Eastman Johnson Catalogue Raisonné
Patricia Hills, PhD, Founder and Director | Abigael MacGibeny, MA, Project Manager

Racist Language/Negative Stereotypes Statement

Racist Language/Negative Stereotypes – Patricia Hills and Abigael MacGibeny

Language, and particularly terminology used to identify ethnic, racial, religious, and gender groups, is continuously changing. Some of these words have become critical issues in the Eastman Johnson Catalogue Raisonné (EJCR); current and past titles of artworks, as well as comments on artworks from historical sources, including letters to and from Eastman Johnson, auction sale catalogue descriptions, and newspaper reviews, may contain what we today realize is racist language or reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Such materials should be seen in the context of their time period and as reflections of the attitudes of the time. The EJCR authors consider that previously written language found in this catalogue raisonné to be part of the historical record, and it does not in any way represent their views. In some instances in which a current title of a work has no historical basis and the title is descriptive, then the authors have been mindful to give the work a title compatible with current language use. As language changes the statements that follow will be updated.

Statement on people of African descent – Jeffrey Stewart, Adrienne Childs, and Fath Davis Ruffins

The EJCR examines an era of history in which racist language is used routinely to both describe and demean enslaved and free African Americans. Language is not a passive reflection of reality, but in fact helps to create the culture of racial subjugation. Terms such as “pickaninny,” “negro,” “slave,” “negress,” “Mammy,” “mulatto,” and “colored” appear in the titles and literature surrounding the work of Johnson. These terms are grounded in and reflective of the attitudes and language of the past. It is because of the ways in which language has been deployed to degrade that throughout this history African Americans have taken great pains to generate and control the terminology used to describe them, and continue to do so.

Over time, people of African descent within the United States have changed the ways and nomenclature by which they wished to be referred, sometimes as a reaction against racist or demeaning nomenclature used by Whites. For example, in the 1700s and earlier, sons and daughters of Africa was a common appellation. By the 1830s, another designation became common: Colored American and People of Color. For example, people of African descent in New York chose the title, The Colored American, for the name of their newspaper published between 1837 and 1842. Yet, during the same period, the term Afro-American was popular. By the end of the nineteenth century, Colored was the preferred term of self-identification for progressive-minded African Americans. By the early 1900s, Negro became preferred among younger people as a term of self-identification, if not self-description. Some, like W. E. B. Du Bois, lobbied newspapers and magazines to capitalize this appellation. During the 1940s, the New York Times changed its practice to one of using the capitalized word Negro. Similarly, in the 1960s, a young generation of activists chose the word Black or Black American, in reaction to the relentless criticism of the term Negro by Malcolm X in his speeches. During the 1970s, many chose African American to refer to themselves, in part in resistance to the insistence on the part of certain newspapers, such as the New York Times, to print black in lower-case letters, since white, when referring to European-Americans, was often printed with lower-case letters. After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the protests that followed them, the New York Times as well as other newspapers have begun to print Black with an upper-case first letter. In the EJCR, Black will be capitalized when authored by editors and contributors, in line with the New York Times practice. In this document, we have sought to retain the nomenclature of the times in which a subject in a painting or drawing is referred to, except in those cases where the terms are clearly racist and designed to offend.  

Statement on Jewish representation – Alan Wallach

During the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, white majorities tended to regard Jews as exotic and other. Like so many other types of prejudice, anti-Semitism was pervasive and socially acceptable in “polite society,” even if a small percentage of Jews managed to attain economic and political power. Terms used to describe Jews and Jewish subjects in art and literature ranged from the innocuous to the demeaning. In this document, we have retained the original nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century titles and descriptors (e.g., “a Jew of a rather low type”), even though, from a twenty-first century viewpoint, the reflexive anti-Semitism of the period is often obvious.

Statement on Indigenous Peoples – Scott Manning Stevens

The term “Indian,” when applied to the indigenous peoples of the Americas, is one of history’s most notorious and enduring misnomers. Every school child is taught Columbus’s famous mistake concerning where he had landed in 1492, but the correction of his misnomer for the inhabitants of that place has been long in coming. Other terms would follow, including savages and redskins. While those two are obvious slurs other terms were treated as though somehow more accurate. The terms “squaw,” “brave,” and “papoose” were applied to Native American women, men, and children as though neutral and appropriate descriptors, much in the way doe, buck, and fawn are applied to deer. The word “squaw” seems to have taken on a derogatory sensibility early on, most likely as an expression of racist misogyny, while “brave” remained a sort primitive honorific that could be appropriated by sports teams.

In Canada both the term “Indian” and “aboriginal” were used in everyday language and official documents. American Indian became a better means of distinguishing the indigenous peoples of the United States from natives of India, but the term American was not used by Canadians in combination with Indians because of its common association with the U.S. rather than the continent. Following social advances made during the Civil Rights Era in the U.S., many indigenous peoples rejected both the terms Indian and American Indian as signs of a continued ignorance and disinterest in the diverse cultures of the original inhabitants of this hemisphere. The term Native Americans came into common usage in the U.S. and First Nations in Canada.

In both nations the term Indians is generational within Native communities, with older people used to and accepting of the term Indian and the younger generations less so. More recently the term Indigenous, capitalized, has also come into use by Native American and First Nations activists and academics. One other change has been the preference for ethnic or national specificity over a generic category such as Native American or Indigenous. Indigenous individuals often prefer to identify themselves with their Native nation, such as Lakota, Hopi, or Mohawk. When a specific ethnic or national identity is known it is preferable to Native American, First Nations, or Indigenous.

Statement on Gender issues – Patricia Hills

During the nineteenth century young unmarried women and women servants were often referred to as “girls,” when they were clearly mature women. For reasons of historical accuracy, the authors have generally kept the term “girl” or “girls” in the historical titles. There seem to be no instances in which Johnson called a figure that was clearly an adult man, a “boy.”