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Colorful Characters

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The Colored CartoonThere are things to admire about Christopher P. Lehman's The Colored Cartoon: Black Representation in American Short Films, 1907-1954 (University of Massachusetts Press), such as his extensive use of archival sources. He has made particularly good use of the NAACP's files at the Library of Congress. I quoted from some of those documents in my own Hollywood Cartoons, but Lehman quotes from a lot more.

I'm afraid, though, that the book's shortcomings outweigh its virtues. Some of those shortcomings are of a predictable sort, the kind that crop up when an academic writer—Lehman teaches at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota—wanders outside his field of expertise. His references to "bebop" and "swing," when he's writing about the cartoons of the late '30s and early '40s, sound wrong to me, since he seems to be trying to establish a real connection between the jazz and the cartoons, and not just make aesthetic comparisons. Bebop came along too late to have been any sort of influence on Tex Avery's Warner cartoons of the late '30s and early '40s. In the same vein, although I applaud Lehman's use of the MGM archives at the University of Southern California, I would feel better about his frequent references to the "scripts" for the MGM cartoons if he made clear what he was talking about.

My larger problem with the book can be illustrated by quoting what Lehman says about a couple of the last Warner Bros. cartoons that made use of black stereotypes. He says of Chuck Jones's Mississippi Hare (1949) that it

contains a few brief scenes of African American cotton-pickers who accidentally pick Bugs Buny and throw him aboard a riverboat. The film ... does not show the workers' faces. It does, however, identify them as Southern African Americans by having them sing "Dixie" in stereotypical dialect.

Studios also developed new means for characters who were not African American to poke fun at black people. During a blackface gag in Mississippi Hare, a shuffling Bugs Bunny sings "Camptown Races" in its original "dialect" form: "Gawine ta run all night,/ Gawine to run all day,/ Ah bet my money on a bob tail nag/ Somebody bet on da bay." Although the scene is less than thirty seconds long, through the song, the dance, and the blackface appearance of Bugs's adversary, the cartoon manages to romanticize slavery, make yet another reference to minstresly, and degrade African Americans, all in that short amount of time.

Similarly, Lehman says of Friz Freleng's Southern Fried Rabbit (1953) that it was

the last theatrical cartoon to poke fun at enslaved African Americans. The cartoon treats the issue of the physically violent punishment of slaves by masters as a joke ... and offers comic renditions of minstrel songs. ... Other examples of the film's use of Civil War stereotypes for humor include putting Bugs Bunny in disguise as Abraham Lincoln and a plantation mistress. In one scene Bugs even appears in blackface as a slave and sings "My Old Kentucky Home" in order to fool a confederate soldier while crossing into the South to eat carrots. After upsetting the officer by singing a song celebrating Northerners, the bunny kneels on the ground, begging the soldier, "Don't beat me, massa! Please don't beat me, massa! Don't whip this tired old body!"

Where to begin? For one thing, Lehman fails to note that Bugs's adversaries in both cartoons (Colonel Shuffle in the Jones, Yosemite Sam in the Freleng) are blustering, bullying, stupid white Southerners—stereotypical white Southerners, if you wish, both of whom Bugs dispatches with ease and obvious enjoyment. In both cartoons, Bugs turns black stereotypes against his adversaries. When he sings "Camptown Races," it is because he has transformed Colonel Shuffle into a banjo-plucking minstrel sideman. In the Freleng, Bugs poses as a stereotypical "darkie" and then, when Sam asks him to sing something lively, strides upright while singing "Yankee Doodle," thus revealing himself as a self-respecting creature of the kind that haunted white supremacists' dreams. When Bugs grovels before Sam and then transforms himself into Lincoln ("Look me up at my Gettysburg address"), it could not be more obvious that it's all an act, a mockery of his enemy. There is not a trace of servility in Bugs, in either Mississippi Hare or Southern Fried Rabbit, and without it the stereotypes lose their force.

I don't think there's any deliberate social commentary in either cartoon, but I think it's silly to suggest that either of them romanticized slavery or degraded African Americans. Wrong even on Lehman's own terms, because he sees in the rabbit who was first recognizably Bugs, in Tex Avery's A Wild Hare (1940), a "black cultural characterization," a trickster rooted in the folktale tradition that gave birth to the Bre'r Rabbit stories. "The line 'What's up, Doc' perfectly encapsulates Avery's African American aesthetic all by itself," Lehman writes. "By posing the question, the rabbit again exemplifies the folktale character's false vulnerability by pretending not to know the hunter's intentions. At the same time, his unflappable demeanor in the face of an obvious threat is the very embodiment of the bebop idea of 'cool.'"

Set aside the chronological difficulty that Lehman's reference to bebop creates (jazz of that kind was still a gleam in Charlie Parker's eye in 1940). Set aside, too, the trickster characters that have been part of western culture since ancient Greece and have analogues in many other cultures, as with "Coyote" in Pacific Northwest Indians' tales. There's enough Bre'r Rabbit in Bugs to at least render plausible the idea that Bugs Bunny is, in his essence, an African American character—one who consistently triumphs, as it happens, over dangerous white adversaries like those in Mississippi Hare and Southern Fried Rabbit.

So, why does Lehman (who is African American) reject those two cartoons so vigorously? As I read his book, it is because he finds any use of racial stereotypes totally unacceptable, even when they serve ironic and mocking purposes. That blanket rejection seems to me symptomatic of a highly refined racial sensitivity that is not necessarily an asset in a scholar writing on so tender a subject.

Oppressors and the people they oppress necessarily have different perspectives on race. I grew up as a white boy in the segregated South, and I seldom saw black people—certainly not at school or church or anywhere in my neighborhood, unless they were performing menial labor. I didn't have to give much thought to how I would behave on those rare occasions when I crossed paths with a person with a dark skin. The same was certainly not true of the African Americans in my town, who knew that any encounter with a white person was potentially hazardous. They had to cultivate a greater sensitivity to racial nuances than most whites had.

Acute sensitivity of that kind appears to have shaped Lehman's book in unfortunate ways. Like someone trying to read the mind of a dangerous adversary, he attributes to the people who made the cartoons with stereotypes a stronger racial awareness than I think is plausible, and this leads to some ludicrous results; he takes all too seriously, for example, a typically shoddy Van Beuren cartoon called Dixie Days (1930). Too often, as with A Wild Hare, he sees a dominant racial element where one almost certainly does not exist. He generally fails to take into account the strong possibility that most of the cartoons with stereotypical blacks were thrown together quickly and carelessly by people who weren't particular about where their ideas came from and who had no more knowledge of real black people than I did when I was a boy.

In other words, the people who wrote and drew many of the most offensive cartoons weren't making conscious choices that blacks should be depicted in degraded and insulting terms; they were just stuffing into drawings the ignorant assumptions that they shared with a great many other whites. How galling it must have been—how galling it must be—to suffer insult and humiliation at the hands of people who actually aren't paying much attention to you.

There were exceptions, of course, cartoons whose caricatured blacks reflected the artists' sharp observation of real people, even when, as was almost always the case, those caricatures crossed the line into stereotype. Some of Lehman's best pages are devoted to Bob Clampett's ever-problematic Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, a cartoon that combines undeniably racist images with a vitality, rooted in black music and dance, that all but transforms its stereotypes into a ribald joke. But in discussing that cartoon, as with Mississippi Hare and Southern Fried Rabbit, Lehman can never distance himself from the stereotypes far enough to acknowledge that they played very different roles in different cartoons. For him, the stereotypes are always self-condemning. I'm sure they just hurt too much.

[Posted May 2, 2008]