February being Black History Month, we might appropriately recall some familiar figures associated with racism: Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom & Jerry, and Popeye.
These, and more celluloid friends from our childhood, inhabited cartoons peddling varying degrees of bigotry. Especially in the earlier decades of the last century, some cartoons were so vile that studios later pulled them from general circulation. But many today are easily found on YouTube, some with disclaimers, others without.
Click on “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat,” released by Universal Pictures nine months before Pearl Harbor, and besides regretting you ever did, you’ll wonder how a nation on the brink of its finest hour could have abided it.
Many in the original audiences never saw the flawed cartoons for what they were (or did they?), because the humiliations weren’t hurled at white, middle-class crowds. But toxins were dripping there, as well as in movies and on the air. If you were black, native American, Asian, or otherwise “different,” a degrading stereotype awaited you at every turn – and millions were laughing.
It was all in good fun; no ill will intended, so the mythology goes. But one wonders what it was like to have been on the receiving end.
On the radio, and later TV, “Amos ’n’ Andy” was beloved nationwide despite its stereotyping of blacks and the fact that the two original co-stars, who also wrote the malaprop-heavy scripts, were white. Even the show’s theme song was stealthily noxious, taken from the white-supremacist 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.”
In theaters, our cowboy heroes were chasing “redskins,” not indigenous human beings who were being strong-armed into misery. Full-length Disney classics like the 1940 “Fantasia” and the 1941 “Dumbo” added their own whiffs of debasement.
Somehow, though, it’s the enmity in child-focused cartoons that disappoints most. Seeing Fred Flintstone complicit in the mockery of an Asian is no generator of loving kindness. However, Fred lived in the stone age – an excuse unavailable to the creators of cartoon bigotry.
These days, releases of vintage cartoon collections are likely to include a disclaimer. Narrating one of these, black comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg said while nobody intended the hurts, these oldies were products of their time and reflect “the prejudices that were commonplace in American society, especially when it came to the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities.”
But, she added, “removing these inexcusable images and jokes from this collection would be the same as saying they never existed, so they are presented here to accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored.”
For sure, the bulk of Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies,” and others, gave us hours of puerile laughter (once you got by the violence) and added significantly to the nation’s comedy lexicon.
As for the many racist episodes, Goldberg’s comments are part of a continuing debate on whether these unsavory works should be locked away – or offered for inspection so we never forget how easily our society might be hoodwinked into hate.
As our divided nation looks toward the 2020 election, this is a fine time to ruminate on Bugs Bunny’s immortal query, “What’s up, Doc?”
What’s up, Bugs, is our guard; our resolve to be a people of acceptance and moral principle – so the products of your time never become the products of our time.
Gerry Goldstein (email@example.com), an occasional contributor to What’s Up Newp and What’s Up Rhode Island, is a retired Providence Journal editor and columnist who has been writing for Rhode Island newspapers and magazines for 60 years.