ANIMATED MINSTRELSY

Isaac Northup first year writing UNC Asheville student

While walking through the Asheville peace garden located on Burton Street, I was amazed that a community could come together and use all of the waste in their area to create a place that people may come to and connect with. However, I was drawn to a certain piece that was about half way up the garden and to the left; a portrait of Fat Albert and his friends. This piece was an animated portrait of Fat Albert and his friends inside of a sign that reads “welcome to creative ambitions”. This sign was made into a door that allows access to another section of the garden. In the background of the painting are mountains along with a busted picket fence. To me, the features of these African Americans seemed to be exaggerated, such as the teeth of the boy in the front and the boy in the middle. Also, most of the characters appeared kind of dumb to me. But I’ll talk about this more later. This piece relates to Asheville and Asheville’s racist past and involvement with slavery. These animated shows were meant to shape the minds of the people, and Asheville is/was no exception. Although this garden is a place of peace and community, I couldn’t help but think about how this animated show could be taken, in the eye of the viewer, in many ways. And it was at this point that I wondered whether or not animated shows in the course of American history were used to spread and or teach racism in our society such as minstrelsy did.


Background on Minstrelsy

Minstrel shows were often plays in the 1800s that would make fun of blacks. The white performer would dress up in what is known as “blackface” and imitate what they claimed was “their perceptions of how black people lived” (CBS News, 2018). This was obviously racist, but was used to keep the blacks down in society. This would keep them from gaining social status or even being able to hold a good job. It would keep African Americans down by shaping the minds of the people to categorize them with these stereotypes of being lazy, dumb, and uneducated. These shows relate to the Jim Crow era due to the fact that Jim Crow was a minstrel performer, but unlike the Jim Crow laws, these shows weren’t keeping racism alive with laws, they kept racism alive by making it a socially acceptable to find comedy in racism. Along with this comedy came the unconscious beliefs and categorizing that were put into the minds of the people.


Representation

Although this portrait is only of a few individuals, it can represent an entire ethnicity in the eyes of society, just like these minstrel and animated shows have done. This can happen due to the fact that these are the only representations of black people that some white folk might ever see in their day to day lives, especially back in the late 1800s or early 1900s.


Animated Shows Being Born

Animated shows took off during the 1920s and started as early as 1915, but these were not just cartoons that you watch every Saturday morning, these were animated minstrel shows. As stated earlier, minstrel shows made it socially acceptable to turn racism into comedy while using that comedy to give off the image that African Americans were less than white people at the time. This image would be received by seeing the animated black people acting dumb and uneducated. Even if someone wasn’t paying attention to the racist jokes, such as kids, they would still see black characters acting stupid and uneducated, which would cause them to unconsciously place stereotypes on African Americans. As these shows became animated minstrel shows the creators targeted black musicians by exaggerating their features such as hands, feet, face and hair (Breaux, 2010). It is also said by Breaux that at this time Hollywood had a saying that no black character will be portrayed as human. They must all be exaggerated and almost animalistic. This shows the level of intensity that show producers were putting toward these cartoons in order to keep them racist (Breaux, 2010). Not only were the consumers getting these racist shows on TV but the creators were making them extremely racist on purpose.


1930s-1950s

During 1928, a show called Hittin’ The Trail For Hallelujah Land, hit television as a form of animated entertainment. This show was discontinued after about a year because of its large amount of plagiarism. The main character bore a very close resemblance to Mickey Mouse, who was created in 1928, and the steamboat is a rip off of Steamboat Willy from a few years before. Although this show was taken down for these reasons, it would have been canceled in the future anyways for its subtle hints at large controversial topics; such as racism. I believe that it might have gone on for some time, but just like all other racist shows it would have faded out over time as people want more fair representation of life styles in society. However, the racism that was in this show reflects those of Minstrel shows. There was one character named Uncle Tom who falls deep into the category of the superstitious, uneducated back man (Crowley, 2014). This kind of character can poorly reflect a whole group of individuals from a certain ethnic group. This can be dangerous for the public’s perception of such people because since this show has references and joke about these kinds of things, adults would watch them as well as children. The adults would understand the joke, while the children just see a dumb character who is black. Either way this is shaping the views that these people have of blacks.

In the late 1930s there was a show called Clean Pastures and this show is very unique in story and in racism. In one episode, it starts out by showing Harlem’s night life. At this time, Harlem was known for having a large black population. However, the way that it shows the night life is very stereotypical. It starts out by showing professional dancers, who are all black, in a club with others around, all black as well. Although these women are dancing, it isn’t that they’re dancing that is racist, it’s how they are drawn. Each of these woman looks the same with wide hips, huge lips, and what seems to be the greatest happiness ever from dancing. Although they are portrayed as happy because they are singing and dancing, I learned in humanities last year that slaves would often sing on the job or when going through hard times. This singing was one of the arguments that people had at the time of the abolishment of slavery because they were saying that since they are singing they are happy. So this quickly became a stereotype associated with blacks at the time.

Furthermore, the point of this show is to keep religion alive. The main characters are black angels who were sent down to Earth by black God in order to restore Christian faith in Harlem. These angels are the most racist portraits of black people in the entire show. They are all old musicians, who are portrayed as uneducated because you can barely understand what they are saying, they read very slowly, and they are all over weight or disproportionate (Crowley, 2014). This show would have affected the audience not only by putting a black label on Harlem, but a worse label on blacks. This show was watched due to its comedy and its colorful animation.

Jumping forward into the 1950s, there is a show that was aired in 1952 called Amos ‘N’ Andy. Although this show is not animated and was also a radio broadcast, the creators still made it easy to know that the characters were black. The authors made it so over the radio, the two characters’ voice sounded more racist to fit the stereotype (Bowman, 2013). This was a very famous show at the time due to its comedy and accessibility since it was on the radio. Not only was the voice racist, but Andy was cast as lazy, dumb, and just notorious for not doing anything, as the stereotypic black man did in the eyes of people in the 1950s (Bowman, 2013).

These shows impacted the way in which other Americans, such as whites, unconsciously viewed African Americans which kept racism alive.


Animated Shows Moving Black Power

One of the most fascinating things about animated shows is how they fully transformed their portrayal of minority groups in the United States over the past 100 years. The first show that was on TV which didn’t have a black character as a minstrel manner was in 1969 (Breaux, 2010). This was the year that our beloved Fat Albert hit screens across America. The show Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, was one of the first shows during the Civil Rights Era to show African Americans on television in a positive way (Dunne, 2014). Although this portrait of Fat Albert made me think of the racist portrayals that blacks were put through on television, I was wrong in thinking that Fat Albert was one of these animated minstrel shows. Fat Albert was on every Saturday morning and was showing African Americans in a way that they had never been seen on television before, as human.


Another show that is still very well known today and is also in books are The Hardy Boys. This show also started in 1969 and was one of the first shows to have a black character working alongside other whites. As you may know, The Hardy Boys were a young detective group of teenagers who solved mysteries, and one of them was black. This man was drawn very fit and slim, while having an afro and dark skin. That was a great first step toward equality within the television industry (Dunne, 2014).


Conclusion

We have come a long way in the past 100 years when it comes to representing minorities on television. Even in Asheville these shows were played and people watched them together and laughed at the racist animations. But we did and still are moving past these horrible shows and representations. Television still has some work to do on representation. For example, we didn’t have a Disney black princess until the movie The Princess and the Frog in 2009 (Breaux, 2010). I believe that this piece was in the peace gardens because it represents and shows how Asheville is moving past it racial dividers, such as television.


Sources

Breaux, R. (2010). “I’m a Cartoon!” The Jackson 5ive Cartoon as Comodified Civil Rights & Black Power Ideologies, 1971-1973. Colorado State University: The Journal of Pan African Studies.


Crowley, M. (2014). Exploring the Hidden Racist Past of the Looney Toons. Vulture.


Dunne, C. (2014). How Fat Albert Helped Change Cartoons Forever. Fast Company.


History.com. (2018). Jim Crow Laws. A&E Television Networks.


Wright, J. (1982). The Relation between Selective Attention to Television Forms and Children’s Comprehension of Content.