- “Bootsie” in Berlin: An Interview with Helma Harrington on Oliver Harrington’s Life and Work in East Germany, 1961–1995
Interest in African American cartoonists has grown dramatically in recent years, in part as a result of a convergence between the trend in cultural studies toward greater recognition of the importance of popular visual art, especially comics, and the ongoing emphasis in African American studies on recovering “lost,” extra-canonical works. Although highly visible contemporary black cartoonists such as Aaron McGruder and Ray Billingsley have achieved considerable popularity with black and white audiences, scholars have begun to focus on their predecessors, figures like E. Simms Campbell and Elton Fax. Among these artists, Oliver Harrington’s is easily the most recognizable name. An enormously productive and justly renowned figure, Harrington inspired generations of black cartoonists with widely divergent styles and themes.1 Harrington’s work is featured in the Library of Congress, and collections of his cartoons, essays and lectures appeared shortly before his death in 1995.
As the originator of “Bootsie,” the affable central figure in the Dark Laughter cartoon series that began in 1935 and lampooned racist attitudes in the years before the civil rights movement, Harrington was a well-known and much-loved popular artist whose work was featured in a number of “Negro” weeklies, including the New York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender, in the years before World War II. The critique of racism was obvious, yet like Langston Hughes in his “Simple” series, Harrington cushioned his outrage with humor, as well as by employing a somewhat folksy visual style.2 Bootsie is a rounded, jovial caricature who makes his way through a Harlem filled with similarly drawn characters; many of the situations Bootsie experiences, as Harrington’s biographer M. Thomas Inge has noted, are as much satirical depictions of the behavior of his fellow African Americans as anything else (Interview).3
World War II changed Harrington’s visual style and sharpened his attacks on what he and other African Americans of the period quickly came to see as a hopelessly hypocritical American society ostensibly devoted to combating fascism abroad while retaining segregation domestically. In 1943, Harrington began to draw the groundbreaking “Jive Gray” strip, which featured a black pilot and brought together the American political issues so central to his work with a more contemporary visual style possibly influenced by that of his contemporary Milton Caniff; the next year, as a war correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, Harrington wrote serious stories about the bravery of the soldiers in the black squadron with which he was traveling.4 After the war, Harrington was far more outspoken about his politics, drawing attention to himself in an environment in which McCarthyism was beginning to take hold. After Harrington, representing the NAACP, strongly criticized the U. S. government’s treatment of black veterans in a debate with then-U. S. attorney general Tom Clark, Clark labeled him a Communist. Five years later, warned by a black friend in Army Intelligence that he was under investigation by the F. B. I. and concerned that he, like his friend the actor Paul Robeson and other prominent African American activists, might suffer the loss of his passport and other repercussions, Harrington moved to Paris, where he spent the next ten years. [End Page 353]
In Paris, Harrington lived and worked among the black expatriate community whose central figure was Richard Wright, who considered Harrington one of his best friends. Wright’s death, in 1960, stunned Harrington, who believed that he had been murdered. Harrington began to seek work outside France, finally accepting an offer by the Aufbau Press, an East German publishing house located in Berlin, to illustrate a series of American classics.5 In the summer of 1961 while negotiating his contract, Harrington realized that the Berlin Wall was going up around him. “I was a virtual prisoner,” Harrington said thirty years later in an address at Wayne State University. “I couldn’t leave there. I lost my French apartment, I lost everything. I had to stay there” (Harrington 109). As this interview makes clear, this claim was at best disingenuous. Although Harrington naturally could...