Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Cartooning & Campaigning Part Two

[UPDATED April 24. Relevant posts from the GT library on politics & illustration, and race & ethnic representation : Rockwell and civil rights here; Robert Weaver and Jack Kennedy's 1960 campaign here; illustrated American Indians here and here.]

Recently I have been working with my colleagues Gerald Early and Amanda Gailey on a project called Race and Children’s Literature in the Gilded Age, an undertaking of wide scope focused for the near term on the slave “folklore” delivered through the works of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories. Harris is avoided today, but at the time he competed with Mark Twain for the title of most popular American author.(And yes, the image at the top of this post falls outside the scope of the project, but points to the abiding embarrassment now felt by Disney about the Song of the South, a 1946 film based on the Remus stories that has yet to see the light of day in home video or DVD format in the U.S.)

Harris’ work is dominated by an overpowering use of dialect, a many-layered cultural operation that I am ill-equipped to address. But suffice to say that the works are discomfiting in many senses.

I have been devoting energy to an annotated index of selected illustrations from the many Remus books, the first of which appeared in 1881. We are also working on the illustrators in question. At some point I will provide a more concentrated discussion on these images. But for the time being, it is impossible to ignore the crazy seesawing back and forth between visual conventions associated with illustration as idealized reportage, reserved for whites, and the conventions of broadest sort of cartooning, reserved for blacks. The visual conventions of blackface minstrelsy, the racial cross-dressing theatrical form which first became popular in the 1830s and 40s, are at the root of the google-eyed big-lipped clowning attributed to dumb, happy slaves. It’s quite overwhelming, really. These images show refined classy-looking white people and ape-like comedic Calibans. The messages could hardly be clearer.

Here’s an 1890 feature in The Century Magazine by E.W. Kemble, who illustrated Huckleberry Finn as a young man and went on to become known as a “negro” illustrator (that’s of negroes, not by same) among other things. He did a lot of work on Harris projects. In this case Kemble’s tale (his own, a set piece: The Possum Hunt) involves a shabby black man with a peg leg laboring to catch a possum for his dinner.

Not for the first time I find myself pondering the distinctions between the typological communication fundamental to cartooning when based on individual characteristics, as opposed to the same techniques employed to capture purported group characteristics. In good cartooning, a character looks like what he is. Bluto, for example, looks like a big bully.

The Queen in Snow White concocts a potion to disguise herself, but the effect of the operation is to reveal her "true" self. Cartooning does the work according to conventions of witches and hags, a slide into visual properties associated with a particular gender and age group. But the bent-backed hostile witch looks that way as a representative of inner ugliness, not AARP.

The use of alleged group physiognomies and corresponding negative traits—the hook-nosed usurious Jew, the big-lipped animal of a slave--works very differently, and for radically different purposes, sometimes within the same work.

I’ve noted before that Soviet propaganda makes use of the Jew as a scapegoat in collaboration with invading Nazis. Broad comedic types in Young Pioneers include oafish book-burning Germans and a peasant Jew assists them. In this case the Jew is signaled through costume more than physiognomy.

The distinction between pictorial bigotry and legitimate character differentiation requires significant reflection and a great deal of care. For example: illustrators in a contemporary pluralistic culture are often asked to adjust the ethnicity of a character. One often hears, “Make that guy African-American,” or “Can one of these people be Asian?” The procedure requires the adjustment of features and hairstyles in subtle ways. The illustrator in this case trades on knowledge of physiognomy and ethnicity. It’s not that physical differences don't exist—it’s how they are reported and manipulated, and to what end. By whom can also matter a great deal.

But in the meantime, the continuing reverberations of blackface characters as racialized emasculated clowns remain in circulation. The objectionable Jar Jar Binks and (from my perspective) whatever you’d call the comic stylings of the irritating Chris Tucker both point that way.

Two quick important points.
One: Comedy is an extremely sophisticated form of cultural expression, which is always moving from one meaning to the next, within and between communities. These are not fixed forms. But they are descended from the worst sort of group stereotyping, practiced most widely at just the moment that the terror of what followed Reconstruction was descending on Southern blacks.

Two: Racialized depictions in wide circulation do not reflect a centralized set of arrangements in a democratic culture like this one. In some ways, it’s worse than that—as entries into the marketplace of popular culture, such creations (Amos ‘n Andy, for example) reflect consumer tastes. The people who make such things are busy selling product, not making claims. People buy the stuff they want. What they get from it, how they find meaning in it, and when and why those tastes shift are larger questions of interest.

Nakedly denigrating visual conventions were widely used in this country through the 1930s and 40s. Below, several fortune-telling cards from a set sold by the Whitman Publishing Company in 1936.

I will readily admit that my exploration of this material has shocked me. I grew up in an industrial town in northern Ohio and attended an integrated high school. I graduated in 1979, just as the bottom was about to drop out of the American steel market, with catastrophic results. My sense of American inequality has tended to be much more focused on class than race. In general, I have tended to think that Americans avoid discussions of class and focus too much on race. Plainly, the two are tightly linked in many many places. That said, I am discovering potent manifestations of the legacy of slavery in this body of material as I go. My perspective is being modified in the process.

Let’s return to the subject of the 2008 Democratic Primary race, and specifically the campaign of Barack Obama, who lately has suffered a loss of momentum. The Clinton campaign, as has widely been reported, clearly decided to exploit race during March and April in anticipation of the Pennsylvania race. We now know that they succeeded with working class white voters in the process.

One of the casualties of this effort has been the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., whose immoderate sermon clips (totally out of context, of course) on youtube (look it up yourself) were used to indict Obama as one who takes his spiritual marching orders from an anti-American firebrand. A specialty of Sean Hannity and his spectacularly cynical colleagues at Fox News, served up on a platter by the Clintons. Wright, of course, served for many years as the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, a gigantic church in Chicago. The clips in question do show some conspiracy-mongering. But for God’s sake, the guy was born in 1941. He lived through the humiliations of the late Jim Crow period. He saw representations of his people as silly subhuman coons in blackface, drank from segregated fountains, moved through a society that consistently told him he mattered less than white people. Later he served in the Marines, excelled repeatedly in academic settings, and went on to find his place in the world serving others and the gospel, which he did very effectively by any standard measure.

But this fellow was recently used by no less than George Stephanopolous as a negative standard to measure patriotism in a prime time debate. “But do you believe he [Wright] is as patriotic as you [Obama] are?”

Unabashed declarations of patriotism by African-Americans are the sweetest sounds possible for white ears, because they seem to absolve the sins of slavery and Jim Crow. This moral fantasy reveals a great deal about those who project it on the human screen of real blacks--who must all to some degree contend with profound psychological ambivalence about the history of the United States.

What a truly obnoxious question.

Annotated citations soon.


Bob Flynn said...

All around thought provoking post...covering a lot of terrain and absolutely 100% current. I have to address these issues a lot in my own cartooning---especially working for a children's media company where our clients are often stuck in the PC era of the 90s (gotta fill the race quota---"make him look more Spanish"---or better yet, "can you make the character raceless"). Maybe this is why I stick to creatures and animals in my own work. It's tricky to work in a genre founded on caricature and cultural (often stereotypical) humor...and not see bits and pieces of it subconsciously dribble up in my work.

I loved this phrase:

In good cartooning, a character looks like what he is.

Thanks for this post. Sounds like you're working on an important project.


David Apatoff said...

A big, juicy, fascinating question.

I think we might all agree that the question to Obama about Wright was a moronic one. Beyond that, I would be interested in what you think repulsive moral content does do the quality of the art you are reviewing. If Leyendecker or AB Frost does a skillful, even beautiful painting of some reprehensible Uncle Remus character, can it still be excellent art? Are you still able to enjoy the art you are looking at?

It is an issue that was hotly debated after the movie Triumph of the Will, but the issue seems to have fallen out of vogue recently. People seem to gravitate to one extreme or the other (content is irrelevant to form or content is inseparable from form) and don't struggle with the vexing territory in between.

DB Dowd said...

Thanks for the comment, Bob and David. Re your question posing potential conflicts between simultaneously skillful/beautiful and reprehensible work: you may think me pedantic, but it sure seems to depend on the meaning of beauty and excellence, especially the former. Beauty is a concept like justice and truth--in the Platonic sense, a transcendent ideal. "Skill" is a value neutral term. "Beauty," as a serious matter, is not.

I recognize your point, and it's a provocative one. I can imagine a possible case in which weird talents unleashed on vile subjects could produce a product or experience that some might term beautiful. But such a judgment would likely prove unstable, especially in the case of a cartoonist's purposes, which are ultimately directed to rhetorical ends, not contemplative ones. Cartoons are not beautiful. Rather they are cunning or savage or hilarious. Repose, as a rule, is not available to the cartoonist.

All of which is to say that beauty, taken seriously, even in a historically contingent way, cannot survive injustice or falsehood. Skill, sure. But not beauty.

Amanda said...

What a great, provocative post.

As I was reading your thoughts on Kemble I was thinking of the unexpected ways that the Harris illustrations depict attitudes prevalent under Jim Crow. Some of the most disturbing instances for me are in illustrations of Drusilla, a recurring character who is the daughter of recently freed slaves, always in the company of two white kids, Sweetest Susan and Buster John. Drusilla, drawn in several books by different illustrators, is often given caricatured features, but in one case she is given almost no features at all: Susan and John are drawn with expected detail, but Drusilla's face is just a smudge of darkness beside them. To my mind, this is the saddest illustration--the illustrator (I'll have to look up who it is) felt comfortable giving her virtually no human features. And this was presumably okayed by Harris (possibly), the publishers, and consumers. The message in this illustration is not so much that the black child is a buffoon, but that she warrants no consideration at all.

Thanks for posting about this!

~Amanda (Gailey)

DB Dowd said...

Thanks, Amanda, for weighing in. I recall looking at that Drusilla drawing with you, and yes, it's monumentally creepy and deeply distressing.

I'm enjoying the process of working through the material, though it's early yet. Looking forward to writing more about these visual languages and their use and abuse in Ethnic Other contexts...