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Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation by Nicholas Sammond

Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. Nicholas Sammond. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Pp. 400. $94.95 (cloth), $26.95 (paper).

In Birth of an Industry, Nicholas Sammond traces “the connections between the animated blackface minstrel, the industrialization of the art of animation, and fantasies of resistant labor” (xii). His core argument is that early animators developed unruly, cartoon minstrels in response to their increasingly depersonalized workplace. On a broader scale, the project works to situate animation within “a larger and longer history of racial iconography and taxonomy in the United States” (4). To make his case Sammond navigates a historically grounded racial matrix of minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, as well as other complex and contradictory representational forums.

Sammond inserts animation into the matrix through vaudeville’s lightning sketch artists who dueled with their cartoon creations, much as interlocutors verbally jousted with end men Tambo and Bones. He frames cartoon minstrels in these terms: “[t]he figure of the minstrel epitomized the rebellious commodity, and the performing animator (whether onstage or in the press) produced that commodity, then punished it for the very refusal that defined it” (71). As animation transitioned from an artisanal model with a sole animator to a management-driven industry with anonymous workers, an increasingly alienated labor force “created a commodity that appeared to speak back to its creators and assert its independence from the social and material order of its making . . . only inevitably to be put in its place” (110). Continuing minstrel tradition, these black-bodied, white-gloved cartoons functioned as unruly yet circumscribed fantasies at odds with their creators, as well as the conditions of their creation.

In chapter 1, “Labor,” Sammond uses Max Fleischer’s The Cartoon Factory­ (1924) to illustrate the alienation and containment of cartoon minstrels and their creators. In the piece, solo animator Fleischer builds Koko the Clown using an electrical animation machine that soon becomes part of the cartoon. This apparatus creates two-dimensional images and three-dimensional environments for Koko to interact with, but eventually Koko rages against the machine and builds a toy solider resembling Fleischer. With the animator now thrust into the action, he furiously draws on the walls and commands his creations to attack Koko. This self-reflexive cartoon wonderfully demonstrates Sammond’s argument, how both alienated animators and their minstrel commodities rebelled against an industry controlled by managers or automation rather than artists.

His most fascinating claim is that “cartoon minstrels became vestigial, edged aside by more virulent racist caricatures of the swing era” (139). By vestigial, Sammond means that cartoon figures like Koko or Mickey Mouse carried “all (or many) of the markers of minstrelsy while rarely referring directly to the tradition itself” (218). On the open access companion website, Sammond includes the sound cartoon Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933), which shows both a visual immersion in minstrelsy and a subtle distancing from blackface tradition. The premise is that Mickey and Minnie are staging Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a staple of blackface troupes, so the cartoon is clearly invested in minstrel tradition. Yet Sammond incisively highlights how Mickey functions as a vestigial minstrel because the iconic mouse must “black up,” with dynamite no less, to embody minstrel characters like Topsy and Uncle Tom.

Sammond later expands on this claim: “the crossover popularity of swing music among white audiences and its promotion through cartoons led to an increase in broad racist caricatures that overlapped in their stereotyping with the traditions of blackface minstrelsy yet were distinct from minstrelsy’s performance and iconic traditions” (181). To differentiate the two groups and demonstrate how they competed for animated space, Sammond uses Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoon I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932), which features Louis Armstrong, Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, and Bimbo the dog. Watching the film, the physical and behavioral differences between the cartoon minstrel sidekicks and the shockingly racist African caricatures are undeniable. But Sammond also argues that the violence inflected on these new caricatures was greater than on cartoon minstrels. In the end the “savages” are swallowed by a volcano, but earlier in the film one sidekick, Bimbo, is hounded into literal disintegration, while another minstrel, Koko, is chased out of his black “skin” (revealing a white body). Both vestigial minstrels and caricatures are subjected to violent extremes and bodily threat.

In chapter 4, “Race,” Sammond offers his best explanation for the critical difference between vestigial minstrels and virulent caricatures. Writing about Trader Mickey (1932), Sammond notes, “Mickey is anthropomorphic; the cannibals are zoomorphic; together they offer a visual treatise on the racial underpinnings of subject-object relations, circa 1932” (234). The “savages” are not like Mickey because “[t]hey do not obtain the status of pretenders to civilization because they have not yet brought into (or, more accurately, been sold into) relations of exchange” (234). Sammond argues that what Mickey has in common with Tambo, Bones, and Zip Coon is a desire for subjectivity and civilization, which the cartoon cannibals lack. After watching Trade Mickey, I agree with Sammond’s assessment, for the most part; Mickey is indeed a pretender to civilization, although the cannibal king does first appear on screen reading an issue of Ballyhoo magazine. As Sammond suggests, the cannibals are objects driven by music—music that Mickey controls. Ironically reminiscent of the animator who created him, this vestigial minstrel is allowed to manipulate this new set of racist images.

Although I accept this distinction between the two cartoon varieties, I reject Sammond’s position that these latest racist caricatures “were distinct from minstrelsy’s performance and iconic traditions” (181). Sammond’s attempted disaggregation and overall project suffers from a limited conception of blackface minstrel tradition. Early in the study, Sammond hints at a broader approach when he writes, “although blackface is usually thought of as a live performance tradition, it evokes in its tension between surface and interior—between the makeup and the face beneath—a fantastic black persona that is analogous in many ways to cartoon characters who dwell in the flatland on the surface of the page or cel” (6). Unfortunately, Sammond does not acknowledge how blackface existed on the page, in print and visual minstrelsy, before it went live. In a study about the “long history” of racial iconography, there should have been greater focus on the “flatlands” of broadsides, newspapers, and sheet music.

Sammond’s project would have benefitted from early nineteenth-century satirical Bobalition broadsides, which theater historian Douglas Jones and cultural historian John Wood Sweet have identified as blackface precursors. I was also surprised by the absence of E.W. Clay’s “Life in Philadelphia” or “Life in New York” series, as well as David Claypoole Johnston’s Negro caricatures. Sammond does offer one illustration of a free black couple—connected to George Dixon’s song “Zip Coon”—and comments on the white gloves and upward mobility of these urban figures (fig. 1-11, 26). He also includes an image from a commercial advertisement, which depicts Irish immigrants in “the style of Zip Coon” (fig. 4-20, 245). The caption for this 1881 ad reads, “predating and setting the stage for the practices of ethnic stereotyping in early animation” (245). Sammond has the right idea in the caption. This cartoon did predate future stereotyping, but so did the grotesque coon imagery of late nineteenth-century minstrelsy. Sammond describes swing-era animation as “a growing horde of cartoon cannibals, chicken thieves, and cotton pickers,” but chicken thieves and cotton pickers were already an active part of minstrel tradition in coon songs (182). One only has to study the representational violence on the cover of Ernest Hogan’s hit song “All Coons Look Alike to Me” (1896) to see the bulging eyes and throbbing red lips that anticipated jazz-inflicted caricatures.

Despite underestimating the range of blackface iconography, Birth of an Industry does answer this fundamental question: “where did Mickey and Bugs get their gloves, their huge eyes, and their capacious and voracious mouths and why have they kept them for so many years?” (32). Sammond does an exceptional job revealing the minstrel roots of these beloved cartoon characters, highlighting an alienated labor force that produced unruly fantasies, unpacking the extreme violence celebrated in hyper-malleable animation, and separating vestigial minstrels from more virulent caricatures. On the persistent appeal of blackface, Sammond offers an excellent explanation for how historical and contemporary audiences receive minstrel acts:

[r]ather than withdrawing the viewer from his or her immediate surroundings and into a dream world of (dis)embodied fantasy, the spectatorial practices of vaudeville, minstrelsy, and animation proffered the wink and the nudge, a collective experience in the here and now, located not in a cinematic imaginary but in the theater itself. There, the pleasure was not in seeing one’s self in the protagonist but in witnessing the virtuosity with which the performer executed their acts. (215)

This identification model is rooted in empathy rather than sympathy, as audiences identify first with a community of spectators, and then with the abilities of the minstrels onstage or onscreen. Grounded in the “here and now” of race relations, Sammond helps us understand why and how we continue to enjoy racial humor.