Saturday, November 7, 2015

Reefer Madness: Visual Proof of Its Racist Underpinnings

The early 20th century moral panic about drugs, which led to making them illegal, had unintended consequences (as discussed by Johann Hari and described in this earlier post about his book). As Hari and other writers, including Dr. Carl Hart, have said, there was a clear racialized component to the moral panic incited by media and thought leaders of the day. Hart particularly talks about a 1914 New York Times article that described Negro cocaine fiends who were immune to pain yet somehow had improved marksmanship.

The movie Reefer Madness, which opened in 1936, was part of turning opinion against marijuana. I've never seen the film, so I don't know if the film itself makes a racialized argument against drugs. But check out this poster, which was recently reprinted from wood carvings made at the time to promote the movie:

While it wasn't uncommon to portray or describe Satan as black in other settings (such as the Salem witch trials), this visual representation is an overt rendering of the essential white male Southern fear: a big black man carrying off a pure white woman for his own uses. Not to mention the handy verbal reminders of SIN and DEGRADATION. The pointy ears are pretty much an afterthought.

When it was just white people that were using cocaine (at their dentists or in their Coca Cola) or marijuana or opioids in the early 20th century, no one thought much about it. But once black or Latino users were mentioned, "something had to be done about it" and we veered onto the path toward the drug war and our current situation.


The Reefer Madness poster was recently printed at the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, using plates they just acquired from a long-defunct Cincinnati printer.

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