Black-positive Saturday morning cartoons will be brought to the forefront at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place, as part of a special exhibit that will run through Oct. 20.
“Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution Animation Art from Classic Cartoons of the ‘70s,” features animation cells and drawings from cartoons such as “The Jackson 5ive,” “Harlem Globetrotters” and the beloved “Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids.” The exhibit began after co-curator Pamela Thomas, who has a degree in black history from The City College in New York City, noticed that her friend and co-curator Loreen Williamson had been collecting all these production pieces from the cartoons of their childhood and asked, “Well, what about the black cartoons?”
The pair, who met in 1997 and had been working together ever since, had a gallery where they would display all of their collectibles from black culture in the ‘70s. However, they closed the gallery after the tragedy of 9/11. Williamson said she never wanted to open up another brick and mortar, but they both knew that they had to do something with their collection. In 2007, the pair came up with the idea of creating a virtual museum for their collection and gave it the moniker The Museum of Uncut Funk.
“We had to do something with [our collection] because we were the only ones seeing it,” Thomas said. “Loreen came up with the idea to create an exhibition of our black animation because it had never been done before.”
Animation was produced differently in the ‘70s than today. To make an episode of a show, animators would have to create different cells for each frame, meaning there would be hundreds of drawings produced for a single Saturday morning cartoon, Williamson said.
Apart from being featured on the Saturday morning cartoon lineup for children to enjoy, these TV shows marked an important moment in our nation’s history—especially for the black community.
“The ‘70s was the first time that you saw positive black characters on television,” Williamson said. “Prior to that, every black character that you saw—and I mean every last one of them—had some kind of negative stereotype, [in terms of] appearance and the way they talked and the language that was used. The characters in the ‘70s cartoons were actually a part of the ‘gang.’”
George Bailey, associate professor in the English Department at Columbia, has a background in visual arts and teaches a class called, “Graphic Narrative: Word, Image, Culture.” Bailey said the cartoons of the ‘70s created a bookmark in our history because they drove a wedge into the economics of the white aesthetic culture by contrasting an image that white people have held onto since the 14th century.
“Because this is capitalism, this was an opportunity for black people to control their own image,” Bailey said. “The black people in this country had never been in control of their image because until recently, black people did not have the means of distribution. To make your image is one thing, but to distribute it over a network that you don’t own is another.”
These cartoons finally brought to light the struggle to accurately portray members of the black community, which could not be ignored by the masses, a struggle that occurred well before the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s.
“As early as the ‘30s and ‘40s with comic strips and comic books, [black artists] began to explore their imagery,” Bailey said. “There were a lot of attempts in the comic book industry to present a positive image of the black self. It has always been a journey. It’s always been a hassle because the ‘gatekeepers’ want to represent African Americans in a way that’s pleasing to the white masses.”
Most people who have grown up in America following the ‘60s have learned about the Civil Rights Movement, but Thomas and Williamson see their exhibit as a new way to learn about the positive effects the movement has had in America since.
“It’s a very cool experience and a different way to consume black history and American history,” Thomas said. “It was not something that just affected black people—it affected everybody.”
Thomas and Williamson’s exhibit experienced a great turnout when it was held at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City and, according to Thomas, the attendance reached more than 70,000 visitors. Chicago’s showing is expected to do the same, but the co-curators have been excited about the interest of young black children who have come to see their collection.
“Kids have discovered that they too could be animators and that they can make the decision for their future, and doing this for a career opened them up to something they were never exposed to before,” Thomas said.