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Birth of An Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Race and Ethnicity in Animation

Although the black/white binary of blackface minstrelsy is integral to American commercial animation, popular cartoons of the early twentieth century traded in a wide range of ethnic and racial stereotypes. Because stereotypes are an efficient (if problematic) way to convey information, providing a sort of "economy of stereotype," they were often used on the vaudeville stage, and the cartoon shorts which borrowed from vaudeville also made frequent use of them.

The Fleischer Studios cartoon The Chinaman (1920) demonstrates the studios' schtick of their trademark character, Ko-Ko, escaping the drawn page and wreaking havoc in the (cinematic) real world. In this instance, he also does battle with a stereotypical "chinaman," an image drawn from popular racist imagery of the day, which the Fleischers went to often in their homage to vaudeville performance. (Film re-edited by Inkwell Images.)    

The wide range of stereotypes that animation borrowed from vaudeville included every immigrant group that at some time in the history of its arrival in the United States had been vilified as a racial other. So, in addition to vaudeville acts and cartoons that mocked Latinos, Asian Americans, or Native Americans, in the early twentieth century there were also acts and cartoons that mocked Jews or Germans (often called Hebrew or Dutch acts). One example of these is Policy and Pie (1918) a cartoon made by Gregory La Cava For International Film Service that featured the popular Katzenjammer Kids...who were renamed the Shennanigan Kids when World War I made German jokes unpopular. (Film courtesy of the United States Library of Congress.)

Fleischer Studios revisited vaudeville's economy of stereotype quite often. Perhaps the most complete example is their 1924 short, Vaudeville, in which Max performs a magic trick that transforms him into a variety of ethnic and racial stereotypes. Another example of their racist stereotyping of Asian Americans, from 1929, is their Screen Song Chinatown, My Chinatown, which invites the audience to sing along, linking the sentimentality of nostalgia to a collective racist activity.

With the coming of sound film in the late 1920s and early 30s, broad ethnic stereotypes began slowly to wane, while cartoon minstrels were joined by more blatant caricatures of African Americans. Walt Disney's Egyptian Melodies (1931) is an excellent example of the play between drawn and cinematic space in animation made during the transition to sound. It also plays on popular Orientalist fantasies of Egypt, linking them to popular racial tropes associated with jazz music. This short was directed by Ub Iwerks, who briefly had his own studio; while away from Disney, Iwerks produced the equally Orientalist Flip the Frog short Chinaman's Chance (1933).

While they differed in the racial regimes from which they derived their affect and venom, racial and ethnic stereotypes both conveyed (hostile) information about Others through shorthand description. This was also true of cartoons in the swing era that created racist stereotypes of African Americans that were similar to those employed by blackface minstrels, but were less ambivalent and more virulently hostile than were minstrel stereotypes. The film Swing Wedding (1937), for example, converts famous black performers into slow-witted frog darkies who assault each other. 
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