You can’t talk about the contributions and milestones of African-Americans in American animation without talking about the history. However, the history is long and evolves a lot of discussion and revolutions in both art and technology. To save time, we’re going to jump begin our story in 1930, during the Golden Age of American Animation.
During this time, the industry is still in its infancy. Cartoons are black and white and synchronized sound has only been a thing for about two years thanks to Steamboat Willie. Cartoons are also restricted to movie theatres as shorts before the main film. Despite it being the Great Depression, people still attended the movies in droves as a form of escapism. In fact, Hollywood was one of the few industries that didn’t suffer huge monetary losses during this time. Animation studios were still very small and did the best with what they could. Many of those studios from this era do not exist anymore or have been absorbed into other companies.
Let’s talk about two studios in particular: Disney and Fleischer. Everyone on the planet knows about Disney but few know about Fleischer Studios. Despite this, odds are that you’ve seen one or more of their characters either on merchandise, in an old cartoon, or if you’ve recently been to Universal Studios. Most recognizable are Popeye, Betty Boop, Raggedy Ann, and the 1940s version of the Superman cartoons.
During the 1930s, Fleischer and Disney were rivals with Popeye and Mickey being their bread and butter. Aiding Fleischer’s popularity was the quality of their animation, support by their invention called the rotoscope. The rotoscope was a revolutionary tool, that allowed for more lifelike movement when animating.
I could go on for paragraphs about how rotoscoping revolutionized how animation works, but I figure my good friend YouTube would be a better teacher.
Leonard Maltin from “Cartoon Madness”
The point is this: the rotoscope allowed people to move like people and not creatures with noodle arms and human faces. It adds to what Disney would later call ‘the illusion of life’, which appeals to an audience.
Let’s pause here and move to another industry: music. With the Great Depression going on, jazz was in a bit of a slump. Inflation made big bands costly and with the conservative attitude responding to the progressive nature of the Jazz Age, it was considered more of an ‘underground’ thing. Good upstanding citizens should indulge in jazz as much as they should in liquor, which meant not at all.
That didn’t mean people stopped enjoying it. Most likely, it was jazz’s frowned upon nature that made it even more appealing. This is likely how Cab Calloway and his orchestra maintained a growing popularity during the Depression. Their music was even broadcasted on national radio stations, breaking several color barriers.
What happens when you collide the creativity of Fleischer Studios, the music of Cab Calloway, the popularity of Betty Boop, and the technology of the rotoscope?
You get the first cartoon to feature a major contribute by an African-American.
Minnie the Moocher (1932)
Starting in 1932, Fleischer collaborated with Calloway. They recorded Fleischer and his orchestra’s performance and used the rotoscope to put his dance moves in the cartoon. They made several cartoons featuring Calloway’s music, the most popular of them being Snow White (1933) and The Old Man of the Mountain (1933). The cartoons should also be appreciated for featuring Calloway and his orchestra at the beginning in live action before getting into the carton. The cartoon also credits them.
Although Calloway did not have his own character made by Fleischer, he became affiliated with Koko the Clown, who used Calloway’s voice and sung ”St. James Infirmary”. Calloway was also associated with the unnamed ghost walrus that dances and sings during Minnie the Moocher.
This makes sense in context but not as much as you would think.
Sadly, this popularity did not last. The Old Man of the Mountain was the third and last of the Fleischer-Calloway collaborations. The reasons for this are numerous. One being that the conservative public did not care for jazz or Betty Boop, which caused the Hays Production Code to demand some changes. Since cartoons were limited to theatrical release, they had no choice but to abide. As the Hays Code demanded, Betty’s cartoons no longer featured jazz and her appearance became tamer. She was no longer a carefree flapper but a pining and bland husbandless housewife.
This did more harm than good to her popularity. Betty was a sex symbol and fairly independent for her time. With those characteristics removed, others quickly eclipsed her. By 1940, Betty Boop had all but disappeared. Even her syndicated comic strip tanked.
The only good conclusion to this story is that Calloway’s music was brought to the mainstream and his popularity continued despite adversity. This is still a bittersweet ending to an amazing contribution but a familiar pattern we’re going to be seeing as we comb through this brief history: two steps forward and one step back.
So, did anything else happen during the Golden Age that’s worth nothing?
For those of you wondering what in the hell you’re looking at, this is Little Black Sambo. This character originates from a British children’s book depicting the adventures of a South Indian boy living in the countryside. It’s like The Jungle Book, but somehow even more racist.
At best, Little Black Sambo’s story is bland as wallpaper paste but what made it infamous were its illustrations. Sambo was drawn with inky skin and comically red lips, which makes one think the character of this story is a gremlin wearing lipstick instead of an Indian child. This racist depiction also caused the book to be banned and hated. Even the word ‘sambo’ became associated with this particular caricature.
Despite this reasonable controversy and outright hatred, Sambo was still popular. In fact, it was re-released time and time again to try and paint a better depiction of the character which never worked. Even the guy who illustrated Wizard of Oz tried to help Sambo’s image. It didn’t work.
People of color hated Sambo, mainly due to a confusion about his race. You see, Sambo’s depiction was exactly like blackface characters depicted in vaudeville, Broadway, and film. As these performances were associated with comedies, it was only a matter of time before it showed up in animation. After all, Sambo was popular with the white mainstream majority. Why not make money off of him?
So what was the first animated cartoon to depict an African-American character in blackface? It’s hard to pinpoint this because the animation companies that still exist in some form or another don’t like to be associated with the blatant racism of their past. You can’t really blame them, as the people who worked during that era aren’t around anymore. Still, you have to acknowledge that this depiction was popularized so we have to still ask: why did blackface become a ‘thing’ in American animation?
Evidence points to Little Black Sambo, a film version of the book, being the first depiction of blackface in animation. It was produced in 1935 by Ub Iwerks Studio. Yes, that Ub Iwerks: the one who created Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and worked alongside Walt Disney during the early years of the company.
Now, I’m going to talk about something personal here and I’m going to ruin some more childhoods as well. I am African-American and I am also an animation fan. I’ve always been a fan of the greats like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng, and Chuck Jones. When I was young, I stumbled across a list of cartoons called the Censored Eleven, which were cartoons that had banned from television, and most of them made by my favorite animators. This was a bitter pill to swallow.
Now being obsessed highly interested in animation, I watched all these horrible cartoons just because I was curious. How could Tex Avery do this to me? Did he hate Black people? Was he was a White supremacist? My understanding of this is…no. I don’t think any of these animators hate African-Americans despite how we’re depicted. I just think they were ignorant white men.
Now, I’m not saying they weren’t racist in their ignorance, but I’m saying I doubt they were being vicious. Looking at these offensive works, it’s obvious that the creators had heard of Black people but never met any. Their knowledge of Black people and culture was limited to what they’d seen on film and television. Like in All This and Rabbit Stew, the blackface character is actually a caricature of a film actor from that time period, Stepin Fetchit.
In modern times, Fetchit is associated with negative stereotypes of African-Americans but during the 1930s he was incredibly popular. He was the first black actor to become a millionaire, receive a screen credit, and worked with NAACP. The character in All This and Rabbit Stew is an exaggerated version of the character he portrayed in films.
The other cartoons that featured black characters were focused around music, like Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears. Like vaudeville and film depictions of African-Americans, they’re always singing, dancing, and are overtly sexual. Noteworthy is So White, the female character who looks the most human only so she can properly sexualized by the audience.
This is the first time we see her in the cartoon:
The story itself is meant to be a parody of Snow White with some patriotism thrown in because at the time it was World War II and everyone was gung-ho for propaganda. Like most American animation, the focus of the story is on comedy and all these offensive cartoons are either comedies, parodies, or pop culture jokes. They’re offensive but so was the culture of that time. There was no public relations guy to mention that blackface was and will forever be offensive to African-Americans.
As long as mainstream white America laughed at it, the cartoon was still a success, and since it was success, other studios copied the formula. Thus the cycle of offense continued and any complaints were ignored. Even cartoons not focused on racial stereotypes, there were instances of an Uncle Tom or blackface being used just for a gag.
These cartoons were edited in later years to remove these scenes and honestly you can’t really tell anything is missing. Anything that couldn’t be edited has been banned, as with the aforementioned Censored Eleven.
So, the first depiction of African-Americans is horrible for everyone for different reasons. When does this change?
The 1970s of course. Join us next time for that discussion!