In the past two posts, I have written about a few of installments of Jackie Ormes’ Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. (You can find these posts here and here.) Today, I want to wrap up my discussion of Ormes’ strip by examining one final panel. As I did in the previous post, I want to think about these panels in a broader pedagogical conversation, thinking about how to relate the images to texts we may teach in a literature course. To that end, look at the images, discuss them, then provide texts to examine alongside them.
Appearing on October 8, 1955, the panel to the right appeared a few days after a jury in Mississippi found Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam “not guilty” of the kidnapping and murder of Emmett Till. The image shows Patty-Jo and Ginger in what appears to be a middle-class dwelling. Patty-Jo stands next to an open door with an emphatic expression upon her face as Ginger looks at the young girl with a somewhat astonished look while holding a paper that appears to have information about the case situated behind her back. If the paper contains information on Emmett Till’s murder and the trial, it is interesting that Ginger places the paper behind her back, as if she is trying to hide it from the young Patty-Jo.
Patty-Jo looks at Ginger, saying, “I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject . . . but, that new little white tea-kettle just whistled at me!” The statement, coming on the heels of the “not guilty” verdict for Bryant and Milam, takes what on the surface appears to be an innocuous event (the tea-kettle whistling) and subverts it with he adjective “white” and Patty-Jo’s qualifying that she does not “want to seem touchy.” Patty-Jo’s comment contains varying semiotic webs that we can, and need to untangle. Ultimately, it shows the double standard of white women being held up as pillars of virtue, virginity, and submissiveness and black women being seen as sexual beings down for any type of debauchery. These images, of course, reside(d) within myths and stereotypes about both black and white women.
The fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, after being challenged by friends to try and get a date with a woman then whistling at, gets kidnapped, beaten, and killed by a group of white men. His death occurred, for no other reason, than his encounter with a white, woman store clerk. Through the reversal of the whistle, Ormes highlights the fact that Patty-Jo, as a young, black girl, feels the same sort of emotions as Carolyn Bryant; however, because she is black, whites expect her to appreciate the attention and even succumb to the advances of white men. Ernest J. Gaines explores this in Of Love and Dust (1967) when Bonbon takes Pauline and in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) when Jimmy Caya tells Tee Bob that it is his prerogative to take Mary Agnes whenever and wherever he wants to because of “the rules.”
In another move, Ormes reverses the connotations of “white” and “black” that typically confer good with the former and evil with the latter. This makes me think of Gwendolyn Brooks’ famous poem about Emmett Till: “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” The poem, told from Carolyn Butler’s point of view, places her in the role of “the milk-white maid,” her husband as the “Fine Prince,” and Emmett Till as the “Dark Villain.” This construction, from the very beginning, signifies “white” with purity and justice and “black” (i.e. Dark in this case) with depravity and criminality. Brooks lays all of this out in the second stanza of the poem:
Herself: the milk-white maid, the “maid mild”
Of the ballad. Pursued
By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince.
That was worth anything.
It was good to be a “maid mild.”
That made the breath go fast.
The “Dark Villain” pursues the “maid” as the “Fine Prince” comes to her rescue. Upon contemplation, the Mississippi mother realizes instead of encountering a full-grown “Dark Villain,” she encounters “a blackish child of fourteen” who possibly saw, within the protagonist’s husband and his friend “grown ups” who were wise. However,
. . . under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under,
Waited the baby full of tanturms.
As the poem progresses, the “Fine Prince” becomes the villain, and the “maid” realizes this when her husband corrects the children at the dinner table. She begins to see the blood of the “Dark Villain” on him, and she becomes scared to touch him. However, at the end of the poem, her husband takes her in in his arms, and she does not struggle. Instead, she succumbs to his advances, all the while thinking about the atrocities that he perpetrated and the Bronzeville mother’s eyes.
Even though she does no specifically call out the ways that language shapes our views of the world, Brooks’ poem, like Ormes’ panel, reminds me of the types of things that Gaines, Amiri Barka, and others discuss in regards to the way words, and their connotations, provide us with skewed and prejudiced images of those around us. Gaines does this in “The Sky is Gray” when the student, speaking to others in a dentist waiting room, calls upon them to question the words they use and the meanings behind those words. Barka does this in The Slave when in the play’s “Prologue” Walker Vessels talks about the need for a “meta-language.”
In conclusionion, I want to leave you with a few other texts to think about in regards to the discussion above. For one, Chester Himes’ If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) presents the psychological aspects of racism, and specifically in regards to sexuality, that Ormes’ panel, the Emmett Till case, and other texts explore. I would say the pulp cover is well worth exploration in the classroom. Along with Himes’ novel, I would suggest looking at James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) which is based, distantly in Baldwin’s words, on Emmett Till. Along with these, look at Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” and Ralph Ellison’s “A Party Down at the Square,” both stories that tackle lynching and racism.
I hope you have enjoyed these posts on Jackie Ormes. Are there any other suggestions you have for texts to examine along with Ormes? Let me know what these may be below.