This morning I was pleasantly surprised to find that Amazon.com would begin streaming episodes of one of my favorite cartoon shorts of all time, Tom & Jerry (I would have preferred a proper DVD box set release but this will suffice…for now). Much to my dismay, 2 episodes I love, Casanova Cat and Mouse Cleaning, were not included. According to Amazon, this was due to the shorts containing racial references (blackface to be exact) that they believed would cause a sh!t storm if released in today’s highly sensitive social/political climate. I am well aware of the historical implications of white performers donning black face paint and enacting highly exaggerated caricatures of black people. I get that. It is a black eye on the face of American history, specifically entertainment.
In many ways, American animation was the last bastion of blackface in entertainment. Long after the minstrel tradition had died, gags involving blackface (as well as stereotypes of other ethnic groups) continued to thrive in animated shorts being produced by major Hollywood studios. A commonly used device in cartoons of the pre and post war period was the dynamite explosion in a characters face that would temporarily grant them a Sambo-like appearance. Other gags included cartoon characters themselves donning blackface in the traditional vaudeville sense, usually while performing a musical number by a popular black artist.
I, along with millions of other children around the country, were exposed to these images during my formative years and, I must admit, it shaped my initial perception of some ethnic groups, particularly Native Americans (who I had no exposure to in my day-to-day life). The Civil Rights Movement helped to expand cultural awareness of the black American plight and heightened sensitivity across the board regarding flagrant stereotyping. This movement helped to quell and, ultimately, abolish, these gags from cartoons for good. Though Hollywood had ceased to include culturally insensitive gags in new productions, they were still viewable in pre-Civil Rights era cartoons via syndication on network television. This allowed American children of Generation X to grow up watching the same cartoons our parents watched as kids. Slowly but surely, studios began to censor material they deemed to be offensive from these classic cartoons, leaving to air a work that is the animated equivalent of blacked-out declassified government documents.
Yes, these images are a painful reminder of our countries past and, yes, they are very out-of-step with today’s perception of minority groups. They also happen to be historical documentation of that era in our countries history and we cannot afford to hide it or allow it to end up on the cutting room floor. Want to put a disclaimer in front of the shorts, warning audiences of the potentially offensive content? Go for it. Whatever it will take to preserve the integrity (if such a word can be used for this matter) of these cartoons for future generations to view as they were intended to be seen. In history class we don’t skip over the parts that highlight the sordid past of this nation. The same attitude should be extended to these classic works of animation. I love watching Tom serenade his lover with Louis Jordan’s jump blues classic “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby).” I also want to hear Mammy Two Shoes (yes, that character has a name) original southern drenched accent and not the proper enunciation of the voice that overdubbed original voice actress Lillian Randolph. In some cases, her character was redrawn to be a slender white woman or completely edited out altogether. C’mon Hollywood! You’re messin’ with my memories here by white washing the past. Take a cue from John, Paul, George and Ringo and Let It Be. Sure, the NAACP and certain special interest groups might raise a fuss. No worries. Simply remind them of the 1,001 other issues facing black America that warrant more attention. We, as black Americans, stress that our history should not be allowed to be swept under the rug. Well, this is a part of our history. It’s a part of American history. In the 21st Century, it can serve as an invaluable education tool for youth who were not brought up in that era of Jim Crow and minstrel shows. Good, Bad or Ugly, this is American History 101.