For folks of a particular age, the mere mention of Saturday morning cartoons evokes nostalgia; whether you jammed with The Jackson 5ive or hooped with The Harlem Globetrotters, cartoons were simply synonymous with childhood. In their traveling and virtual museum exhibit, “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution Exhibition,” curators Pamela Thomas and Loreen Williamson take viewers on a “funky” trip through time, as they explore the significance of the history of black animation in the 70s. SoulTrain.com spoke with them about the overall exhibit, Soul Train’s role in the exhibit, and why animation deserves a place in our culture.
SoulTrain.com: When and how did the idea come together for this exhibit?
Pamela Thomas: It’s been a couple of years in the making. We were former gallery owners and through that gallery, we had access to all different types of art. When I initially met Loreen, she had a very interesting collection of animation art that was more focused on Warner Brothers and Looney Tunes and my first question to her was, “Where are all the black cartoons?” One thing led to another and we started to do some research and we finally made a connection with some collectors, art dealers and gallery owners and were able to score some black animations. From there, after closing our gallery, I had this idea that I wanted to continue to be an entrepreneur and we decided to develop The Museum of Uncut Funk to really house our collection, curate this exhibition and go out and pitch it to museums.
SoulTrain.com: While you were curating, did you face any challenges with licensing or rights?
Loreen Williamson: We owned it so it wasn’t as much as a rights issue but where we did run into a little bit of difficulty was convincing museums that animation is a worthy form of art because it’s not the typical kind of art that you would see in a museum nor is it considered “fine art.” It was just selling museums on the story and history behind the art and the significant change in the way black characters were drawn and depicted.
SoulTrain.com: The exhibit just wrapped up at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and will debut in Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History in late June; in addition, it has been profiled in the national press. What has the feedback been like?
Pamela Thomas: It has been phenomenal. I don’t think in my wildest dreams you could’ve told me that we would have gotten the responses we got. The press has been unbelievable; we’ve been on different newscasts and newspapers. From what has been said, it was a success at the Schomburg, even more so than they anticipated.
SoulTrain.com: The exhibit captures the 70s era of blacks in animation; however, you’ve noted how cartoons in the 40s and 50s were full of stereotypes. “Mammy Two Shoes,” the recurring character from the Tom and Jerry shorts, immediately comes to mind. Could you speak about her?
Loreen Williamson: That was probably one of the more positive depictions. It’s interesting that you have this grown woman shown with Tom and Jerry and you don’t ever see her face. You see the gigantic breasts and slippers and socks but you have to think about how deep that is for a second—how black people in cartoons prior to the 70s weren’t even real people. There was a great love by the animators of our jazz musicians and even when the depictions were of a real person—even when they were paying homage to the greatness some of those artists—they still weren’t depicted as human. They were some combination of say, Cab Calloway’s face with a frog’s body or something. So, when you think about it, it really brings it home.
SoulTrain.com: Why do you think the 70s marked the birth of turnaround for black animation?
Pamela Thomas: It was that we were coming out of the Civil Rights Movement and going into the Black Power Movement. And I think the “establishment” or “the system” was looking for something to maybe make black people settled, so everything just changed across the board whether it was film, animation, television or music. Everything was in your face and it was just that moment in time where different studios got together and I guess, decided to do something different and create television programming for children that was going to be a part of this change. Then, you had people like Bill Cosby, who was “the man” at that time and who was able to bring forth change and who had his own vision of what children’s television should be about.
Loreen Williamson: In the 50s and 60s, you had [organizations like] the NAACP who were protesting the racist cartoons that had been edited for television. And as Pamela said, you had people who were gaining power in Hollywood like Bill Cosby. It was just a function of the changing of the times coming out of the turbulence of the 60s. It was one of those revolutionary changes in history and luckily there were people who had the power to bring stories to animation that were a lot more positive for black folks and our generation was really the beneficiary of that.
SoulTrain.com: Speaking of Bill Cosby, for many, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is the quintessential black cartoon. What would you say sets it apart from other cartoons that featured black characters?
Loreen Williamson: The thing that sets Fat Albert apart is that it was a completely black cast and it was very powerful because there was a lesson in every cartoon. Bill Cosby had a vision of doing more than just entertaining; he wanted to educate children. You left smarter than when you started watching the episode. Also, it was the longest running black animated series—it started in the 70s and went into the 80s.
SoulTrain.com: Of course, no conversation about black culture in the 70s is complete without mentioning Soul Train; in fact, the show is a part of The Museum of Uncut Funk. Tell us about it.
Loreen Williamson: One of the aspects of this collection that we are the most excited about is the fact that we have an original piece of art from the Soul Train animated opening. We have never seen the artwork anyplace else and we feel very blessed to have it in our collection.
SoulTrain.com: You had a chance to speak with the creators of the show’s animated train that was shown at the beginning of each episode. How did that come about?
Loreen Williamson: Through talking to some folks and doing some investigation, we were able to identify the two famous black animators, Leo Sullivan and Floyd Norman, who were commissioned by Don Cornelius. We really consider it to be a “black” train; it was conceived by a black man, created by black people, and it ran as part of the longest-running syndicated black show. The history of it is fascinating and it was Don’s idea to create that train. He reached out to Leo and Floyd who developed it and from there, it just became part of the show. It was fascinating the way it came together; Floyd and Leo did everything from start to finish and they cranked it out over a weekend because Don needed it done pretty quickly. It’s amazing what they did on such a tight timeline. It was very cool to get that information from them.
SoulTrain.com: Other highlights of the exhibit include notable “firsts” for black animation; e.g., The Hardy Boys’ Pete Jones being the first black ensemble character on a cartoon. Do you think some may have regarded such moves as tokenism?
Pamela Thomas: I don’t believe that it was tokenism at all. This was an opportunity to highlight black characters in a different light and it had a lot to do with coming out of the turbulence of the 60s. I think the newness of the decade came with black people wanting and demanding change and being tired of what was. That’s what makes these characters so revolutionary as opposed to being tokens. It was just the right moment for this to take place. I think it was just time for a change and the studios got it right.
Loreen Williamson: If there were only one or two characters and they had minor roles in the cartoons, you can say, “Okay, they just threw them in.” But what they did, and we can debate on whether they could’ve done it better or not, but black characters, both females and males, were actually part of the team. [For example], Valerie was a part of the Pussycats—she wasn’t a secondary character. Even looking at Verb from the Schoolhouse Rock series—the whole episode was about him. I think all of them were firsts and all of them played an important role in forwarding us through a decade where you saw a whole range of positive black characters. I wouldn’t look at any of them as tokens.
SoulTrain.com: What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibit, as it relates to the overall impact of animation in the sociology of black culture?
Pamela Thomas: I want people, especially baby boomers, to go to the museum, see this collection and reminisce about their childhood. I don’t want to sound too deep, but a lot of us have a lot of personal, societal, and financial pain going on. This exhibition is fun and is supposed to make you remember your childhood. We want to make you have conversations with your children and grandchildren and tell them about how cartoons were when you were a child and how they made you feel every Saturday morning when you got up with your bowl of cereal and sat down for “television time” going from cartoons to Soul Train and back to cartoons again. Sometimes, we need to reminisce on that childhood and bring out those really good feelings. That’s what I want people to get out of it.
Loreen Williamson: First of all, I want people to support our black museums and reward museums that bring unique depictions of our history. It takes a lot of guts to bring this type of exhibition to a museum because it isn’t typical or one that museums are comfortable with. We applaud Schomburg and DuSable for being on the cutting edge of doing something that’s important and different. I want young people to understand and learn about our history and the 70s; there was a lot of blackness going on which is awesome and I think it’s important for young folks to get in touch with that. It’s a cool exhibition and people will have fun; and I hope that at the end of the day, what it does is help children understand the importance of being different and creative.
LaShawn Williams is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former Arts & Culture Editor for Gapers Block. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast with immense love for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter at @MsWilliamsWorld.