By Kenneth Miller, Sentinel Managing Editor,
By Gregory Cleghorne, Sentinel Staff Writer
The liquid beverage is sweet and red, but the seal that covers the plastic container has left a sour taste in the mouth of the African American community this week.
Renowned civil rights leader and Sentinel Publisher Danny Bakewell Sr., called the images on the container, “One of the most offensive acts I’ve ever seen directed at Black people.”
Sentinel op-ed columnist Malik Spellman brought the container to the Sentinel on July 7.
It was a day for Spellman to celebrate his daughter Malika’s graduating with honors from middle school but it turned into an event they would not forget.
After taking his daughter to the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to see an exhibit, Spellman then treated her to a cool drink at the Louisiana Fried Chicken stand on 91st and Central.
To his surprise, on the lid of the drink was a small image of three Black children dressed in jungle garb. It was reminiscent of the pickaninny figures from the Jim Crow era, and it left Spellman in a state of shock.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” he said, “I was offended and broke into a cold sweat of anger.”
He did not show the image to his daughter but retained the cup as the latest example of racist iconography to appear in the community.
The writing on the label of the beverage appeared to be in Japanese language and at press time the Sentinel was working on translating the words.
A brief visit to a local Chinese establishment suggested that the language was either Japanese or Chinese, and when asked what it meant, the merchant reeled and responded, “It’s nothing, you wouldn’t understand it anyway,” and shunned away.
“Being a community activist fighting against racism at the Sentinel for six years, it made me sick because I saw it in Watts,” he said, “It’s unacceptable to sell it here in the United States and there is no excuse.”
Ironically, the exhibit they visited at the WLCAC featured similar figures among others as an opportunity to educate the community on how harmful and prevalent these images have been in the past.
Timothy Watkins, president and CEO of the WLCAC, added some perspective by describing how these images reinforce negative stereotypes but Black people as a whole.
“These images completely exaggerate the African-American image,” said Watkins. “They reinforce White superiority and Black subservience.”
The images were determined to be Asian cartoon figures but controversial images like these have re-entered the American consciousness in recent years. In June 2005, a Mexican stamp featuring a popular Black comic book figure with exaggerated features similar to a monkey drew outrage from the Black community.
The manager of the restaurant, Lisa Tran, has only worked there for several months and said that the lids came from a roll sold from an unknown distributor in Chinatown. She also admitted that she was not sure how long they had been selling them.
Community residents were mixed on this issue. While some wanted nothing to do with it, others were offended as it recalled an era when these images were commonplace in America.
“I think it’s a racist statement,” Watts resident Gregory Sims said. “I’ve lived in South Central all my life and it reminds me of the ‘50s where White people were putting on Blackface and making us look like monkeys.”
Tommy Island, another Watts resident, said that they reminded him of a time when these images were acceptable and Blacks could not leave Watts without a work permit. He admitted, however, that he had no time to worry about this situation and simply would just not buy a drink.
“It’s just ignorance,” Island said, “Someone just doesn’t know how offensive this is.”
Originally from Cambodia, Tran said that she was unaware how offensive the images were. Later in the day, an employee said that they plan on discontinuing the lids due to their content.
Bakewell Sr. has pledged to contact the attorney general and encourage him to investigate this matter.
“We can not and should not accept this. We can not buy it and must discover who is manufacturing it and prevent it from being sold anywhere,” Bakewell insisted.
Furthermore the publisher vows to contact major civil rights organizations to call for an immediate boycott of the beverage.