No matter how many times we, as a society, tell everyone it’s wrong to compare black people to apes, some people simply can’t seem to stop themselves.
The latest head to roll under the Guillotine of Social Justice is that of Roseanne Barr, who surrendered her career last week after tweeting that Valerie Jarrett, who is said to be black but simply looks like an alien life form to me, is what would result if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes had a baby.
After the entire world paused to shit itself, ABC axed the new Roseanne show. “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values and we have decided to cancel her show,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey—who, as luck would have it, is a black woman—snorted in disgust. Two of Roseanne’s female costars said they were “disappointed” in her “racist” tweets. For her part, the perennially rotund and unstable comedienne tried blaming the tweet on Ambien, but it was too late. You simply can’t compare black people to monkeys anymore in modern society and expect to show your face in public without being lynched. Besides, back in 2013 she’d already referred to black politician Susan Rice as “a man with big swinging ape balls,” so there was no turning back for Roseanne, Ambien alibi or not.
As many were quick to remind us, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, white people have been comparing black people to monkeys ever since they first encountered them.
In the 1500s, French philosopher Jean Bodin wrote that the denizens of sub-Saharan Africa arose from sexual union of humans and animals, yielding “monsters” as a result. A 1570 story by Antonio de Torquemada features a Portuguese woman who is banished to Africa, where she is raped by an ape and has his babies.
In 1633, John Donne’s Metempsychosis sees one of Adam’s daughters getting seduced by an ape—and loving it. Dutch geographer Olfter Dapper’s 1668 book Description of Africa notes that early European explorers who landed in Africa described primitive people who appeared more closely related to apes than to Europeans. In 1689, John Locke wrote that women in Guinea bred with mandrills.
In the 1700s, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus expressed uncertainty whether apes or blacks were human. Charles White’s 1799 tome An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables lists “Negros” at the bottom of the human evolutionary chain, with White noting, “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”
Robert Knox’s 1851 book The Races of Men finds similarities in the brow slant between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan,” drawing a distinction between these two breeds and the “European.” Three years later, the book Types of Mankind depicted blacks as falling somewhere in the racial hierarchy between white human beings and chimpanzees. During the colonial era, blacks were routinely referred to as “monkeys” in the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Africa.
The notorious “human zoos” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were likewise predicated on the notion that black Africans weren’t quite fully human.
The 1933 film King Kong shows primitive African tribesmen on the Island of Skulls yet refrains from specifically mentioning race, although this hasn’t prevented listless film critics from framing the film as an elaborate interracial rape fantasy on the part of anxious white males with castration fears. Apelike creatures have appeared as monstrous villains in over 75 subsequent films.
When Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s, white shortstop Eddie Stanky reportedly ape-shamed him by grunting and scratching his armpits. Black athletes in particular seem prone to the simian simile. At a roast of Shaquille O’Neal, comedian Jeff Ross asked him, “Your knuckles are scraped — did you walk here?” At another roast, Greg Giraldo said that black footballer Warren Sapp was so enraged by coming in second place on Dancing With the Stars, he grabbed his white female partner and climbed to the top of the Empire State Building. A 2009 Vogue cover featuring NBA superstar Lebron James and white supermodel Gisele Bundchen was widely derided for evoking gorilla imagery, although it only shows Lebron being Lebron and suggests that many observers were “reading ape” into it.
In 1984, Howard Cosell—likely the greatest sports announcer of all time—lost his gig on Monday Night Football after saying “look at that little monkey run” in reference to a black wide receiver. It didn’t matter that Cosell produced a tape showing him also calling a white player a “monkey”—by this point, it was OK to call white people monkeys. After all, whites don’t have the history of suffering and poverty and police brutality and oppression and low test scores and the utter lack of technological aptitude that naturally result from centuries of being compared to apes.
Our nation’s hapless blacks weren’t even safe from other blacks comparing them to simians, as witnessed by Muhammad Ali’s incessant taunting of arch-nemesis Joe Frazier as a “gorilla.”
In the 1990s, California state police faced a scandal when it emerged that they routinely referred to cases involving young black males as “N.H.I.”—no humans involved.” And one of the officers who beat Rodney King had previously come from a black domestic dispute that he labeled “something right out of Gorillas in the Mist.”
In the 2000s, George W. Bush was routinely compared to chimpanzees, but again there was no outrage, because there really aren’t any deep cultural anxieties unleashed by comparing white people to simians—not like there are when you suggest that blacks are similar to monkeys.
Both Barack and Michelle Obama faced “simianisation,” with a pic of Michelle’s face morphed into a ghastly apelike creature infamously once reaching the top of Google Images searches for her. And just last week, an Italian New Yorker was charged with a hate crime for calling a black woman a “foul-mouthed monkey” on a public train.
So when will it end?
According to black psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, this trend of whites comparing blacks to apes
began with the first European contact with Africans. There were illustrations of apes descending from the trees and having intercourse with African females. It was perhaps the most popular pictorial representation of people of African descent in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.
In other words, whites encountered blacks, observed them, and, en masse, began immediately comparing them to apes. This, mind you, without enduring the prejudicial effect of centuries of ape cartoons or Comedy Central Roasts of black NBA stars. They had no prejudices when they first encountered them. But they compared them to apes anyway.