History of Black Cartoons in America
Updated: Feb 19
It's hard to have this conversation without your blood boiling, though it isn't talked about nearly enough. Especially since half the racist animations have been banned and the racism that does exist in cartoons is shaped and normalized in adult animations like Family Guy and The Boondocks. Either way, we can't deny that it all started somewhere between the very early 1900's until 2020! Yes, 2020. That's when companies started recognizing their mistakes as a whole and actors were refusing to play certain roles or even voicing nationalities that weren't their own. We'll get into that later.
What were they thinking?
Sunflower the Centaur
Poor Sunflower, forced to play the little pickaninny Black Centaur with wild untamable hair awing over the beautiful white centaur in Disney's Fantasia. Animals were the first animations that Disney created. You won't see her in the new Fantasia movies though, since Disney removed it back during the Civil Rights era. I mean, we still are waiting for Disney to actually give us a real Disney Princess not The Princess and the Frog.
Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs
Another cartoon that only exist if you look it up on Youtube, is Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs. It's basically a Black faced parody of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. If you don't know what Black Face is, it's dark makeup worn to mimic the appearance of a Black person and particularly to mock or ridicule Black people.
The Isle of Pingo Pongo
This Warner Brothers short was also banned in 1968 for it's ridiculous racist tones. The Isle of Pingo Pongo was made in 1938 and was the first cartoon to make the creator, Tex Avery, famous. The film is a total of 8 minutes and considered a running gag. It would later become part of the Censored 11, an unofficial term for eleven pre-1948 Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts that were removed from Unites States television by United Artists in 1968 due to racial stereotyping of Black people. The cartoon features Egghead, who was an early version of Elmer Fudd.
All This and Rabbit Stew(Elmer Fudd)
This was another one of Tex Avery's banned cartoons featuring the very first Elmer Fudd. You won't see his name in the credits because by the time it was released, he had left the studio and Leon Schlesinger didn't care for him, so his credit was removed! I find it so weird that these creators can't just make a regular looking Black person.What's with the big white lips?! We don't even look like that! Oh, and did you know the hunter is identified in his model sheet as "Tex's Coon?!" The film was removed because of the "Black face" on the American hunter. The cartoon focused mainly on Fudd’s stupidity; the African American hunter’s representation is clearly racial. He is obsessed with playing craps and loses the very clothes on his back to Bugs, leaving him with only a leaf covering his crotch. Even in the very end, Bugs takes that off too– taking the hunter’s last shred of dignity with him!
Betty Boop is Black!
I'm just going to go ahead and say it. Betty Boop was Black!
Baby Esther, the talented Black singer who inspired Betty Boop had a flirty, childish voice that brought jazz loving people to the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York. People loved Baby Esther! She interpolated words such as ‘Boo-Boo-Boo’ & ‘Doo-Doo-Doo’ in songs at a cabaret and made a song Boop-oop-a-doo, and this is what inspired the name Betty Boop. Well what about that singer Helen Kane? It is said that Kane saw Esther's performance and then took her style. Literally the whole look, which later led to a lawsuit. What I find scary is Baby Esther had disappeared and was presumed dead by the time the court case was cleared in 1934, and Kane continued to be the face and name most associated with Betty Boop! Betty Boop is an icon of the Jazz Age; jazz, which developed partly out of classical music, was created by African-American artists! It's unfortunate Esther didn't and still doesn't get the recognition she deserved for this character. In the Black community we will be sure to preserve her legacy and remember her as the real Betty Boop!
Black Cartoons Today
As mentioned earlier, racism in cartoons started to become normalized in adult animation, as long as it was funny and somewhat true, then what's the harm in making a little fun? But, as I always say, let's keep it real. Today, there is a new Black Face in animation, but this time, it's behind the scenes. I'm talking about voice actors. Even though there is a little more diversity in these cartoons, the people that voice these characters are not! White people have, for decades, earned salaries voicing minority cartoon and video game characters. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement it is showing us all the systemic racism, police brutality, and the white supremacy that has surrounded us for all these years. This has sparked a motivation for people to start making real changes!
What Changes are Being Made?
Disney made a new advisory message that plays before 6 of their movies. It's part of a "stories matter" initiative to improve how Disney represents all people and communities. (Barf!). Okay okay, I guess at least they are doing something to recognize the gross interpretations of everyone but white folks they were creating. The six movies you can find on Disney Plus with these new stereotype warnings are Peter Pan, Aristocat, The Jungle Book, Lady in the Tramp, Dumbo, and Swiss Family Robinson.
In The Jungle Book, The character of King Louie, an ape with poor linguistic skills, sings in a Dixieland, jazz style, and is shown as lazy. The character has been criticized for being a racist caricature of African-Americans
Mike Henry, the voice of Cleveland Brown on the Family Guy show, decided to no longer play his voice. “I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color. Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
Hank Azarah, who plays Apu on the Simpsons is also stepping down. He has voiced the Indian shopkeeper for 30 years and his role came under fire in a 2017 documentary titled "The Problem With Apu." The documentary saw comedian Hari Kondabolu investigate why the character was such a problem and stereotypical.
These 3 are definitely not the only companies making changes, but it's good to see that they are becoming more sensitive to stereotypes and racism in television. We are tired of seeing ourselves portrayed through the eyes of people that have never walked a day in our life. When white people play Black cartoon characters, they take away our voices, economic opportunities and racial equality. It just makes sense to at least give Black people their own voices; literally! There are more than enough talented actors to accommodate this!
Ralph Ellison, the author of Invisible Man, argued that America would not, could not, be America without Black people. American animation owes its existence to African Americans. Early cartoons are loaded with African American characters and parodies and these images became a staple of this new cultural medium we have today. It is Hollywood’s responsibility to make sure this industry is as diverse in the recording booths as it is on screen. Better yet, I'm all for Black folks creating our own Hollywood like Bollywood and Nollywood. Imagine our own Oscars and Emmys dedicated to just us! That way we don't have to beg for equality, we create our own equality.
For now, at least we have made waves of cartoons dedicated to us and have our own voices narrating. Our cartoons are about family, loyalty, music, fashion, and yes, we have some adult cartoons like The Boondocks that have a lot of racial accents. These are somehow eerily related to what is obvious in the world and we can still relate to.
Some of my favorite cartoon shows and movies are, Bebe's Kids, Proud Family, The PJs, and Fat Albert. If you haven't seen any of these, check them out! We have come a long way and I can see Black entertainment going further than we can imagine. If we just get out of our own way and aren't afraid to push people out of our way, we can continue to control our own narrative and our own cartoons!