Blackface As a Prism For Seeing the World

George Luks's Queen Liliokalani cartoon from Verdict, January 16, 1899

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).

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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.

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