Pickaninny (also picaninny or piccaninny) is a term – generally considered derogatory – that in English usage refers to black children, or a caricature of them which is widely considered racist. It is a pidgin word form, which may be derived from the Portuguese pequenino (an affectionate diminutive of pequeno, "little [one]").
In the Southern United States, pickaninny was long used to refer to the children of African slaves or (later) of African American citizens. While this use of the term was popularized in reference to the character of Topsy in the 1852 book Uncle Tom's Cabin, the term was used as early as 1831 in an anti-slavery tract "The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, related by herself" published in Edinburgh, Scotland. The term was still in some popular use in the US as late as the 1960s; while it has largely fallen out of use and is now considered offensive, the term is still part of the American lexicon.
Although the term was used generally, it came to refer to the associated stereotype among white Americans of African American children. "Picaninnies had bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips and wide mouths into which they stuffed huge slices of watermelon. The Picaninny was distinguished by its young age, male or female. "They were also half dressed and animalistic. The picaninny was seen as one of a multitude of black children – disregarded and disposable. That the pickaninny was often naked or half-naked has been interpreted by some to imply that black parents neglected the well-being of their children.
Flannery O'Connor's 1955 short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find contains the following: "Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!" she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. "Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved.
In 1987, Governor Evan Mecham of Arizona defended the use of the word, claiming "As I was a boy growing up, blacks themselves referred to their children as pickaninnies. That was never intended to be an ethnic slur to anybody.
The word was used by Australian country music legend Slim Dusty in the lyrics of his 1987 "nursery-rhyme-style" song "Boomerang": "Every picaninny knows, that's where the roly-poly goes". The lyrics may also be an allusion to the Piccaninny crater in Western Australia.
In the 1987 movie Burglar, retired police detective and blackmailer Ray Kirschman (played by G.W. Bailey) confronts ex-con Bernice Rhodenbarr (Whoopi Goldberg) in her bookstore. When Bernice walks away and ignores him, Ray says "now listen here picaninny!". Bernice, visibly angered by this, responds in stereotypical African-American slave talk and mocks Ray, and when Ray threatens to get violent, Bernice, having served time in prison, boasts of being the boxing champ there. A fight ensues, and Ray gets a broken nose.
Prior to becoming the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson apologized for any offence caused by an article in which he sarcastically suggested that "the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies".