Leo Meiersdorff's Portrayal of Blacks - December 2003
I own a business establishment which has on display a print of Leo Meiersdorff's Cooking with Jazz. Two patrons recently expressed their dislike for the print, deeming it racist. Do you think this print is racist?
In order to answer your question, I have spent some time reviewing websites devoted to Leo Meiersdorff. I believe that Cooking with Jazz is racist. I am basing this on the limited selection of prints I could find on the web. Meiersdorff was a very talented individual and he could present African-Americans without the racist caricatures.
In particular, I think his set of images of chefs clearly demonstrates that he made use of the popular racist elements used in caricatures of African Americans.
If you analyze his Asian Chef, you have an image that is not caricatured, with only the slightest clues to the Asian reference in the picture itself (mustache and goatee). The same is almost true of the Chicano image, though in this case the nose is exaggerated, but this is not part of an established anti-Chicano repertoire of images. His use of the sombrero and mustache are the clues.
His image of the Italian is also recognizable from the different mustache and the title of the picture. The other exaggerations are idiosyncratic to the way Meiersdorff did all his images. His Frenchman I think is recognizable only because of the picture's title. The rest of the images in this particular grouping of posters are uniquely drawn as caricatures but without signifying anything in particular.
In Cooking with Jazz he exaggerated the lips, elongated the head in ways common to a long line of racist images. His characterization in this poster wasn't original in the same way he was in his other images. That this poster is so widely available and cheap is genuinely troubling. Meiersdorff is a very interesting artist. Unfortunately, in this case he was influenced by the popular images in American culture that signified "African-American."
I hope this gives you a way of thinking about this poster.
John P. Thorp, Ph.D.
Director, Jim Crow Museum
Social Sciences Department Head
Ferris State University