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.
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.