“Where are all the black cartoons?”
When Pamela Thomas saw the personal collection of animation artwork belonging to her friend Loreen Williamson, the color of the characters stood out. Having grown up watching cartoons like “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” “The Jackson 5ive” and “Josie and the Pussycats” on Saturday mornings, Thomas was curious.
“Can you get this type of artwork for them?”
The women, founders and curators of the online Museum of UnCut Funk, soon began researching and collecting positive black cartoon characters — and an art exhibit was born.
“It’s one of the few untold stories in the civil rights movement,” Thomas said. “Images of black characters affected and changed the lives of the viewers.”
“Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution,” a traveling exhibit currently on display at the DuSable Museum of African American History from June 27 to Oct. 20, commemorates the fourth decade of positive black cartoon characters appearing on television.
The exhibit features original animation artwork, as well as colorful life-size cutouts of characters from shows like “The Jackson 5ive,” which chronicled the adventures of the entertainment family, and Valerie Brown from “Josie and the Pussycats,” which was about an all-girl pop music band.
“When I was a kid, I just thought they were great cartoons,” Williamson said. “You kind of got your bowl of cereal, watched these cartoons and then would go out and play. It wasn’t until I got older and started collecting animation — that’s when I realized these are a lot more than cool cartoons. They represent a significant change in history.”
Before then, black cartoon characters were often portrayed as barbaric and animalistic, according to Thomas. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and the 1970s that black characters started to look more realistic and didn’t speak in broken dialect.
In addition, many of the cartoons were created by African Americans. For example, comedian Bill Cosby created “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” a show about the adventures of urban African-American kids. Cosby also voiced the character of Fat Albert.
“It was one of the first cartoons where African-American kids could see characters they could relate to, that looked like them and got in the same situations as them, and the cartoons had a moral message,” said Charles Bethea, COO and curator of the DuSable Museum.
Bethea, who grew up watching these cartoons, believes the exhibit will allow people to view animation as art.
“I did, when the opportunity arose, sit and watch these cartoons endlessly,” Bethea said. “They influenced me. I am an artist and an illustrator, and I got an understanding of how a lot of these were produced. It was one more level of art I was exposed to.”
Some cartoons featured in the exhibit contained social and political messages. For example, in the movie “Our Friend Martin” the characters travel through time and learn how Martin Luther King Jr. fought segregation and inequality during the civil rights movement.
Many cartoons showed characters of different races interacting and working together, and some taught lessons about issues such as gang violence, bullying and substance abuse.
The change in how black characters were portrayed on TV had a major effect on Thomas.
“We were experiencing and witnessing tragedies (of discrimination), and no one was explaining it to me,” Thomas said. “I had self-esteem issues. Why were black people portrayed this way? Even as a child, I knew black people played specific roles. Once the cartoons changed, these images were reflections of you that look more like you, and you felt better about yourself.”
And because there were only three networks, viewers of other races were exposed to the same positive images.
“Everyone could talk about them, to white friends, to black friends. It helped us come to terms with identity and building relationships,” Thomas said.
While the exhibit was on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, Thomas saw that it sparked children’s interest in becoming animators.
“One of the things we didn’t realize was we were able to get children to be looking at being an animator as a career,” Thomas said. “Children were amazed with how this art was drawn and what it was drawn on.”
According to Thomas and Williamson, a diverse and multigenerational audience of about 73,000 people visited the exhibit in New York.
Thomas hopes the exhibit in Chicago will prompt the baby boomer generation to share childhood stories and memories about these cartoons.
“I hope that people enjoy it,” Thomas said. “Sometimes museums tell the same stories over and over again. I am very happy these museums are thinking about this, and it’s geared towards children of a specific decade. It had an impact on my life.”
Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution
- Herbie Hancock – Hey, Hey, Hey It’s Fat Albert (1969): Produced Fat Albert Rotunda, soundtrack for the first Fat Albert primetime television special, which was the first positive Black Cast cartoon to appear on television. Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago.
- Bob Crowder – Peter Jones – The Hardy Boys (1969): Played the live action Peter Jones, the first positive Black male and Black musician character in a Saturday morning cartoon series. Bob Crowder attended the University of Chicago and studied the drums at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. He was a session drummer in Chicago during the 1960’s and 1970’s.
- Herb Jeffries – Freight Train – Where’s Huddles (1970): Voiced Freight Train, the first positive Black male and Black athlete character in a primetime cartoon series. Herb Jeffries was a Black actor and singer who was born in Detroit and lived and worked in Chicago.
- Harlem Globetrotters (1970): Featured in the first positive Black cast Saturday morning cartoon series and first featuring Black athletes. The Harlem Globetrotters originated on the south side of Chicago in the 1920’s. All of the members of the original team grew up in Chicago.
- Don Cornelius – Soul Train (1970-2006): Soul Train premiered on WCIU-TV in Chicago on August 17, 1970, as a live show airing weekday afternoons. In 1971, it premiered in syndication and went on to become the longest-running first-run nationally syndicated program in American television history. It was also the first syndicated series to feature an animated opening created and produced by Black people. The animated train opening was conceived by Don Cornelius and created by Black animators. Don Cornelius was born in Chicago.
- Muhammad Ali – I Am The Greatest!: The Adventures Of Muhammad Ali (1977): Voiced his own character in the second positive Black cast Saturday morning cartoon series featuring a Black athlete. The series was created and produced while Muhammad Ali lived in Chicago.
- Robin Harris – Bebe’s Kids (1992): His stand-up comedy routine was the basis for the first positive animated feature film with a Black main cast, second featuring Black characters created from a comedy routine. Robin Harris was born in Chicago.
- Oprah Winfrey – Our Friend Martin (1999): Voiced Coretta Scott King in the second positive animated feature film with a Black main cast. Oprah Winfrey was a longtime Chicago resident.
- Mellody Hobson – DreamWorks Animation (2012): First Black female named as Chairman of a major animation studio. DreamWorks Animation owns the assets of Filmation Associates and Rankin/Bass Productions, which brought many positive Black characters to television through the following 1970‘s Saturday morning cartoon series: Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids, Jackson 5ive, Kid Power, Mission Magic!, Space Sentinels, Star Trek, Superstretch And Microwoman, The Hardy Boys and The U.S. Of Archie. Mellody Hobson was born in and lives in Chicago.
— Source: Museum of UnCut Funk