HIGH POINT, N.C. — If a teacher these days dared read "Little Black Sambo" in school, that teacher would be banished from the classroom. Maligned for racial stereotyping, the book, which exaggerated black features, was banned decades ago by schools and libraries. So there's little chance of Sambo showing up at story time, except in Julius Lester's politically correct 1996 revival entitled "Sam and the Tigers."
Racial stereotyping in the world of children persists, however. Today, racist images are more likely to appear in computer animation than between the covers of books. Two such characters appear in "Pokmon" and "Dragonball Z," wildly popular cartoons and digital games from Nintendo and Sony, respectively.
Few of Pokmon's 150 evolving pocket monsters have human attributes. However, the character Jynx, Pokmon #124, has decidedly human features: jet-black skin, protruding pink lips, gaping eyes, a straight blonde mane, and a full figure, complete with cleavage and wiggly hips. In her pink gown, Jynx is a dead ringer for an obese drag queen.
When I first glimpsed Jynx on the "Pokmon" cartoon, I thought surely the character was an aberration. Then I saw Mr. Popo, a cosmic character from "Dragonball Z." Mr. Popo is a rotund, turban-clad genie with pointy ears, jet-black skin, shiny white eyes, and, yes, big red lips.
I discovered these characters because my 10-year-old son is a Pokmaniac. He watches the cartoon, collects the trading cards, plays the digital game, and surfs the Net for game codes and trivia. He still pleads for new Pokmon games, but declares that "Dragonball Z" is his favorite cartoon, as his daily doodles of the show's protagonist Goku attest.
Not coincidentally, both Jynx and Mr. Popo were created by Japanese animators. Apparently, racist stereotypes that would shock Americans don't raise an eyebrow in much of Asia.
Hong Kong's Hazel & Hawley Chemical Co. would probably still be hawking Darkie toothpaste had the company not been acquired by Colgate. The Darkie brand's Al Jolson-inspired logo, a grinning caricature in blackface and a top hat, was as offensive as its name. Colgate bought the company in 1985, and then ditched the logo and changed the product's name to Darlie after US civil rights groups protested. However, the Cantonese name - Haak Yahn Nga Gou (Black Man Toothpaste) - remains.
American advertisers also have a shameful history of racial stereotyping, although such images long ago fell out of favor. Before World War II, African-American caricatures were employed for many products, from soap to cereal. Today, collectors of black memorabilia - mostly African-Americans - snatch up advertising and ephemera at antique shops, flea markets, and Internet auctions. Black collectors reason that reclaiming the images not only preserves heritage but strips the icons of their power to denigrate.
Not all black caricatures have been consigned to history, though. On supermarket shelves, updated incarnations of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, bankable logos featuring blacks as domestics, still serve up impressive market shares.
Neither icon bears even the slightest resemblance to Jynx or Mr. Popo, however. Known to millions of children through cartoons and product tie-ins, Jynx and Mr. Popo depict descendants of Africa through the bigoted lens of white supremacy. These stereotypical characters could adversely affect black children's malleable self-images.
Nearly a half century ago, to prepare for the historic Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund enlisted psychologist Kenneth Clark to conduct a study in the South's Jim Crow schools. Using black and white dolls, Mr. Clark asked black elementary-school students which doll they liked best, which looked best, and which resembled them. The students preferred the white doll, but identified with the black doll, despite the fact that they said it looked "bad." This admission upset many of the children. Clark concluded that segregation reinforced racial inferiority and damaged black students' self-esteem. The psychological evidence helped convince the high court to outlaw school segregation.
Today, many schools are integrated, and black dolls are more attractive than they once were. But African-American youth - who watch 40 percent more TV than their white counterparts, according to a study by the Chicago-based advertising agency TN Media - are still bombarded with media images that idealize Western beauty and cast African-Americans as thugs and buffoons. Japanese computer animators add insult to injury by unleashing Jinx and Mr. Popo, culturally insensitive menaces, on the global marketplace.
* Carole Boston Weatherford is a poet, cultural critic, and children's book author. She wrote the poetry volume 'The Tar Baby on the Soapbox' (Longleaf Press, 1999).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society