Monday, November 18, 2019
The Swedish retail clothing giant, H&M, recently ran an advertisement featuring a black boy wearing a hoodie bearing the label, “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle.” Social media reaction was viral, prompting apologies and a retraction from H&M. At best, the ad was insensitive; at worst, racist. In reading the comments about the controversy in an online forum, I was struck by the claim that white people have historically reserved the “monkey” stereotype for people of African descent. While there’s no argument that Blacks have suffered this caricature far more than others, it has not been uniquely theirs. Throughout the 19th century, the “simian” Irishman was a stock figure in British and American publications. Thomas Nast (1840-1902), America’s most famous political cartoonist, routinely portrayed the Irish as ape-like, as did the English illustrator, John Tenniel (1820-1914), who is best known for his illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And they were not the sole offenders, as Frederick Opper’s 1882 Puck illustration demonstrates. The title, “The King of A-Shantee,” plays upon the stereotype of the ignorant and impoverished “shanty Irish." It also alludes to the traditional ruler of the Ashanti people of Britain’s “Gold Coast” colony. The Asantahene was conventionally portrayed seated "in state" on his golden throne. To many Anglo-Saxon Americans and Victorian Englishmen, the Hibernian and the African were peas from the same pod.