The following is a guest post submitted by Carlie Fishgold, Associate Editor at POST Magazine and Independent Scholar. Submit your story today.
For those in the Rochester community who have a hard time understanding why the Dentzel carousel painted picaninny panel disallows African-American families and children from a carefree experience at Ontario Beach Park, I encourage you consider that you are not the butt of the joke…
Visualize the distance between yourself and the ongoing suffering caused by such warped and nameless caricatures. Do you know someone who might be humiliated by this representation, reminded of the barbed and cutting treatment of their ancestors as it whirls round and round, crowning the glow of carousel lights and mirthful organ music? For those who continue to endure the abuses of sociocultural inequality and who are scarred by the personal traumas of modern racism, the Dentzel carousel is like a live nightmare. That’s not so fun.
A mid-17th century derivative of the Portuguese pequeninos, or “little ones,” the word picaninny traveled to our English tongues as pickaninny from the West Indies patois spoken by slave drivers trading souls as far north as what became New York Harbor.
As a manifest phenomenon in American culture since the 1830s, picaninnies are ghastly and cruel caricatured depictions of African-American children—extreme exaggerations intended to instigate a vexing reaction from an emotional distance to the physical otherness of African phenotypical features. Coal-black skin, bulging bright eyes, fleshy, vermillion lips, and matted hair make up this child-like version of the “coon” stereotype—perhaps the most insulting of the “types” manufactured by Western media. Bumbling and bemused, easily frightened, tongue-tied and lazy: coons, and thus picaninnies, are culturally conceived as objects of ridicule.
For nearly 200 years, non-African-Americans have been conditioned to find picaninnies as harmless details in the decorative arts, cartoons, playthings, and other American ephemera. To be clear and historically exact, these representations have always been produced in the spirit of schadenfreude—a laugh or pleasure enjoyed at the expense of, in this case, the other’s misfortune. The word picaninny was applied as an ironic and derogatory term around 1836, less than a decade after the last enslaved people of New York were officially granted freedom by the State.
On August 6, Monroe County officials announced that the picaninny panel will remain intact on the Dentzel carousel. The County is charged with operating Ontario Beach Park until the term of their contract with the City is up in 2016, according to City legal department representative Tom Warth.
The County has commissioned the Landmark Society of Western New York to provide wall text addressing the carousel’s historical context, with one section dedicated to the picaninny scene, by the 2016 season according to the Democrat and Chronicle .
After hearing commentary from concerned citizens on August 5, the City Preservation Board was not able to act or respond because no application was filed by the County. Despite the Dentzel carousel’s status as City property, a representative of Monroe County must file the application under the terms of their contract in order for the Preservation Board to vote on changes. Whether the terms of the contract can be changed upon renewal in 2016 remains unknown.
Beyond the material—what, really, is being preserved by leaving the panel intact?
Tags: African-American, Carlie Fishgold, Charlotte, Charlotte Beach, Dentzel carousel, historic preservation, Landmark Society of Western New York, Monroe County, Ontario Beach Park, Ontario Beach Park carousel, picaninny, preservation, race in Rochester NY, racism, Rochester, Rochester NY, Rochester Preservation Board, slavery
This entry was posted on Friday, August 7th, 2015 at 9:30 pm and is filed under Art + Culture, Opinion, Reader Submitted Stories, Rochester Destinations, Rochester History, Rochester News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
I agree. The other problem with just putting up a sign is that many of the visitors are families with small children. This is a historic carousel in a family park, not a museum. Kids are extremely perceptive: they see everything, but they are not always good at interpretation. It’s a mistake to think that every child that sees that panel is going to ask a parent about it or seek out the historical explanation.
The first time I saw this issue come up I also thought adding an interpretive panel was an appropriate response, but as I listened to other people and thought about the issue I changed my mind. Adding an interpretive panel just isn’t enough.
At the same time, I’m sensitive to “erasing” history that we don’t like. My preferred solution, here, would be to replace the panel with one having a visual feel similar to the the others, perhaps with a theme reflecting local African American history. I would take the current panel and make it part of an interpretive display at the carousel. That feels better to me than either leaving the panel blank or moving there panel to a local museum. Leaving the panel blank mars the carousel experience, and moving the panel off site snacks of hiding it away.
By keeping the panel on site we would maintain its connection to carousel, but would ensure that it would only be seen within a context that talked about its hurtful history. That way we could encourage “teachable moments” while keeping the carousel as a fun place for Monroe County’s families.