- Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation by Nicholas Sammond
In his 2015 book Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, Nicholas Sammond surveys the evolving labor industry and cultural politics that brought cartoon characters such as Disney's Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.' Daffy Duck to life during the early decades of the twentieth century. To do so, he places cartoon, animator, and industry in relation to the aesthetic practices of nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy. Not only did early twentieth-century American animation reflect nineteenth-century aesthetic practices instantiated and popularized by blackface, Sammond argues, but cartoons also "participated in . . . the racial formations of the day" (30). Rather than viewing classic cartoons as influenced by earlier entertainment genres rooted in racist ideologies, Sammond instead highlights the influence cartoons exerted over social and cultural formations at the time. In comparing American animation to the performative traditions of blackface minstrelsy, Sammond uncovers how the animation industry came to rely on the idea of the rebellious slave—"a living, breathing embodiment of property rebelling against the conditions of its existence"—popularized on the stage as the "fundamental template" in the production of cartoons' most recognizable products (32). Thus characters such as Mickey and Daffy are not simply offshoots of minstrelsy's tropes but are actually minstrels themselves. When the direct links to these earlier forms fade, these characters endure as what Sammond calls vestigial minstrels insofar as they "[carry] the tokens of blackface minstrelsy in their bodies and behaviors yet no longer immediately [signify] as such" (3).
In addition to an introduction and conclusion, Birth of an Industry is divided into four chapters. To accompany the book's 130 black-and-white images, there is a link to an easily navigable online companion that features all discussed media. This resource not only adds to the experience of reading the book on one's own, but also creates an indispensable archive for animation scholars and for educators planning to use Birth of an Industry in [End Page 127] the classroom. The first two chapters, "Performance" and "Labor," elaborate the premise of his introduction, examining the history of early performing animators who worked as interlocutors for the audience, a role Sammond reads as analogous to the interlocutor of the minstrel stage. The push and pull of this dynamic would be reborn in two-man vaudeville acts and in the staged antagonisms between animator and his cartoon creation. Thus, not only do a cartoon character's white gloves and enlarged facial features indicate its representational debts to the visual/static signifiers of blackface, Sammond also convincingly locates the performative and dynamic tropes underlying both. "Labor" highlights how shifting labor relations, increasing production demands, and changing public perceptions about animation studios resulted in "the standardization of artists as workers" (89). Bringing these labor conditions in conversation with the focus of his book, Sammond reads the cartoon character's rebellious spirit as a manifestation of line animators' collective frustrations over their working conditions.
Changes in the animator's relationship to his product not only affected labor relations, but also the representation of cartoons and space, which Sammond pursues further in his third chapter, "Space." Technological innovations—including the introduction of sound to animation, for instance—intensified labor divisions and changed the infrastructure of the animation studio in ways that further distanced the animator from a finished cartoon. Moreover, 1930s cartoons began to rely more on "a unified cinematic space—an idea that the worlds depicted in movies were located elsewhere" (128). Sammond also considers how these changes affect spatial relations within theaters themselves. How cartoons negotiate ideas of space on the screens upon which they were projected, among audience members, and within theaters mattered significantly to how they regulated social formations, especially race.
Chapter four, "Race," delves further into social formations and shows how American racial matrices find expression beyond racist caricature, providing a fuller account of the nation's relationship to minstrelsy and its afterlives. An "eternal...