Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Deconstructing The Stereotype Of Black People As Apes & Monkeys

Edited by Azizi Powell

I was motivated to publish this post as a result of reading about the Australian football (soccer) player Adam Goodes who was called "monkey" by a 13 year old girl during a game during that nation's week dedicated to honoring indigenous athletes.

Here's a video of an interview of that player in which he talks about that incident:

Adam Goodes response to a racist taunt, unedited.

Published on May 25, 2013

20 years after Nicky Winmar took a historic stand against racist taunts from the crowd, a spectator again hurled racist abuse at AFL star Adam Goodes.

It happened a day after the Australian Football League launched the indigenous round, intended to celebrate the role of aboriginal players.

This was Adam Goodes' response. This video is the unedited news conference.
In that interview Adam Goodes talked about how hurtful it was to him, his family, and other Black people to be called ape or monkey. He repeatedly thanked his fellow players and others for the support that he has been given and asked for support for the 13 year old who called him an ape. Goodes indicated that he thought that the girl was repeating what she had heard and didn't understand what such a taunt meant.

Click for a full transcript of that interview.

Click for a discussion about that particular incident & about other incidents in which Black or Brown people are called apes or monkeys.

That incident motivated me to surf the internet to find information about the history of the stereotypess of Black peopel as apes & monkeys. Here's an excerpt of one article that I found:
"A hateful association of Blacks with apes and monkeys was yet another way that the antebellum South justified slavery. Blacks were considered by some to be more simian than human, and therefore had no self-evident rights including freedom…The general acceptance of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin were easily twisted into a means of identifying further “evidence” of the primitive status of Blacks...

The depiction of Blacks as apes and monkeys found expression in mainstream popular culture around the turn of the century*, especially in post cards. Often it was the zip or urban coon that was being caricatured, for the amusement of white consumers. Note the simian appearance of Black Americans in each of the postcards to the left, and how they have been dandified. These images are intended to be ironic, and to cater to the notion that Black coons are too stupid to understand that their efforts to assimilate into white culture only emphasize their inherent inferiority."
No century was specified in that paragraph, but given the references to the late 1800s, I think that that sentence refers to the 20th century.

There are numerous online documentation in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere of Black people being depicted as apes or monkeys, beng called apes or monkeys, and/or having banana peels thrown at them, alluded to this ape/monkey stereotype. Here's an excerpt from one website:
"...this type of blatant in your face racism, especially coming from England, where the 2012 Olympic games were held, is almost the norm.

Just consider the racist history of how Black athletes are mocked, especially Black soccer players during soccer matches in England,Italy and Spain, when they are insulted by fans, who make monkey chants while they play.

Matter of fact, just last year, the Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos walked off the field when a banana was thrown toward him at a league match in Russia.

This is racism in its purest and rawest form.

Unfortunately, however, this evil practice and behavior of throwing bananas at Black athletes has even occurred during a NHL (National Hockey League)game as well.

For instance, a spectator threw a banana at Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds during an overtime shootout attempt during a the Flyers’ preseason game against the Detroit Red Wings in London, Ontario.

This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident.

Why? Because former Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes had a banana thrown at him during a 2002 playoff series with the Montreal Canadians in Montreal as well.

Yeah, the more things change; the more they stay the same.

Because, unbelievably, just this year, during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, it showed up again, when Patricia Carroll, a Black camerawoman who works for CNN had peanuts thrown at her by two Caucasian males, who shouted at her “this is what we feed animals.”...

the real source of this fear of the Planet of Apes, is Barack Hussein Obama, who has had to experience the same type of racist name-calling that Black athletes like Jackie Robinson had to endured when he integrated Major League in April 15, 1947.

Obama, in fact, was called Curious George, who is cartoon monkey by South Carolina political consultant, Sen. Diane Black on Twitter the day after the election in 2008.

Plus, he was portrayed as a gorilla by NY Post cartoonist Sean Delonas who depicted two policemen, one with smoking gun, standing over a dead chimpanzee with the words, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”

Given the history of Black people (and Brown people) being called apes and monkeys as a short-hand way of saying that we are more simian that human, it's surprising that the first historically Black (African American) Greek lettered fraternity that is still in existence Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. has adopted apes as its unofficial mascot.

It's clear from watching videos of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (A Phi A; Alphas) step shows & strolls that persons associated with that fraternity consider apes as their unofficial mascot, symbol, or icon. That this symbolism is unofficial is underscored by the fact that there's no mention of apes being a symbol of A Phi A on that organization's website or on the Wikipedia page about that organization

Note this overview from that Wikipedia page:
"Alpha Phi Alpha (ΑΦΑ) is the first Black, Inter-Collegiate Greek-Lettered fraternity. It was founded on December 4, 1906 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Its founders are known as the "Seven Jewels". Alpha Phi Alpha developed a model that was used by the many Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs) that soon followed in its footsteps. It employs an icon from Ancient Egypt, the Great Sphinx of Giza as its symbol, and its aims are "manly deeds, scholarship, and love for all mankind," and its motto is First of All, Servants of All, We Shall Transcend All."...
Yet, the positive association of Alphas and apes is clear in the beginning portion of this Alpha Phi Alpha step show video:

Alpha Phi Alpha WIN 2012 Atlanta Greek Picnic step show

Atlanta Greek Picnic, Published on Jun 17, 2012
Alpha Phi Alpha WIN 2012 Atlanta Greek Picnic $10,000 step show
In a portion of that video (around 1:42 to around 2:10) & in some other A Phi A step routines, Alphas act like apes. They crouch down and jump up & down like apes. They hold their arms to the side like apes, hit their chest & hit the ground in front of where they are standing. And they make ape sounds while looking menacing. In some videos of Alpha strolls [party walks] one or more members of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity wear a gorilla mask.

Here are two comments from viewers of the step show video that is featured above:
A Phi to the Apes! Congrats bruhs!"
-Santwon Hines, 2012
"thats how APES do it . great performance PHRAT . you APES did your thing ."
PHROZEN spr' 12
Gamma Kappa
Miles College
-tri66z, 2012
My guess is that the A Phi A's unofficial adoption of the ape was two-fold: 1. because that word is close in sound to that organization's Greek letter name & 2. because the ape is associated with the continent of Africa. Note that the Great Sphinx of Giza is that Alpha Phi Alpha's official symbol, and that organization prides itself on its connection to Egypt and Ethiopia. [Wikipedia pages, and official website links given above]

I also am guessing that the Alpha's adoption of the ape as a mascot or symbol is relatively new. I think that this may have occurred in the mid 1990s or later. Although I was actively associated with historically Black Greek lettered organizations in the late 1960s-as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc [Gamma Zeta chapter, New Jersey, 1967], I don't remember Alphas being associated with apes then. I don't recall Alphas having the ape as their mascot in the 1970s and 1980s. And my daughter who attended a number of step shows in the early 1990s in Pennsylvania has no recollections of the ape being associated with Alphas. I didn't learn about the Alphas association with the ape characterization until the three years ago or so when I saw YouTube videos of Alphas step shows & (Alpha) ape walk.

Maybe the Alphas rationalize their adoption of the ape as their unoffical animal mascot as reclaiming that animal and taking the negativity out of its conotations - the same way that some Black people rationalize their use of the pejorative now known as "the n word". But I don't buy either claim.

In light of the fact that Black and Brown people have been insulted & demeaned and continue to be insulted and demeaned by being characterized and called apes or monkeys, having banana peels thrown at us, and/or having monkey sounds directed to us, I strongly question the efficacy and wisdom of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. choosing the ape as their mascot, regardless of whether that choice is official or unofficial.

UPDATE September 2, 2016:
A passage from Elizabeth C. Fine's book Soulstepping: African American Step Shows quotes a passage in Howard University's 1988 Bison yearbook mentions apes in reference to Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
..."One of the few descriptions of a different type of step show-the probate show-appears in the 1988 Bison. In “Probation prior to Vacation: Karen Samuels provides colorful details about the performances of five pledge clubs, demonstrating the importance of movement, song, and symbolic costumes....
There are also photographs of the AKA pledge club, the Delta pledges performing their ritual duck walk; and the “Nubian Apes of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Inc.” who “let out whoops and snatched members of the audience into their arms as they prepare to cross the burning sands into Alpha land.” [Samuel, Bison, “Probation Prior to Vacation” 14-15
In a comment on a 2000 discussion about pledging*, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. writes "Yes I know the secret of the ape and what the colors mean.".
-end of quote-
I've read in a 2009 Geocities anti-greek forum that in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity pledge process, "a.p.e" means "almost pledged* entirely". don’
-end of quote-

That may or may not be true.

*"Pledging" may not be always be the same thing as hazing". But it should be noted that hazing has been prohibited by members of the National Pan-Hellenic Council since 1990. And that discussion talks about "underground pledging" (as a way of getting around that hazing prohibition- although that process may still be quite common, it's definitely not legal.)
Added to my guesses (shared above) as to what "ape" might mean to members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., I also posit that the word "ape" is spelled almost the same as "A Phi". And I wonder if Alphas promoted/promote the image of the huge, strong, burly ape as a means of counteracting the negative stereotypes of that fraternity's members being "less manly" than the brothers of certain other historically Black Greek lettered fraternities. Maybe that's just an ancillary benefit of that mascot/slogan or maybe that has nothing what so ever to do with "ape" and Alphamen, although the 1988 Howard University description of the Alphas whooping like apes and snatching women from the audience suggests that that action is modeled after the movie King Kong.

I understand that an organization's choice of its mascot/symbol is their members' choice alone. Still, even more so that what I wrote in 2013), I strongly question the efficacy and wisdom of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. choosing the ape as their mascot and I abhor that choice.

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    SPR 03
    ACE K1UB

    1. Thanks, anonymous.

      I really appreciate your comment as it provides an explanation for the Alphas use of apes as their symbol.

      When I pledged AKA decades ago, the persona of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. was that it was considered (by the people I knew) to be the (or a) historically Black Greek letter fraternity for men who are intelligent (get good grades). If that is still part of the Alpha's persona, it's interesting that the ape symbol fits "the smartest of the animal kngdom and the "party animal" descriptions.

      I'm curious when this animal symbol was adopted by the Alphas. Would you or someone else please share that information?

      Thanks again.

    2. Yet, although I better understand the reasons why the Alphas (informally) consider the ape as a symbol of their fraternity, I still think that it's an unfortunate choice-because of the stereotype of Black people looking like and/or acting like monkeys, apes, and gorillas.

      A recent example of this was the Univision host who said during a televised program that United States First Lady Michelle Obama looked like a part of the cast of the "Planet Of The Apes" movie. He was fired for that comment. contains more information about that incident as well as well as comments about about Latinos issues with skin color / racism.