbag game with Black figures as targets, and there were two ball-toss games: "Hit Me Hard," in which balls were thrown through the mouth of an incongruously mirthful and "cute" boy-child with an enormous smile, and "Chuck," in which two players attempted to toss discs shaped like watermelons into an open mouth.
Bagatelle games, the precursor of pinball, were another form of target game. Made of wood, with lithographed paper overlay and nail "pins," most games were designed to be used with marbles as balls. The "Gropper On. M. Co." of Brooklyn, New York made one featuring good luck charms (lucky stars, horseshoes, etc.) and "Rastus" and "Rufus," two "dandy dudes" eyeing each other suspiciously while preparing to shoot dice. (Another character on the game board, "Eruption," is apparently a stereotyped Irishman).
Under "latest novelty games," the 1914 Butler Brothers Catalog listed two target games in which racial aggression and sadism were blatantly obvious. The "Little Darky Shooting Gallery" with its "three comic cardboard targets," one of which was a heavy-set Black woman, came complete with "spring gun and vacuum rubber tipped arrows for $1.95 a dozen." "Darky Ten Pins" featured "ten 6-1/2 inch heavy cardboard litho coons on wood bases," each smiling and holding enormous watermelons.
Numerous other companies made and distributed variations of bowling games. Two of the better known ones were "Jim Crow Ten Pins" with smiling minstrel-type figures, and "Zulu Tribe" ten pins with minstrel faces and exotic costumes.(1) Parker Brothers, one of the few major manufacturers to market bowling sets, issued "Sambo Five Pins" in the early 1920s. The inside of the box tells a story which begins, "Sambo was a good ole Southern Darky..."
Color Plate 16
Black images in target games overtly demonstrated white hostility against African Americans. Yet Black images had been featured since the 1840s in a less violent genre of game-the card game. A relatively non-derogatory image of a Black servant appeared in the popular card game "Dr. Busby" (1843). "Old Maid," one of the most popular card games ever and the first to be learned by generations of American children, featured a veritable encyclopedia of derogatory stereotypes such as the Black characters "Lily White," "Jazzbo Jackson," and "Melon Moe" [Color Plate 16]. "The Game of Ten Little Niggers," introduced by Parker Brothers in 1895, was a variation of Old Maid that featured Black characters exclusively. The deck contained a pair of each of the ten "Little Niggers" plus one oddball to get "stuck" with. The Fireside Game Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, introduced "In Dixie Land," a similar game, two years later. This featured black-and-white photos of different "Southern characters," many of which appeared in postcards.
Jigsaw puzzles, initially limited to geographical subjects, came to the United States from England in the 1870s. Soon manufacturers introduced other subject matter, including Black stereotypes which appealed to the American middle-class market. In 1874, the McLoughlin Brothers of New York manufactured a puzzle called "Chopped Up Niggers." Although the puzzle's images of Blacks were more sympathetic than many of the period, the blatant sadism of the name is clear. Around 1905 J.R. Brundage, Inc. "Things Unusual" of New York brought out a line of jigsaw puzzles, one showing Black men dancing madly in formal evening clothes entitled "Woozy Jig."
Color Plate 17
|Many of the images of African Americans in card games and puzzles stereotyped Blacks
as comical [Color Plate 17]. That stereotype was especially prevalent in mechanical
games. In 1912 the page of "Popular Games of all Kinds" in the Sears, Roebuck and
Co. catalog featured a game from "Timi-Tipp" of Germany:
Easing Into Transition
A growing population of Blacks in northern cities resulting from the great migration of southern Blacks after the First World War gradually developed the leadership and organization necessary to fight for civil rights and combat derogatory racial stereotypes. In response, during the 1920s, white manufacturers began to tone down the broadest, most overdrawn Black caricatures.
By the 1930s, manufacturers had by and large ceased to design new games which portrayed Blacks as "targets," and many of the "older" designs were produced in dwindling numbers. Although bowling games remained popular throughout the 1930s, the pins portrayed not just Blacks, but other "amusing" characters.(2) In the Russel Manufacturing Company's "Goof Race and Ten Pins," three "goofs," a soldier, a clown, and a watermelon-eating Black figure, could be made either to "race" down an incline or to line up to be bowled over.
Snake Eyes Game
Board games of the 1930s reflecting this decline in violent racial undercurrents included "Snake Eyes," a craps-like game by Selchow and Righter of New York, featuring Black faces with "roly-boly" eyes on its cover. Various "--Amos 'n' Andy" games and puzzles were used as promotions by the Pepsodent Companv. the radio program's sponsor at the time.(3) Although these games contained no physical violence or hostility, they continued to trivialize Blacks and deny them dignity.
Trends towards improved depiction of Blacks in games during this period did not exclude the appearance of games containing old stereotypes. Currents of popular culture flow in many directions simultaneously. As late as 1928 the "African Dip" was still being advertised in various amusement catalogs, among them The Billboard of June 16:
In 1940, All-Metals Products Co. of Wyandotte, Michigan marketed a "Sambo Target" for use with their toy pistol set. A gap-toothed, bug-eyed young Sambo was the centerpiece of a brightly lithographed, metal target board.
Color Plate 14
|As in the previous decade, broad caricature was more prevalent than overt violence
in the 1940s. A "Pickaninny Jackpot" board and punchboard game featured cards portraying
stereotyped Black children holding up watermelons with the "jackpot" figures printed
on the melons. These images perpetuated the pickaninny- watermelon stereotype that
persisted since antebellum times. In 1945, a game called "The Adventures of Little
Black Sambo" used graphics heavily influenced by the illustrations in contemporary
editions of the children's book: an African "native" with minstrel-like features and
no hair [Color Plate 14]. A "Deluxe" Old Maid game of the late forties by Playtime
House of Rochester, New York, featured "Mamie (sic) Pamby" as pair number 13. "Mamie"
was the archetypal Mammy.
Although in the early 1950s Selchow and Righter reissued "Snake Eyes" without changing the graphics, as the decade progressed, and the political and economic clout of African Americans grew, Blacks ceased to be the literal and figurative targets of abuse and ridicule. As in nearly every other genre of popular culture, images of Blacks disappeared entirely from games during the turbulent civil rights years. Images of African Americans simply became too "controversial" for the culture-makers to treat in overtly derogatory--or any other--ways.
||African Americans remained invisible in the game genre long after they achieved de jure the equality of their rights. Mainstream game makers such as Selchow and Righter,
Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers slowly integrated Black characters, issues and
accomplishments into their offerings as they revised games or created new ones. This
study, despite much effort, has yet to discover any attempt by mainstream manufacturers
to market "Black editions" of established games to the growing African-American market.
As the Black consumer, game-playing market grew, it demanded games that encouraged
Black pride [Color Plate 15]. For the most part, Black entrepreneurs alone met this
In 1974 a mainstream manufacturer, EDU-CARDS, a division of KPB Industries of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, offered a flash card set, "Famous Black People in American History." The game involved showing a charcoal portrait of a famous person, giving a clue, and asking, "Who am I?" The subjects ranged from Marian Anderson to Phyllis Wheatley.
More typical of the slow and deliberate pace of integration was the 1978 edition of Milton Bradley's "Chutes and Ladders," which included a young Black boy as one of the moveable game pieces. (The other game pieces depicted white little boys and girls.)
The phenomenally successful "Trivial Pursuit" series of games included numerous references to African Americans in the arts, media, sports and history. Marketed jointly by Horn Abbot and Selchow and Righter, all of the series-from the original Genus in 1981, the Silver Screen, All-Star Sports and Baby Boomer in 1983 to the Young Players in 1985 -liberally acknowledged Black participation in and contributions to U.S. and world events.
Among lesser-known manufacturers, the John N. Hansen Co. Inc. and TRIVIA GAMES INC. produced versions of "JUNIOR TRIVIA" (ca. 1985). The questions from the categories Entertainment/Famous People, Sports/Games, Science/Computers, Literature/Art/Words, Geography/Space, and History/Traditions include little about Black achievement and contribution beyond that of sports heroes such as "Dr. J." (Julius Irving). Instead the questions ask about Fat Albert's favorite sport, the nickname of the 747 airplane ("Fat Albert"), the country in which Dr. Livingston worked (Africa), the Friday of the Wall Street Crash in 1929 ("black"), and the Ku Klux Klan.
Hersch and Company's "Out of Context: Game of Outrageous Quotes" (1985) included quotes by Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Joe Louis, Richard Pryor, Andrew Young, Angela Davis, Wilt Chamberlain, Vanessa Williams, Sonny Liston, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Mr. T., Eddie Murphy and more. Game players could not help but realize the major role Blacks play in everyone's daily lives. But it took Black entrepreneurs to celebrate and revere African Americans in games.
With U.S. Games Systems, Inc. of Stamford, Connecticut, educator Deloris L. Holt and illustrator Langley Newman, published the "Black Historv Playing Card Deck" (1977). It is a complete deck of cards divided into four suits: Human Rights, Adventure, Science and Industry, and the Arts. In the Arts suit, for example, the King is Paul Robeson, the Queen Lorraine Hansberry; the Jack is Louis Armstrong, the Ten Muhammad Ali, the Nine Bessie Smith, the Eight Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the Seven Jackie Robinson, the Six Henry Ossawa Tanner, the Five Jessie Owens, the Four Langston Hughes, the Three Henry Zino, the Two Ira Aldridge, and the Ace Edward Kennedy (Duke) Ellington. Each card features a color portrait and a separate booklet contains short biographies of each "notable black person in America's rich heritage."
Developed in 1987, "Black Americana HIGH ACHIEVER" is patterned loosely on the "Trivial Pursuit" model. The game contains over 2500 questions on African-American history and culture. A sample question is "From what Black college did teacher-astronaut Sharon Christa McAuliffe graduate?"(4)
Over the past one hundred years or so the attitude toward African Americans in games has evolved from hostility to at least grudging respect. The evolution has been uneven, however. The most primitive period was by far the longest. Furthermore, the recent and as yet much briefer dramatic turn toward reverence is due to Black initiative and participation.
(1) Don Kader, "Collecting Black Memorabilia," Collectors' Showcase (Sept./Oct., 1982), 16.
(2) William C. Ketchum, Jr., The Catalog of American Collectibles: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Styles and Prices (New York: A Rutledge/Mayflower Book, 1979), 298.
(3) Richard Friz, "On the Air: The Amos 'n' Andy Show," Collectibles Illustrated (May/June, 1983), 82.
(4) Answer: She received her Master of Education degree from Bowie State College in Maryland.