restricted access Introduction: The Blackness of Animation
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1 INTRODUCTION The Blackness of Animation American animation owes its existence to African Americans. This is not to suggest that African Americans were involved in the technological development of animated film or even that they played an active role in the creation of the first cinematic cartoons. The connection between African Americans and animation was more subtle and indirect than that but nonetheless intimate and unmistakable. Early cartoons are replete with African American characters and caricatures, and such images soon became a staple of this new cultural medium. One of the first cartoons ever made in the United States, James Stuart Blackton’s Lightning Sketches (1907), featured the metamorphosis of a racial epithet—the word “coon”—into a pair of eyes on a blackface caricature, and Metro-GoldwynMayer (MGM) produced films starring a recurrent “mammy” character for over a decade. Other popular cartoon figures, such as Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny, were less derogatory, but they too traced their roots to African American culture. The question is, why? Simple racism, a deeply ingrained tradition in the United States by the turn of the twentieth century, is one obvious answer. Just as white people controlled other American businesses, they dominated the emerging motion picture industry, including animated film. But how far does that fact alone really go toward explaining the prevalence of negative African American images in early cartoons? Many early cartoonists were recently arrived European immigrants whose familiarity with black Americans and knowledge of their history was limited at best. Moreover, by their own account, at work they were just as likely to lampoon one another’s ethnic backgrounds as to ridicule African Americans. Yet it was African American, not ethnic European, caricature that became commonplace on the screen. If not the cartoonists themselves, then, was it the producers—the ownLEHM_txt_final .indd TXT:1 LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:1 10/11/07 11:15:15 AM 10/11/07 11:15:15 AM 2 Introduction ers of the studios that made the films—who determined their content? If so, what were their motives and aims? The short answer to that question again seems obvious. Animated film producers wanted to make money by developing and marketing a new form of entertainment. Given that goal, it is not surprising that they looked to other popular forms of entertainment and amusement for content that would appeal to prospective customers. By the early twentieth century, the influence of African American folktales , music, and dance was everywhere evident in American culture, from the ongoing performance of blackface minstrelsy to the enormous popularity of Joel Chandler Harris’s “Uncle Remus” stories. White entertainers had blackened their faces and poked fun at African American song, dance, and speech on stage since the 1840s, and many nineteenth-century Americans considered blackface minstrelsy the nation’s first original art form. Meanwhile, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused controversy not only because of its strong abolitionist sentiment but also because minstrels easily borrowed the main characters and reduced them to caricatures: the pious slave Uncle Tom, the foolish slave Topsy, the evil master Simon Legree. Because of its adaptability, the book continued to draw readers long after the Civil War ended slavery, especially when minstrels created stage adaptations exploiting the theme of antebellum nostalgia. From the 1880s until well into the twentieth century , Harris’s fictional works also enjoyed a tremendous readership. They starred a Reconstruction-era African American man teaching moral lessons to the children on his employer’s plantation by using anthropomorphic animals. Americans seemed to accept, even to like, these expressions or echoes of African American culture, but the way in which blacks were depicted usually ranged from patronizing to degrading. The painstaking attempts of minstrels to capture with accuracy the mannerisms, speech, and singing of the slaves they had observed later evolved into vulgar caricaturing of African Americans and their enslavement. This “love and theft” of the culture had political overtones, according to the historian Eric Lott. Minstrels were initially working-class performers who appropriated certain characteristics of oppressed blacks in order to express their own discontent . The performances changed, however, as the nation increasingly debated slavery and a growing number of free blacks moved north, where LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:2 LEHM_txt_final.indd TXT:2 10/11/07 11:15:15 AM 10/11/07 11:15:15 AM The Blackness of Animation 3 they competed with disgruntled whites for jobs. Professional troupes played into their audiences’ racial stereotypes...