The following is the second part of an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for a class I took.
While buffoonery and slapstick were becoming a common form of comedy in early cartoons, African-American cartoon characters like Amos and Andy were regulated only to the role of dimwitted clowns. And even though they look less like the blackface archetype, they still had physical features that are offshoots of that stereotype i.e. big eyes and large pronounced lips.
The series ended up making only two cartoons. Today, the shorts are rare to find mostly due to them being banned from the media and can only be seen online. But the series would undergo a revival on television as a live-action comedy show in the early 1950s.
In 1927, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising would release their series of shorts under the Looney Tunes banner starring their creation Bosko. Though whether he is intended to be human or animal is debated, many strongly agree that Bosko is – nonetheless – a blatant African-American stereotype that borders on the racist belief that blacks are less-than-human. The star would have a considerably long lifespan from 1927 to 1938 shifting from Warner Bros. to MGM, changing in appearance. He went through a radical transformation from an unidentifiable anthropomorphized (character) to a little boy (Barker 483).
At first glance, Bosko’s initial look makes him almost “chimp-ish” complete with long arms and round lower-face. (The fact that many White Americans often compare blacks to primates, especially during that time, should be taken into account.) Also, when he first appeared, he spoke in mock Ebonics and continued on for several of his beginning shorts. Afterwards, he began sounding more like his Disney inspiration Mickey Mouse, and like Mickey, he would involve himself into many lighthearted comedy antics along with his sweetheart Honey, the equivalent knockoff of Mickey’s girlfriend Minnie.
But in the late 1930’s, Bosko would be revised during his move to MGM. Gone are his comedic antics replaced with a role as farmer in the South. Also, his personality was revamped to make him more cowardly. In the end, Bosko’s appeal faded with audiences, and the character was eventually discontinued.
Cartoons depicting African-Americans during the first half of the 20th century were produced, directed and even voiced almost exclusively by whites. As such, black stereotypes were a constant theme. Although such cartoons were limited, black stereotypes still made brief appearances from one-shot characters to sight gags.
Blackface would continue to be used as a comedic gag for cartoon characters. If one were to, for example, slip into a puddle of mud, he would emerge resembling blackface. Tom and Jerry cartoons are notorious for this. In the cartoon The Truce Hurts, Tom, Jerry and Butch the dog were walking together when they’re about to cross a mud puddle. Butch removed his “coat” so that they can walk over it when a truck would pass by splashing mud on them. The trio would be revealed from the splash with their faces in mud that would resemble the blackface image.
Such racist black imagery would continue in the American cartoon industry well into the 1950s. By 1955, there would be no more representations of African-Americans in theatrical shorts. Yet, thanks to syndication, those cartoons would be rebroadcasted on television until the aforementioned push to ban racist content in the mainstream media. However, thanks to the introduction of the internet, such cartoons are likely found online on video sites such as YouTube.
The image of African-Americans would not fade out completely, nor would they encompass the stereotypes of old. They would re-emerge in a new wave of Western animated films and programs.
1960s – Present
African-American cartoon characters would be featured in animated programs starting in the 1960s with shows like Josie and the Pussycats produced by Hanna-Barbara and The Hardy Boys presented by Filmation. Both shows strayed away from the blackface archetype and other racist caricatures that have existed prior to the 1960s. Black characters look more realistic and human and were able to interact with white characters as friends.
The 1970s saw America’s popular band the Jackson Five transition to the world of animation by Rankin/Bass and Motown Studios. As expected, the show featured songs sung by the band. However, the series would edit brief footage of the actual band performing either in a music video or onstage. The series had a motif similar to Josie and the Pussycats in that the Jacksons would embark on adventures in various locations. It was an animated trope to have a music band act as heroes, adventurers or mystery sleuths.
A few animated shows in the 1980s would be based on other media projects such as movies and games. Saturday morning cartoons would broadcast The Real Ghostbusters, an animated program based on the movie Ghostbusters. Both would star an African-American Ghostbuster who is part of the team, but would not speak many lines compared to his teammates who were all white males.
Some shows would star African-American women as part of the cast. The hit role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons and Dragons and Tarzan and the Super 7, a cartoon series featuring shows based on the Tarzan franchize and the Batman comics would have black female characters as heroes. In the 1990s, black female heroes would appear again as either members of the team like Storm from the Marvel comic series X-Men.
1989 would see a black man as leader or commander of a team in DIC Entertainment’s program C.O.P.S. (not based on the reality TV show of the same name as it was introduced a month later). The character known as Bulletproof would be shown as the no-nonsense head of a team of highly skilled police men and women tasked with protecting the city from a gang of demented and mutated crooks. It is one of few times young audiences saw a black person in charge and is a regular important character in an animated series.
Spawn, a black comic book superhero, would have an animated adaptation broadcast on HBO in the late 1990s. The show was faithful to the source material, and didn’t hold back on content. At the height of its popularity, Spawn was enough to compete with the DC and Marvel’s characters.
As the new Millennium came, animation studios would oversee new animated projects starring black characters. Warner Bros. Animation would produce another superhero series in 2000 with Static Shock, an African-American teen with electric powers who protects the streets from super baddies usually in the same age range. Disney introduced Fillmore, a black student dedicated to the safety of his school and The Proud Family, an animated sitcom-esque series about a middle-class black family focused mostly through the eyes of character Penny Proud. Aaron McGruder, a comic artist, would oversee the production of his series The Boondocks, an animated show focused on a pint-sized, pro-black militant black boy, his younger brother constantly trying to be a thug and their grandfather, a former civil rights activist and moderately eccentric guardian of his grandsons. The show is known for its commentary on society and politics and is considered controversial for usage of a racial epithet in their dialogue.
2009 also saw a first in animated film history in Disney’s first black princess in the release of their feature film The Princess and the Frog. It is part of the limited line of animated movies with black and black-based characters such as 1992’s Babe’s Kids and 2000’s Osmosis Jones or would star African-American stars as voice-overs like Martin Lawrence as main character Boog in 2006’s Open Season and Will Smith as Oscar in 2004’s Shark Tale. Again, the list of animated films featuring black characters or starring black actors as voice-overs is very short with little to no growth as is the number of animated programming on television. It must be acknowledged that part of the reason is that despite racial progress for African-Americans in the animation industry, they still represent an extreme minority in the mainstream arena.
It is undeniable that African-Americans have had an unfair image problem due, in large part, to the racist mentality upheld in a mostly white-based institution in the first half of the 20th century. By the latter half, the image has improved to make blacks more human and multi-dimensional breaking away from any and all negative stereotypes that – even to this day – continues to be a part of the American psyche. However, even in the 21st century, positive, non-stereotypical images continue to be rare as the industry is more white-owned and operated than a few decades prior, and with new animated projects in the works, it looks to get even worse.
The obvious way to counter this issue is for black artists and animators to either promote their ideas or find ways to create their own projects. With the help of the internet, independent black artists are making their mark with their creations. However, it will likely take time for an African-American-based cartoon character to be on par with the likes of Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny.
Lehman. Christopher P. The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Animated Short Films, 1907-1954. 7. University of Massachusetts Press. Amherst, MA. 2007
Barker, Jennifer L. Hollywood, Black Animation and the Problem of the Representation in Little Ol’ Bosko and The Princess and the Frog. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. New York, NY. 438. 2010
Ondryáš, Martin. Racist Stereotypes in Tom and Jerry: Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis. Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts. Brno, Czeck Republic. 10. 2015.