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

Nicholas Sammond, Author

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Racist Caricatures

Blackface minstrelsy is one thread in a rich tapestry of racist caricature in the United States, one that has a dense, complicated, and fraught performative and semiotic tradition. (For a discussion of blackface minstrelsy, go here.) Consider, for example, this 19th century advertisement for soap, which treats recent Irish immigrants as if they were apes. By the twentieth century, Irish Americans would begin to assimilate into the more generic and unmarked category of whiteness, and depictions such as these disappeared.

For African Americans, assimilation into whiteness was impossible, and while the nature of racist caricatures of blackness changed in different historical moments, they never disappeared. For instance, with the coming of sound film in the late 1920s, in American commercial animation continuing characters inspired by blackface minstrelsy such as Mickey and Felix were joined by broader, less subtle, and often more vicious and violent racist caricatures. This development coincided with the film industry's increasing reliance on jazz music, specifically swing, to win audiences over to sound. Many of these caricatures were associated with jazz music, Harlem, and the jungle—swing music being referred to by its white interlocutors as "jungle music." Here are a few examples:

Still from Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (WB 1943).

Still from Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (WB 1943).

The cartoon Scrub Me Mamma With a Boogie Beat (Universal 1941).

Still from Scrub Me Mamma With a Boogie Beat (Universal 1941).

Still from Uncle Tom's Bungalow (WB 1937).

Still from Uncle Tom's Bungalow (WB 1937).

The cartoon Voodoo in Harlem (Universal 1937).

The cartoon Swing Wedding (MGM 1937).
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