An often-overlooked element of the history of racism in the U.S.: Children’s cartoons. Scott Benowitz takes a close look at the Censored Eleven.
In recent months, the mainstream media actually has been very thorough in covering the issues relating to what I like to refer to as the “hatred vs. history” controversy. This has focused mostly on statues and memorials. I am going to discuss another aspect of discrimination and racism from American history and from our popular culture, which is still very underpublicized – racially insensitive cartoons from the past. It’s been well understood throughout the world for many centuries that children’s minds are very impressionable and more malleable than the minds of adults. If children see their favorite cartoon characters interacting with other characters who are portrayed as ethnic stereotypes or racial caricatures, many children will tend to learn very quickly that racial stereotypes are an acceptable form of entertainment, as well as an acceptable way to view the greater world around them.
Some Not- So Merry Melodies: “Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs” and “Mammy Two Shoes”
Those of us who had watched United Artists’ Merry Melodies, Looney Tunes, Famous Studio’s Popeye cartoons, or Hanna Barbera’s Tom And Jerry cartoons on television during our childhood years might be surprised to read about the presence of offensive ethnic stereotypes and racist caricatures that had been included in the original versions of these cartoons. A number of these cartoons had included scenes which included depictions of African Americans, Native Americans, Japanese or Germans as ethnic and racial stereotypes which would be viewed as offensive to modern audiences as well as notably embarrassing to the corporations who now own all of the copyrights to these cartoons. Warner Brothers owns the copyrights to all United Artists cartoons, MGM owns the copyrights to all Hanna Barbera’s cartoons, and both studios withdrew most of the offensive cartoons from circulation during the 1960s. The Censored Eleven cartoons are 11 cartoons from Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies (owned by Warner Brothers/ United Artists): Hittin’ The Trail For Hallelujah Land (1931), Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time (1936), Clean Pastures (1937), Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937), Jungle Jitters (1938), The Isle Of Pingo Pongo (1938), All This And Rabbit Stew (1941), Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs (1943) Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943), Angel Puss (1944) and Goldilocks And The Jivin’ Bears (1944). Warner Brothers Studios had officially withdrawn the “Censored Eleven” cartoons from airing in 1968, but most of the television networks throughout the U.S. had stopped airing most of those cartoons a few years earlier.
This Predates The 1930’s
The cartoons which the well-known studios such as Warner Brothers, Paramount, and MGM released beginning in the early 1930s did not suddenly emerge from nowhere. The teams of writers, animators, artists, narrators and audio technicians who were hired by United Artists, Paramount Studios and Hanna Barbera would all have been very familiar with cartoons which had been produced by lesser known smaller studios throughout the 1920’s which have since been largely forgotten about, unless you tour cartoon museums or read books about the history of animation.
The people who wrote and animated the cartoons would also have been very familiar comic books from the early 1900s. Characters who were drawn based on very obvious racial stereotypes had existed in comic strips during the earlier decades of the 1900s. The cartoon characters which had been drawn based on racist caricatures and ethnic stereotypes began to become prevalent in the 1920s when the technologies for producing cartoons became very affordable, and all cinemas were easily able to show shorts prior to the full-length features.
Those Who Cannot Remember Their Pasts
I was tempted to write this article in the form of an open letter to the executives at Warner Brothers and MGM, urging them to release these cartoons on a DVD, and to include a preface which states that they’re obviously not releasing these to condone or encourage any racist ideologies, but rather that these cartoons should be viewed as a warning to future generations about what was once considered acceptable to show to children as appropriate entertainment.
I would encourage them to distribute these DVD’s to both civil rights museums as well as to cartoon museums, and encourage the staff at the museums to show the videos, including a preface which would state that back in the 1930s and the 1940s this was widely considered to have been acceptable to show to children, and that the major television networks in this U.S. continued to air these as children’s entertainment until the 1960s.
This would not be embarrassing for Warner Brothers or for MGM, if they include a preface with these cartoons, no one who sees these cartoons today would come to the conclusion that the present day executives at MGM or Warner Brothers believe in or wants to encourage any racist ideologies, precisely the opposite- they’d be re-releasing these cartoons specifically to serve as a warning to future generations.