Oh, y’all, it’s so good, Love and Theft, if a little too much a product of its time in ways that are regretful. But my mind, she is blown. Anyway, I’m still hung up on how minstrelsy became… I guess I want to say…. repressed in our cultural imagination. So, I was looking on YouTube for minstrel performances to see if I could see what I was trying to understand. It lead me to racist cartoons.
Now, I’d like to show you two of them. Let me reiterate that they are racist. I mean, just motherfucking racist, no denying, no equivocating. Just as racist as they come.
This is the first one I saw that started to give me an uneasy feeling of “Wait, I’ve never seen this, but this is familiar.”
Something about the shapes of the people’s heads, the way their jaws and mouths are rendered just reminded me of Disney characters. This is from Universal, directed by Walter Lantz, best known for Woody Woodpecker. And it’s in color. So, wrong studio and too late to be an influence on Mickey Mouse. But it still gave me the WTF?s.
Then there’s this one:
And there’s a mouse looking for all the world like Mickey. That film, “Dixie Days,” was made in 1930, so it’s younger than “Steamboat Willie.” But it’s hard to watch “Steamboat Willie” after seeing these and not wonder if something that would have been readily apparent to Mickey’s audience in 1928.
So, down the rabbit hole I went (speaking of rabbits, let’s not even talk about Bugs Bunny) and here’s what I found. According to Wikipedia, Walt Disney got the idea for “Steamboat Willie” after watching The Jazz Singer. If you want a good appreciation for how woozy Love and Theft can make you, just follow that thread. Al Jolson, a Russian-born Jewish guy who both performed in blackface and was an ardent advocate for desegregating the Broadway stage performed in Champaign, Illinois, where Samson Raphaelson saw him. Raphaelson goes on to write the play “The Jazz Singer” which is later adapted into a movie. In which Jolson stars. Since the movie is a loose adaptation of Jolson’s life, the movie is about a blackface performer. Walt Disney sees the movie and it inspires him to go home and create “Steamboat Willie.” And two years later, there’s “Dixie Days,” in which a mouse that is, for all practical purposes Mickey is also a black stereotype (Mickey will go in blackface three years after that, in a short also having to do with Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
So, the question I have is this: If Mickey was inspired by blackface and if he inspires what we might consider cartoon blackface (white cartoonists presenting black stereotypes to us for our amusement) and he participates in literal blackface in the 30s, would it have been obvious to viewers of “Steamboat Willie” that Mickey Mouse was coded “black”? Even in the absence of stereotypes we now recognize?
Does this question make sense? I just wonder, after spending an evening watching these old cartoons if it doesn’t ping us as invoking the same kind of performative “blackness” as minstrelsy until there are lazy people and Mammies and someone’s eating a watermelon and “Way Down Upon the Suwanee River” is playing in the background as a riverboat gently paddles by, but all an audience in 1928 would have needed to see to know that was what was being invoked was a black body (or more) and a riverboat and a rural setting.
If so, I’m going to have to revise my belief that minstrelsy is being repressed out of some embarrassment about corniness and instead wonder whether what happened is that there used to be a whole wide vocabulary–visual and aural (both musically and just how people were supposed to sound)–that evoked minstrelsy and, even as people clamped down on the stuff that was undeniably racist and objected to it, the stuff that was deniably racist just got uncoupled from it and kept.
We pretend to have forgotten about minstrelsy in this scenario not out of embarrassment, but because then we can keep what we love that has roots in that ground without controversy.
The Mouse is just The Mouse.