Blackface, as we’ve touched on before in this blog, was a pervasive part of American popular culture in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’d go so far as to argue that blackface was the dominant aesthetic prism through which whites saw African Americans (as well as black Africans and other members of the African diaspora).
But blackface didn’t just effect perceptions of African-Americans and Africans. I’d argue that blackface also inflected perceptions of other non-white peoples.
Comics, a representational art which allows for mental free-associations, offer a rich record of how blackface imagery was deployed on a wide variety of ethnic groups. A few examples will illustrate what I mean.
Consider the 1899 George Luks drawing of Hawaii’s Queen Liliokalani, posted above. As Luks biographer Robert Gambone notes, “Although Hawaiian, the queen’s appearance conforms to well-rehearsed cartoon stereotypes of African-Americans.” I’d add that the specific image Luks was conjuring up was the Mammy stereotype. (The image is from Gambone’s book Life on the Press: The Popular Art and Illustration of George Benjamin Luks).
Nobody talks about comics with more intelligence than Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, so it is always a happy day when they sit down for an extensive interview as they recently did for Michael Silverblatt’s show Bookworm. Silverblatt, abuzz with his smart responsiveness and high-spirits, chatted with the pair about their new anthology The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. You can listen to the interview here.
It is perhaps worth adding that Silverblatt is a great host and he brings out the best in his guests. Spiegelman and Mouly have both been interviewed by Silverblatt on many occasions before; you can find a list of earlier interviews here and here.
My earlier post on historical representations of gays in the comics garnered many interesting comments and responses. I wanted to take an opportunity to point out a few of them and also make some further notes on the topic.
It is not normally my practice to blog from work (see “mortgage payments”), but having discovered historian Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New via his link to Jeet’s own post on Homer Simpson and Irish stereotypes, I was immediately entranced by both his buoyant writing style and his remarkably eclectic range of historico-cultural interests — so I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and tell you about it. Go check out his site, and for your first mind-expanding sally, read his post Angels and Octopodes.
Brent Bozell is one of those right-wingers who has made a career of being indignant at every hour of the day, always on the lookout for an excuse to whine and complain. One of the things that upsets him is that some comic books feature openly gay characters. “The world of comic books has sure changed a lot since we were young,” Bozell wrote in a 2006 column. “Who would have predicted, 10 years ago, that the comics would become a red-light neighborhood where sexually perverted superheroes would be packaged to elicit from children fascination and sympathy?”
Like most professional moralists, Bozell has no real sense of history: he’s a traditionalist with no grounding in the past. If Bozell knew anything about earlier times, he would realize that gays have been portrayed in comics for decades, not just in comic books but even in comic strips that ran in family newspapers.
What could be more wholesome than Mickey Mouse, the big-eared emblem of the Disney empire? Yet a Mickey Mouse comic strip from January 22, 1931 shows the little rodent meeting a big cat who displays all the markers stereotypically given to gay characters during that period: a lisp, a limp handshake, and a general effeminacy of manner (in this case, batting eyelashes). Revealing himself to be not just homophobic but a violent gay-basher, Mickey attacks the big cat.
Benjamen Walker interviewed me for his radio programme Too Much Information. He got me to talk about a favorite topic, Little Orphan Annie. You can listen to the show here. He also interviews the great social critic Barbara Ehrenreich. As you’ll hear if you give the show some time, Benjamen is an unusually acute and well-informed interlocutor.
Like radioactive material, an ethnic stereotype can possess a lengthy half-life, lingering on long after the period of its most deadly potency. We’ve already seen how the minstrel/blackface image lives on in the guise of Mickey Mouse and other cartoon creations. Something similar has happened to the Victorian stereotype of the simian Irish, which now has mysteriously morphed into the relatively benign form of Homer Simpson, the All-American lovable loser.