(Note on terminology: After struggling with it awhile I opted to use the n-word once in this essay because it is literally part of the name of the object discussed. This single use of the term was placed in quotes to indicate that fact, as well as the fact that I would never use it otherwise.)
The characters and events described by Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition give dramatic form to Black people’s experience of racist discrimination and violence during the Nadir of the Negro. Deprived of many civil rights, targeted by lynch mobs, and subjected to daily indignities, African Americans struggled to survive the Nadir as best they were able.
The figures of Dr. Miller and Josh Green are particularly striking in this respect because despite their sympathy for one another they respond to the Wilmington Insurrection in decidedly different ways.
Miller refuses to cede his humanity, carefully calculating risks and acting kindly even toward those who have wronged him. Green on the other hand is more of a Nat Turner figure, meeting force with force, willing to resist until death.
Oddly, the system that denies them full citizenship relies not only on physical violence and legal forms of oppression. Popular culture gives ideological support to Jim Crow, in particular a form of entertainment exceedingly widespread at the turn of the century, blackface minstrelsy.
Trafficking in racist caricature, minstrel shows portrayed African Americans as “‘irresponsible, happy-go-lucky, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, shuffling, banjo-playing, singing, dancing sort of being[s]’” (Weldon qtd. in Loewen 297). Buffoonish, less than human, minstrel figures were often the only contact white Americans had with Black people. Truly caricatural in nature, such distortions of African Americans included exaggerated and inaccurate representations of speech and body language. They also operated in the visual register. Illustrations found in magazines and on the covers of songbooks depict grotesque figures with names such as Ginger Blue and Zip Coon.
What we might call the minstrel aesthetic permeated American culture, working its way into the realm of curios and children’s toys. One of the most ubiquitous examples of the latter was the “Jolly Nigger” mechanical bank (JNMB hereafter), tens of thousands of which were produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. JNMBs were manufactured by the J. & E. Stevens Company of Cromwell, Connecticut and today these items are much sought after by collectors of racist memorabilia.
My image is a photograph of one such mechanical bank, found at artstor.org with no date or photographer listed. The bank’s mechanism works by placing a coin in the hand of the figure and pressing a lever in the back. The coin is then deposited in its oversized mouth. We can imagine that the child who received this object as a gift might find it amusing given the social attitudes of the day. This small pleasure is itself significant because it effectively renders the dehumanization of Black people palatable or unremarkable. The novelty of depositing coins in the bank, perhaps several times in a week, would fade and with it any recognition of what, exactly, the bank represents. In this way racist attitudes concerning African Americans were woven into everyday consciousness.
It is also notable that the bank’s primary purpose is didactic. It teaches children a lesson about the value of thrift after the manner of Benjamin Franklin’s famous bromide “A penny saved is a penny earned.” That this lesson about economy is delivered via the medium of racist caricature raises the issue of the relationship between race and the accumulation of wealth. A whole history is contained in the JNMB, not only of how some children were afforded economic opportunities while others were not, but with regard to US American capitalism itself, the foundations of which included chattel slavery.