In his response to my post about a local Joplin Globe columnist’s racist tweet, Anson Burlingame, a local blogger who sometimes contributes to the Joplin Globe and who often contributes to the comment section of this blog, wrote in to defend columnist Geoff Caldwell’s use of the term “monkey” in reference to President Obama:
…a monkey is another word for a funny and scatter brained like “thing”. When one is accused of “acting like a monkey” I never considered it a racist comment. Get off this liberal racist accusation against any and all opposing Obama.
Another frequent contributor to this blog, King Beauregard, wrote in response to Anson’s claim:
“Monkey” carries racial baggage and you know it, and more importantly, Geoff knows it. That was the entire point of his tweet.
Exactly. That was the entire point of the tweet, whether Anson realizes it or not. And another commenter, Henry Morgan, put some force behind King Beauregard’s claim:
Anson tells us that “a monkey is another word for a funny and scatter brained like “thing.”
Yes, and a “coon” is a small animal of American forests known for its fastidious eating habits.
And an “ape” is a member of a family of primates inhabiting tropical environs.
A “buck” is a male deer.
A “boy” is a young human male.
And most certainly, as Anson implies, one’s first meaning attached to these words when African-Americans are part of the discussion, is the denotative, not the connotative.
Gee, just nice, kindly words.
Another frequent contributor, Jim Wheeler, doubted whether Anson was unaware of the obvious fact “that the monkey reference is terminology historically used to deprecate the inferiority of the black race.” Jim writes:
Anson presents an apparently blind eye to this, despite having grown up in Kentucky. That he really didn’t understand the slur is about as likely as believing that Archie Bunker wouldn’t. But wait. I can picture Archie using it and not even realizing its effect, so never mind. 😉
Okay. I’m going to assume, for the sake of argument, that Anson genuinely was not aware that the term “monkey” has historically been used as a racial epithet and worse. I’m going to assume that Anson didn’t see the story earlier this year about North Korea’s state media describing President Obama as a “wicked black monkey.” I suppose it could be that the North Koreans were just saying that our wicked president was a “funny and scatter brained like ‘thing.'” They’re known for their playful chatter, right? Not even Anson Burlingame would believe that, I am sure.
In any case, in order to help make Anson—and others tempted to think that a local columnist comparing our first African-American president to a monkey was just a playful form of criticism—aware of the awful history behind the connection, I’m going to introduce them to Ota Benga, a Congolese man who actually became part of an exhibition at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. According to Encylopedia Virginia,
…tens of thousands of people came to see the famous Pygmy who shared a cage with an Asian orangutan, several chimpanzees, and a parrot…The so-called man and monkey show was immediately controversial.
Displays of non-Western humans as examples of “earlier stages” of human evolution were common in the early 20th century, when racial theories were frequently intertwined with concepts from evolutionary biology.
It’s no accident when someone who wishes to disparage an African-American uses the term monkey. It’s not just “another word for a funny and scatter brained like ‘thing,'” as Anson claimed. And it is especially no accident when someone who literally despises Barack Obama tweets the following:
Geoff Caldwell, a disturbingly reactionary columnist for the Joplin Globe, may never have heard of Ota Benga and his appearance as an exhibit in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. But he most certainly knows the awful and racist meaning behind calling President Obama a monkey. And that is precisely why he did it.
The only question remaining is whether the Joplin Globe will tolerate such behavior.