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The Colored Cartoon

[Click here to read my review of The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954.]

From the author, Christopher P. Lehman: I should point out that nowhere in my book do I say that animators consciously sought to degrade African Americans in the imagery that they chose. I do, however, say that even as the films were released, people found them degrading. Moreover, whenever possible, I tried to quote not only from the archived materials but also from the few living (at the time) animators who had worked on the films, because I wanted their own input on their choices of images. In fact, of all my interviewees, only Jack Zander called one of his own characters (the Tom and Jerry maid) “racist.”

Essentially my book is about how black animated imagery changes from the 1900s to the 1950s, as African Americans change politically and call the images into question. If more animators had been willing to discuss the racial/ethnic content of their work, I would have had their quotes to complement the quotes from the scripts. The scripts provide verbal illustrations of the characters. I cast no mind-reading judgment on the animators for using racial slurs to describe characters, but the choices of slurs puts the characterizations in a fuller context than merely the films themselves do. In addition, the scripts and the music scores are given attention, because those do require thought and planning; I don’t say what motivated people to make their artistic choices in cartoon construction, but I do say that the choices have meaning.

Also, nowhere in the book do I reject cartoons. I mention the images in them, but I do not call those cartoons bad ones.

The animators were playing with all sorts of loaded racial baggage and probably had no idea. That makes the story of the images so poignant. I certainly understand your point about irony and about Bugs Bunny’s use of blackface to conquer adversaries. But my point was to illustrate that as Brown v. Board was already at the Supreme Court in the 1950s, the old slavery images were still ripe for humor for animators; that, to me, was the larger issue. Southern Fried Rabbit has its merits and didn’t need blackface to be funny; for whatever reason, though, the animators clung to that old imagery, and it died hard through the various protests mentioned in the book.

If I appear especially sensitive to the imagery, it is unintentional. I harbor no ill feelings to the artists or to animation itself.  All I am doing is calling attention to the black images and analyzing their construction through script, music, and animators’ anecdotes. Whether the animators’ choices were careless, they were still choices, and the characters were still constructed. My book focuses on the construction.

[You remarked that I was] writing “outside [my] field of expertise.” I actually have previously published on animation. My first article—on UPA’s Brotherhood of Man and George Pal’s John Henry—was published in the summer of 2001 in Journal of Popular Film and Television. My review of Doing Their Bit was published by the Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television in August 2005. My first book, American Animated Cartoons of the Vietnam Era, was published in October 2006. And since 1995, I have interviewed many veterans of animation for my research, and some of their comments are in The Colored Cartoon. Others are in my dissertation.

Also, your blog says I don’t take into account that most of the cartoons I mentioned were produced “quickly and carelessly.” But on page 13, I noted that Aesop’s Fables were produced weekly.

I focus on the stereotypes not because I’m oversensitive but because I’m telling the story of the stereotypes that others found insulting long ago. However, I don’t just focus on blacks who had a problem with the images. I also discuss how pleased some blacks like Cab Calloway and Lillian Randolph were with the characters they played in cartoons, and I don’t judge them for their opinions. Also, I never say that the stereotypes are bad, but I do note when people like Clampett use them for a crutch instead of fleshing out characterizations.

The scripts leave no doubt as to racial connotations of blackface gags; words like “pickaninny” and “mammy” were for black characters long ago. The words help put context into the gags; that’s primarily why I quote from them.

MB replies: When I spoke of Dr. Lehman's writing "outside his field of expertise," I had in mind not animation but music; his references to jazz, to bop and swing, seemed to me to be chronologically inaccurate.

I think Dr. Lehman is correct when he says that many of the people who made the cartoons probably had no idea how hurtful racial images could be. I read thousands of pages of Disney studio documents when I was writing Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, including all the surviving story meeting notes from Walt's lifetime, and I found exactly one instance where someone on the Disney staff, a writer named Harold Helvenston, evidenced hostility and contempt toward black people, in his continuity for an unmade Silly Symphony called "The Flower Ballet" (the work done on it was eventually absorbed into "The Nutcracker Suite" in Fantasia). The idea was that snapdragons would be presented as what Helvenston called "negro flowers"; Walt, to his credit, was uncomfortable with that idea.

There are, of course, stereotypical black characters in any number of Disney cartoons, but they seem to have been used for the same reasons the cartoonists might use any other piece of comic furniture: they were handy, and to some extent surefire. I don't detect any animus toward black people in such use of stereotypes.

I'm reminded of what happened years ago when some acquaintances asked me to show Coal Black to them and some of their friends. Those friends, I learned too late to back out, were racists of the worst kind, and my acquaintances thought that a cartoon called Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs would be just the kind of entertainment they'd like. I hoped and suspected otherwise, and I was right: the racists guffawed at first, but their laughter quickly died. They realized that there wasn't any hate in Coal Black, and that really bothered them.

I still resist the idea that there's no material difference between the use of stereotypes in Southern Fried Rabbit and Mississippi Hare and their use in earlier cartoons. Are stereotypes so potent that even their satirical, ironical use must be rejected? Not just those cartoons but TV programs like In Living Color and Chappelle's Show argue otherwise.

[Posted May 11, 2008]