- Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation by Nicholas Sammond
Charting the significance of minstrelsy in the formation of early-twentieth-century popular culture and media is an ongoing enterprise. Numerous scholars have probed minstrelsy's historical impact on burgeoning conceptions of whiteness and working-class identity, all the while shaping current frameworks for understanding racial representation, labor, and nation formation. Few authors, however, have probed minstrelsy's connections to early animation as carefully and convincingly as Nicholas Sammond in his thoughtful text, Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation.
The book charts critical intersections between early animation and blackface minstrelsy, as both functioned as forms of popular entertainment, social practices, and enactments of labor. Suggesting a clear collision (and collusion) of art and performance, Sammond lays groundwork for understanding how the constructed or imagined black body of minstrelsy transformed "the material practice of animation" (p. 3). For Sammond, this project requires tracking multiple historical and thematic narratives; in the book's four chapters Sammond delves into the intersection and codependency of performance, labor, space, and race in early animation. The creator, animated character, and live minstrel appear as equal part agents and actors in this complex history, shifting the direction of American cartoon making while each negotiated a precarious role as both worker (in reality) and representation (in popular culture). Still, the [End Page 454] animator is at the center of Sammond's study. Frequently identified by the author as interlocutors between audiences and minstrels, animators are situated as key creators of vernacular expression of work that, in turn, propagated displaced racial fantasies.
Each chapter of the book maintains a particular focus. Chapter 1 charts early animation's role as an enacted performance operating alongside other forms of visual culture. Here, Sammond aptly establishes necessary links between the historical foundations of vaudeville, animation, minstrelsy, and cinema, all vying for the attention of early-twentieth-century spectators. Chapter 2 highlights uneasy tensions within the animation industry as creative activity was pitted against standardizing regimes that not only systematized production but also regulated producers. As creators reacted to this pressure, Sammond effectively probes how the divide between character (as a figure of rebellion) and animator (as creator) narrowed. Chapter 3 examines how cartoons within the experiential and physical space of movie theaters responded to technological change. One of the book's many gems is Sammond's discussion of sing-along cartoons and how the performance of minstrel tunes by resident audiences and animated characters became communal acts of racial solidarity. Chapter 4 delineates race as a critical mechanism of early animation, from the expression of violence in specifically racist terms to the creation of animated minstrels such as Mickey Mouse and the industry's alienation of labor.
As expected, the tensions revealed in Birth of an Industry are intricate and varied. The book offers extensive detail about animation history and provides a wide range of visual examples. Sammond also draws impressively from critical race theory, labor history, philosophy, performance studies, and even psychoanalysis to canvass the breadth of his intellectual interests. Yet this diversity of material also serves as a challenge for the reader. The forces affecting early animation and minstrelsy are so varied and so interconnected that it is difficult to determine what is truly significant in the text's narrative despite the author's professed investment in the industry's animators. One also wonders how a more rigorous discussion of gender (including African American women) might enhance, if not disrupt, Sammond's assertions about resistance, representation, and standardized labor. Still, the contributions offered by Birth of an Industry are abundant and consequential to the study of early animation and race; Sammond's work is certain to influence scholars in the study of American visual culture.