Krazy Kat — please click on art for a better view of this Sunday page.
The facts about George Herriman have been known for a long time: he was born in Lousiana in 1880. The birth certificate listed him as colored. Other documents described every other member of his family as colored. They were in fact of mixed racial ancestry: “mulattos” in the terminology of the time, having some African ancestry but with skin color only a shade darker than most northern Europeans. Herriman’s family moved to Los Angeles around 1886, most likely to escape the increasingly rigid racial regime of the American South where they would have been segregated. In California, they reinvented themselves as white Americans. Herriman would grow up and become a cartoonist, creating the greatest of all comic strips, Krazy Kat (1910-1944). When he died he was listed in the death certificate as Caucasian.
The facts are clear but what are we to make of this story? Did Herriman realize that he had black ancestor and that his family was passing? Did he knowingly go along with the passing or did he simply grow up thinking he was white? If he knew about the passing (and himself consciously passed) how did he feel about it?
Herriman was an intensely private man and avoided the limelight (a fact perhaps not unrelated to his mysterious ancestry) so these questions are very difficult to answer. I’ve grappled with them for a long time, as have other scholars. (My longest reflection on this matter is in the introduction to this book). There’s not a lot of biographical material, so it is difficult to make conclusive judgments.
On the other hand, art is sometimes eloquent even when documentary evidence is missing. It is remarkable how many times the theme of passing shows up in Krazy Kat.
Recently while working on the introduction to an upcoming Krazy Kat book, I read Herriman’s last two years of Sunday strips. I was quite amazed by one of the very last strips Herriman worked on, which was published posthumously. It appeared in newspapers on May 21st, 1944, about a month after Herriman had died.
In this strip Officer Pupp and Krazy talk about how some animals are more valued if they’re white rather than brown. Their dialogue goes like this:
Officer Pupp: Mr. W. Weasel, the insurance co. consider him a poor risk – when he’s brown.
Krazy: Fency a color makin’ a difference in its value.
Officer Pupp: He must be “white” to have a high rate of value – that makes him an “ermine.”
Krazy: But how does he get “white”?
Later in the strip, the poor weasel does, like many other Coconino residents before him, figure out how to pass as white, with a little help from Ignatz and a beauty parlor. Then Ignatz and the Weasel exchange this banter:
Ignatz: Wonderful. A blonde beauty. Pale moon sheen. White hibiscus. Fair Flower. Snow flake.
Weasel: I’m a bleached weasel. Where to now?
Ignatz: To the insurance co. to have them give you your true high top “value.”
This strip, a reflection on the economic and social barriers that make passing necessary, was perhaps Herriman’s final reflection on the theme of racial identity.
Michael Tisserand and I will be talking about this strip and other matters in the introduction we’ve written to this book, which will be out in the fall.