Edgar Rice Burroughs created a hero and a phenomenon that is still going strong almost a century later
By Lois Legge
"The tribe that Tarzan first meets are described as cannibals, as are pretty much every black African that’s represented," he says. "There’s an African-American figure in the character of Jane’s nanny who fulfills all the stereotypes of the southern mammy figure. She’s sycophantic, she’s childlike, she’s superstitious, she . . . simply becomes a comic figure through her speech, through her malapropisms. . . . If you’ve ever seen Gone with the Wind, she is that figure, it’s the same character almost to a T.
"So the novel runs the gamut of anti-black racist stereotypes. Against this . . . Tarzan ends up being compared to the racistly-depicted savagery of the blacks and . . . Tarzan becomes this figure who can negotiate with vigour the physical demands of the jungle but also behaves rationally like the proper ‘civilized white man.’ "
Burroughs’ 25 sequels continue the stereotypes in one way or another, Haslam says, noting the character of Tarzan is by turns violently, or paternalistically, racist.
And some of the racial stereotypes the books depict have lived on in the larger culture.
"It didn’t create these stereotypes but it certainly helped to perpetuate them," says the professor, sitting in his Dalhousie office, two copies of Tarzan of the Apes at hand.
"I remember a certain Toronto mayor, it was Mel Lastman—it was during a Toronto Olympic bid when he was going to Africa—said that he had visions of being boiled in a pot. You know these are the stereotypes, whether he’s getting it from Tarzan or Bugs Bunny cartoons or whatever."
I think most of us could list the usual African stereotypes. We've probably seen about as many old jungle movies as old Westerns.
But the African stereotypes have mostly faded from the scene. You may see them a few times a year, but that's about it. When a teabagger portrayed Obama as a witch doctor, it was shocking because it was so rare. Almost everyone condemned the picture because it was so obviously racist.
And yet...for every African cannibal boiling a white man in a pot, we must see hundreds of Native stereotypes. These stereotypes are almost everywhere: at the checkout stand, in children's toys, on global TV, etc. They're just as outdated and offensive, but they're infinitely more pervasive. You'd have a hard time not seeing them every day.
Our society condemns depictions of blacks as 19th-century savages, yet cherishes depictions of Indians as 19th-century savages. And we're still trying to address that, to figure out why that's so. Why is one type of racist stereotype considered odious while the other is perfectly acceptable to most Americans?
For more on the subject, see Rima the "Native" White Girl and Indians Look Like Tarzan?
Below: Which outdated stereotype is still common in America?