Felix the Cat & Blackface

Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?
Felix, a happy-go-lucky trickster. Is he presidential material?

Snorting has greeted Niall Ferguson’s new column, which begins like this:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.

But aside from derision, Ferguson’s comments deserve some analysis. There is a reason why Ferguson, when he looks upon a cartoon character from the 1920s, lets his mind free-associate in the direction of black people. As many cultural historians have pointed out, the classic American animated cartoons emerged from the same milieu that produced blackface performances (like the Amos and Andy show) and minstrel music. Many of the great early animated characters — Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Bosko — had more than a touch of blackface and the minstrel show to them.

Felix the cat is a feckless, happy-go-lucky trickster. Culturally, he’s the missing link between Br’er Rabbit and Bugs Bunny: admirable in some ways but lacking in the “white” qualities of respectability and responsibility. It’s interesting that Ferguson managed to pick out such a potent, meaning-rich cultural symbol of blackness. It was probably subconscious on his part but still very revealing.

Mickey Mouse in the 1930s had a touch of blackface.
Mickey Mouse in the 1930s had a touch of blackface.

In his essay collection More Matter, John Updike has a beautiful meditation on Disney’s famous rodent, which also includes the following reflections on race:

Like America, Mickey has a lot of black blood. This fact was revealed to me in conversation with Saul Steinberg, who, in attempting to depict the racially mixed reality of New York streets for the super-sensitive and race-blind New Yorker of the 1960s and ‘70s, hit upon scribbling numerous Mickeys as a way of representing what was jauntily and scruffily and unignorably there. From just the way Mickey swings along in his classic, trademark pose, one three-fingered gloved hand held on high, he is jiving. Along with round black ears and yellow shoes, Mickey has soul. Looking back to such early animations as the Looney Toons’ Bosko and Honey series (1930-36) and the Arab figures in Disney’s own Mickey in Arabia in 1932, we see that blacks were drawn much like cartoon animals, with round button noses and great white eyes creating the double arch of the curious widow’s-peaked brows. Cartoon characters’ rubberiness, their jazziness, their cheerful buoyance and idleness all chimed with popular images of African Americans, already embodied in minstrel shows and in Joel Chandler Harris’s tales of Uncle Remus, which Disney was to make into an animated feature, Song of the South, in 1946. Up to 1950, animated cartoons, like films in general, contained caricatures of blacks that would be unacceptable now. … But there is a sense in which all animated cartoon characters are more or less black. Steven Spielberg’s hectic tribute to animation, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, has them all, from the singing trees of Silly Symphonies to Daffy Duck and Wood Woodpecker, living in a Los Angeles ghetto, Toonville.

This tradition of using cartoon animals to symbolize ethnic groups strongly influenced Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the mice are European Jews and the cats are Nazi-era Germans.

From an interview Spiegelman gave to the Comics Journal in 1981 (issue #65):

So, I was still fishing for my ideas, and I was looking at some films that were being shown at a film course up there that included a lot of early animated cartoons. I was really struck by the cat and mouse cartoons. I saw that the mice in those cartoons were very similar to the Negroes in the other cartoons that were being shown in the same day, and realized that this cat and mouse thing was just a metaphor for some kind of oppression. I wanted to do a comic strip in which the mice were blacks and the cats were the whites, using funny-animal style, and so I started trying to research things about Black history. And then just short-circuited there, realizing that I was never going to be able to give this any authenticity, because I just didn’t know the material, and I’d just be some kind of white liberal simp. On the other hand, there was an involvement with oppression that was much closer to my own life: my father’s and mother’s experiences in concentration camps, and my awareness of myself as a Jew.

There is a fine line between genius and stupidity. Because Spiegelman is aware of racial history and symbolism, his use of cats and mice in Maus was brilliant. Ferguson, on the other hand, remains an idiot.

14 thoughts on “Felix the Cat & Blackface

  1. Regarding Felix …. the Felix the Cat of the 1920s was NOT the one with the Magic Bag, as pictured here and on FT. 1960s Felix was hardly a “trickster” in some ways he was a descendant of the later, corporate version of Mickey Mouse.

    1920s Felix was much more of a cat and his blackness was in the sense of being a black CAT (“Felix” == “happy”, black cat crossing path == unlucky was the play here). His comedy was typically thought to be Chaplinesque, not so much of the Minstral show …. heck, if you have a gander at “Felix Saves The Day”… he’s portrayed as “white” in the sense of race, playing AGAINST the “Tar Heels” (yes, it was 1922. Sigh)

  2. I was watching the extras on one of my “Happy Tree Friends” DVDs (hilarious anti-cutesy cartoons, by the way), one of which went into the topic of the designs and tricks of the old black-and-white cartoons.

    According to the documentary, the main reason characters like Mickey and Felix were solid black — and the reason Betty Boop wore a black dress and had black hair — was to make them “pop” in front of the grey-scale backgrounds and draw focus to them, and they wore white gloves so their hands would be visible against their bodies.

  3. Everything drawn on paper is black, even a white subject becomes black. It’s ones opinion of the world that makes it colour or black and white. A flower garden at night is still beautiful, you just don’t see it.

  4. Here’s the paradox: Blackface = white people portraying inaccurate versions of black people, from choreography to voice to ‘jazziness’ – that is all designed by white people to appear to be ‘black’. It’s a racist act — not acceptable these days of course. But, it’s a product of white people.

    However, Mickey Mouse was initially designed after Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — by Ub Iwerks. Oswald is NOT a blackface style character. Mickey’s first feature was a parody of a Buster Keaton feature, Steamboat Bill Jr. — so, yeah – I’m not seeing it. Also Bosko, Mickey Mouse, et al as was pointed out above were black because the milieu required characters to be high contrast against the drab backgrounds.

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