We are about to come upon the first black main character in a cartoon this year (unless you count the title character of Lantz's I'm Just A Jitterbug, but anthropomorphs may provide a level of abstraction that would disqualify that idea; that cartoon is also such a collection of random gags that the jitterbug himself is not especially important to the cartoon, as is par for the course for title characters in '39 cartoons). Blacks have shown up as background characters a few times before now, as have a few other racial minorities (American Indians and Chinese, notably), and many other ethnic minorities (jews, norse, Irish, Italian, arabs). This note is going to focus on African Americans, as Lil Eightball is specifically African American, unlike many of the background black characters in earlier cartoons this year, who were actually African. The depictions of other minorities have some similar and some separate issues to those discussed herein, but this note only begins to look at issues surrounding African American depiction in cartoons, and is hardly exhaustive of my thoughts on that specific issue, let alone the whole field of depictions of race or minorities, tho more generic terms may be used at times.
I find it prudent to have this note included for the same reason DVDs of cartoons find it prudent to include a disclaimer that films of the time presented now controversial racial depictions: because race is a minefield issue in America and addressing the issue should lead to less people trying to take my head off than ignoring it without censoring the material would.
There are two unhelpful camps when it comes to this material: those who simply decry any racial caricature, and those who ignore the underlying issues of depictions of race.
There is an element within cartoon aficionados who like to say "it's just a caricature, it's not racist"; but their view tends to be uninformed about the history of Hollywood in general and ignores the strictures of Hollywood of the time, and how caricatures of minorities, and African Americans in particular, were limited to a few specific types of characters, each essentially a caricature of a stereotype. The enforcement/use of only these handful of types of characters in films can be seen as a type of racism, and there's too much evidence of the prevalence of the types in early Hollywood to ignore the argument that a character could be racist.
There is also an element who has a simple knee jerk reaction to racial caricature that says "these images are patently unacceptable". The problem with this reaction is that it is at fundamental odds with caricature. Racial caricaturing was an element of promoting racial hatred, of depicting a race as being homogenous and inferior; however, caricaturing physical traits is a fundamental element of cartoons, where most all characters are inferior and laughable to the audience. It is a mistake to see every caricature as racist, or else all caricatures of anyone are racist. The only cartoon characters of the time that are not strongly physically caricatured are creepy yet expensively rotoscoped characters like Snow White or Gulliver. Any depiction of a black character outside of rotoscoping was going to be a caricature in the cartoons of the time, as any depiction of a white character was going to be a caricature.
My perception is that people do not seem to have as much of a problem with Cab Calloway caricatures in cartoons; they can say "yep, that looks like Cab Calloway" in the same way caricatures of white stars looked like those white stars. This implies to me that people who tend to just object to caricatures of minorities are ultimately willing to accept the caricatures when they see them as specific, as about a person or character, not simply as a degrading racial shorthand. So it may come to a question of: where is the line between generic racial caricature and specific caricature in a wholly imaginary character? I don't have a good answer to that question.
We are about to come to a cartoon which actually has an African American lead. His naming convention smacks of being insensitive to our modern ears, but I'm not certain that it was out of line for the naming conventions of comic black actors and their characters of the time when grafted onto cartoon naming conventions. His character design is of a slightly grown infant, with a pre-breeching outfit on (kind of like a walking, talking Swee'Pea), with the stereotypical blackface coloring (the reverse Homer Simpson muzzle). In contrast to this is his deep (for a cartoon kid) voice, and his circumspect philosophy.
One way of approaching the character is to look at an important early work on black cinema, Donald Bogle's "Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies & Bucks - An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films" (keep in mind that the book came out originally in 1972; that was only 33 years after Gone With the Wind or the Lil Eightball cartoons, and 38 years before now; but I don't have time to become an expert on the last 38 years of black film scholarship between this writing and when the post needs to go up; think of this as an intellectual starting point, which is capable of being much further informed by newer takes on the issue). Bogle defined several types of black characters in early film. Lil' Eightball falls somewhat into Bogle's category of "pickaninny" (he's a kid and he's comic) and somewhat into his category of "Uncle Remus" (he's mirthful, congenial and philosophizes). Bogle classes both these categories as sub categories of "coon". Bogle's work seems to have a hatred for the categories he defines; he had a great love for black film history, but his thesis seems to be that black actors could go beyond the categories, and that alone is what could make them more than simple racism (although he grudgingly gives some credit to Selznick's writing for Gone With The Wind). Lil' Eightball seems to have been voiced by Mel Blanc, who did not identify himself as black, and was produced by Walter Lantz studios, which, while it might (or more likely might not; I think everyone running out of the studio in I'm Just a Jitterbug is not black) have had an African American employee or two, was (like the other studios), overwhelmingly white. There are thus likely no black actors (or their analogs in animation) involved with the Lil' Eightball cartoons, and therefore nothing for Bogle to hang his actor theory on (unlike other cartoons, where there are at least black voice actors involved). It is possible he might approach the character in terms of whites in blackface (as he addresses literal blackface in early film and as others have addressed the Amos and Andy radio show, for an example). Blackface is almost universally decried as racist. But in cartoons, any depiction of any character as (blank) kind could be considered an example of (blank)face. As black actors appeared in blackface makeup, if all cartoon depictions of blacks are considered blackface, then white animators and voice actors would be appearing in whiteface makeup any time they depicted white characters. Virtually all cartoons are examples of people depicting "others", all are abstractions of characters.
But Bogle doesn't address cartoons in his book; the closest I found him coming to it was addressing Song of the South, where he dismisses the animation and focused only on the live action (he also mentions Bakshi's Coonskin in passing). It is common for film criticism to ignore cartoons, beyond a passing mention of Snow White or similarly giant Disney features applicable to their subject, and Bogle displays the same bias. (It is possible he addresses more issues, but I have only concertedly read the book through the end of the '30s, and obvious other subjects do not appear in the index.)
So, here we are, with a few thoughts on race in cartoons presented as a preface for a cartoon series that lasted only three installments over a less than two month time period (although it lasted in comic books for another eight or nine years) more than 70 years ago. My longest paragraph in this may exceed all my notes on all three of the actual cartoons. Thus, the blog is in keeping with how race tends to be addressed in relation to cartoons. On the plus side, you could just skip this, unlike the lectures on many animation DVDs...