The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939



WHO would suppose that a wild African, whose only dress is a piece of skin, would trouble himself about fashions?

To be sure, he feels no interest in the style of coats or hats, but he is just as much absorbed in the great business of adorning himself as though he followed the fashions of Paris. Curious styles he has too, as a German traveler has lately told us.

To begin with, the hair is the object of his greatest care. Its training begins in the cradle,—or would if he had a cradle,—when it is tortured into some extraordinary form, and kept there by means of gum-arabic and ashes, till after long years it will retain the shape of itself. Sometimes it is like a cockscomb, and sometimes like a fan. One poor baby's hair will be trained, so that in time it will stand up in rolls over the head, like the ridges on a melon, while another's is taught to stand out like the rays of the suns as usually represented in pictures. With some Africans, part of it hangs down in braids or twists, like the one in the picture, and the rest is laid up in monstrous puffs on each side of the head. But the drollest one of all is made to look like the glory around the head of a saint—in pictures. The hair is taken in single locks, stretched out to its greatest length, and fastened at the ends to a hoop. The hoop is held in place by strong wires, and its edge ornamented with small shells. The effect is very comical.

In most of these wonderful arrangements the hair is parted in the middle (I wonder if our young gentlemen imported that style from Africa), and is kept in place by plenty of gum and ashes, or clay.

All this elaborate hair-dressing is on the heads of the men. The women of the country wear their hair in the simplest manner, perhaps for the reason that the wife does the cooking, cultivates the land, adorns the body of her husband with paint, and dresses his hair, which must be enough to keep her time well occupied.

His hair once dressed, this African dandy turns his mind to the further decoration of his body. First he rubs his shining skin with a mixture of grease and ashes, or powdered wood of a red color, puts on his one scanty garment, made of the skin of some animal, or of bark, occasionally trimmed with the long black tail of a monkey or other animal, and then he is ready for his ornaments.

Across his forehead, just under the edge of his hair, like a fringe, he hangs a string of teeth. They may be teeth of dogs, or other animals, or, if he is a great warrior, of his human victims.

Next he adorns his breast with an ornament made of ivory, cut to resemble lions' teeth, and spread out in star-shape. Around his neck he hangs several necklaces made of strips of skin cut from the hippopotamus, and finishes up with paint in various styles; dots, or stripes, or zigzags, squares Like a checker-board, or marbled all over.

That is "full-dress" for a Niam-Niam in the centre of Africa.

The dress of the king is a little more elaborate. On the top of his wonderfully dressed hair he wears a hat, a foot and a-half high, made of reeds, shaped ike a piece of stove-pipe, covered with red feathers, and finished off at top with plumes of the same. But of course that is not enough for a king's head; so he adds to it a great ornament of shining copper, which looks something like half a saucepan, and through a hole in each ear he thrusts a bar of coper as big as a cigar.

His bracelets and anklets, and necklaces of coper and hippopotamus hide, are too numerous to describe. Around his waist, over his bark garment,—as a sort of sash,—he wears a strip of buffalo hide, tied in large loops, and furnished with great
balls of copper at the ends. His most costly orna
ment is made of more than three hundred lions' fangs.

This king, by the way, is a very important personage. All that he has touched is sacred. No one can see him eat, nor touch anything he has left. It is high treason, punished with death, to light a pipe with coals from his fire.

The women of the Niam-Niam dress mostly in [illustration - An African dandy.] figured patterns made on the skin by a black liquid. There is no end to the variety of styles,—stars and crosses, bees and flowers, stripes and dots, squares and circles,—and at grand festivals there is great strife to get new and striking designs. A dress of this sort lasts three days, and is then rubbed off, and a new one put on. Her bracelets and anklets are usually made of twisted grass or reeds, though sometimes she will go to the extravagance of the tail of a cow or some other animal to her girdle. Her baby she carries in a scarf, which she wears around her waist; and her duties, as I said before, are very numerous.

There are other curious things about these people, besides their dress. Their houses have walls of clay or reeds, and sharp-pointed roofs of straw. The furniture consists mainly of wooden platters and stools, which are colored black by long burial in the mud, and their only light is a burning pine-knot.

Before the house is usually a post, on which are hung the trophies of the hunt, such as horns of antelopes, skulls of animals and men, and, horrible to say, dried hands and feet. These proclaim to the world how great a warrior is the owner, and, in part, answer the purposes that fine houses and clothes do with us.

When a Niam-Niam pays a visit to his neighbor he carries his own stool to sit on, and when he goes into mourning for a friend he shaves his head, and scatters his precious braids, twists and puffs to the wind, which certainly shows sincere grief on his part.

When two friends meet they do not shake hands, but they join their middle fingers in such a way that the joints crack, while they nod at each other, more as if in disgust—as it looks to a white man—than in friendly greeting.

If they find a hollow tree in which wild bees have laid up honey, they at once smoke the bees stupid, and eat honey, wax, bees, and all. Indeed they eat several things that we would not like. The children in some parts of Africa eat rats and field-mice, which they catch by means of baskets woven in the form of long tubes. They are laid flat on the ground, near the mouse-holes, and then the little savages begin a great noise of stamping, shouting and slapping of hands. The poor little animals are frightened, and run into the traps for safety, and are easily taken. They are then tied by the tails in bunches of a dozen or so, as you have seen children tie cherries, and bartered with each other as choice morsels. Sometimes they use them as baits to catch cats,—roast-cat being a favorite dish. They build small huts of twisted reeds, put the mice in, and cats are attracted to the trap, of course.

The grown people feast on still stranger diet,—such as the bodies of their enemies killed in battle, elephant-meat, dried till it looks like a log of wood, dogs and the termites, or white ants, of which you may have read, and whose immense cone-shaped houses are so common in Africa. You will see on the next page an African destroying one of these houses, no doubt with the purpose of feasting on its inhabitants. Not only Africans eat those wingless ants but
even Europeans have been known to delight in them. They are roasted very much as coffee with us, and considered quite delicious and whole some. You will notice that these ant-houses are great deal taller than the man who is attacking them. They are made of clay, every grain of which has been softened by the jaws of the "workers," a certain of the ants are called, and the walls have dried so hard and firm that men could climb over the house without breaking it down.

[illustration - A native African destroying the house of the termites, or white ants.]

Our African may have some other feeling besides the hope of a good dinner, in attacking the termites, for he knows the mischief they are capable of doing; they will devour everything that comes in their way unless it is of stone or metal, and their bite often proves very poisonous.

They are so ravenous that if one of them were to fasten upon the naked body of this savage, it would suffer itself to be torn into pieces, rather than loosen its hold.

But he probably wears some "charm" as a protection; for the natives are very superstitious. Like all ignorant savages, they firmly believe in the Evil Eye, and in witches and goblins who live in the woods, and talk together in the rustling noise of the leaves.

No important thing is begun without consulting certain signs to see if it will be successful. Some of these are very curious. One is to put a few drops of water on a smooth-topped stool, then take a smooth block and rub it across the stool as though to plane it off. If the block moves easily then the sign is good; if hard, the sign is bad.

Another trial is to dose some unfortunate hen with a certain greasy liquid. If she dies the sign is bad; if she gets well it is good.

But the hens are not the only sufferers. Another way to try one's luck is to seize a wretched cock, duck him under water many times till he is stiff and senseless, and then leave him alone. The fate is decided by his recovering or dying. The guilt of any one accused or suspected of a crime is tried in the same way, and no one dreams of suspecting one whose signs have shown favorably.

To protect themselves from the danger and loss of fires, they provide no fire-engines and insurance companies, as we do, but hang an amulet made—for those who are Mohammedans—of a few verses of the Khoran, or Mohammedan bible, wrapped in skin, over the door, which must be admitted is a much simpler and cheaper way than ours.

If a horse or donkey is ill he is dosed with raw pork, but a human being has for medicine a few verses of the Khoran, made soft in water.

If a tribe wants to declare war against another, there are suspended on a tree near the borders of their land an ear of corn, a feather from a fowl, and an arrow. The meaning of these dreadful symbols is that whoever touches their corn or poultry will be punished by arrows.

I don't suppose you feel much admiration for these savages, but the opinion is fully returned, for
neither do they think much of you. They believe that if one of their race is unfortunate enough to go into the country of the white men, he is at once caught, put into a cage, and fed like an animal. What do you suppose for? Why, for the sake of his fat, which is used to make a most dreadful poison. I'm really afraid that they judge of our actions by what they would like to do to us, for alas! many of them are cannibals and quite used to the idea of killing and cooking their fellow-men.

Let us hope that this dreadful state of things will pass away, and that before long they may be taught the error of their ways, and also have good reason to think better of the white man.