Exhibit celebrates history of positive black characters in animation

By Katherine Peterson | Staff Writer

Outright racism and negative stereotypes were prevalent in the early days of cartoons and animation, with only few black characters who not portrayed as villains or idiots. As a result of the civil rights movement however, there was a reversal in the way black individuals were portrayed in cartoons from the late 1960s and 1970s onwards. An art exhibit “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution” has opened at Purdue’s Black Cultural Center. It celebrates the history of this thread in the blanket of racism that the black community has fought through the centuries to untangle.

Cartoons and animation may not seem like important topics, but they display the social context of the time in which they are produced. The negative way in which African Americans were portrayed in television before the 1960s was an important symbol of the inequality that ravaged the United States at the time.

“The main objective of the exhibition,” said Jamillah Gabriel, who coordinated the exhibit at Purdue, “is to highlight the historic significance of the appearance of positive, black animated characters in television cartoons during a time when it was rare to see any positive portrayals of black people on television in any capacity, cartoon or otherwise.”

Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, among other animated series, were known for producing exceptionally racist cartoons in their early days. They emphasized many, if not all, racist stereotypes held against African Americans. One Merry Melodies episode, “Clean Pastures,” released in 1937, depicts a lazy black angel who is trying to get more black people in Harlem to go to “black heaven,” which is called “Pair-O-Dice.” At one point, the angel has a sign with all of the benefits of going to black heaven written on it, including watermelons. Many individuals do not know the extent to which black people were persecuted in the 20th century and “silly cartoons” are the true window into the past of America’s racist side.

“Racial stereotypes were pervasive in all types of media, including cartoons such as those produced by Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies,” said Gabriel. “So the emergence of positive black characters, ‘from stereotype to superhero,’ is rightfully portrayed and acknowledged as revolutionary in this exhibition.”

One Purdue student thinks that this exhibit would be an interesting insight into the history of animation and racism and that Purdue students would benefit in going to see it.

“I think it will be a very cool to see this exhibition and learn more about how these cartoons got started and changed the way black people were represented on television,” said Purdue student Joselyn Cooks.

The exhibit displays animation cells from the cartoons it features. Images will include those of Fat Albert and the Jackson Five. It opened Feb. 1 and is at the Black Cultural Center until Mar. 31.

This being Black History Month, it is especially important for students to take this unique opportunity to see the reversal of racism in animation. It is the small things that we are introduced to every day that help to shape and define our thoughts on important, key issues.

“Kids are a very impressionable population,” said Cooks. “And I think introducing positive black characters to cartoons had a great impact on how the next generation saw African Americans. In turn, this affects our society today, and I think it’s important that we all pay respect to that big leap in our culture. It’s a really interesting part of history that I’m excited to learn more about.”