"Bootsie" in Berlin: An Interview with Helma Harrington on Oliver Harrington's Life and Work in East Germany, 1961-1995
Brown, Stephanie, African American Review
Interest in African American cartoonists has grown dramatically in recent years, m part as a result of a convergence between the trend in cultural studies toward greater recognition of the importance of popular visual art, especially comics, and the ongoing emphasis in African American studies on recovering "lost," extra- canonical works. Although highly visible contemporary black cartoonists such as Aaron McGruder and Ray Billingsley have achieved considerable popularity with black and white audiences, scholars have begun to focus on their predecessors, figures like E. Simms Campbell and Elton Fax. Among these artists, Oliver Harrington's is easily the most recognizable name. An enormously productive and justly renowned figure, Harrington inspired generations of black cartoonists with widely divergent styles and themes. (1) Harrington's work is featured in the Library of Congress, and collections of his cartoons, essays and lectures appeared shortly before his death in 1995.
As the originator of "Bootsie," the affable central figure in the Dark Laughter cartoon series that began in 1935 and lampooned racist attitudes in the years before the civil rights movement, Harrington was a well-known and much-loved popular artist whose work was featured in a number of "Negro" weeklies, including the New York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender, in the years before World War II. The critique of racism was obvious, yet like Langston Hughes in his "Simple" series, Harrington cushioned his outrage with humor, as well as by employing a somewhat folksy visual style. (2) Bootsie is a rounded, jovial caricature who makes his way through a Harlem filled with similarly drawn characters; many of the situations Bootsie experiences, as Harrington's biographer M. Thomas Inge has noted, are as much satirical depictions of the behavior of his fellow African Americans as anything else (Interview). (3)
World War II changed Harrington's visual style and sharpened his attacks on what he and other African Americans of the period quickly came to see as a hopelessly hypocritical American society ostensibly devoted to combating fascism abroad while retaining segregation domestically. In 1943, Harrington began to draw the groundbreaking "Jive Gray" strip, which featured a black pilot and brought together the American political issues so central to his work with a more contemporary visual style possibly influenced by that of his contemporary Milton Caniff; the next year, as a war correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, Harrington wrote serious stories about the bravery of the soldiers in the black squadron with which he was traveling. (4) After the war, Harrington was far more outspoken about his politics, drawing attention to himself in an environment in which McCarthyism was beginning to take hold. After Harrington, representing the NAACP, strongly criticized the U. S. government's treatment of black veterans in a debate with then-U. S. attorney general Tom Clark, Clark labeled him a Communist. Five years later, warned by a black friend in Army Intelligence that he was under investigation by the F. B. I. and concerned that he, like his friend the actor Paul Robeson and other prominent African American activists, might suffer the loss of his passport and other repercussions, Harrington moved to Paris, where he spent the next ten years.
In Paris, Harrington lived and worked among the black expatriate community whose central figure was Richard Wright, who considered Harrington one of his best friends. Wright's death, in 1960, stunned Harrington, who believed that he had been murdered. Harrington began to seek work outside France, finally accepting an offer by the Aufbau Press, an East German publishing house located in Berlin, to illustrate a series of American classics. (5) In the summer of 1961 while negotiating his contract, Harrington realized that the Berlin Wall was going up around him. "I was a virtual prisoner," Harrington said thirty years later in an address at Wayne State University. "I couldn't leave there. I lost my French apartment, I lost everything. I had to stay there" (Harrington 109). As this interview makes clear, this claim was at best disingenuous. Although Harrington naturally could not have known in advance of the construction of the Berlin Wall in August of 1961, he was never an East German citizen and thus was always allowed to travel freely; he was certainly never a prisoner, "virtual" or otherwise. Once in East Germany, Harrington settled down to live and work, producing many of his finest (and most politically acute) cartoons by bringing together his early training as a painter with new opportunities to produce illustrations in full color. His personal life also took an abrupt turn when he met and ultimately married Helma Richter, an economist and accomplished multilingual journalist who was at the time responsible for the German Democratic Republic's Latin American radio programming. The Harringtons lived together in East Berlin until Oliver Harrington's death in 1995.
In the interview that follows, Helma Harrington discusses her life with Oliver Harrington in East Berlin before and after the reunification of Germany, providing insight into a period of Harrington's life that has until now remained largely unknown. Scholars Christine McKay and M. Thomas Inge have established many disputed facts about Harrington's early years in the U. S., and his time in Paris is similarly well documented; however, his subsequent career in East Germany remains less clear. Harrington himself wrote and said little about his personal or his professional life in the former German Democratic Republic. For example, in an unpublished interview with Inge in 1992, he alluded to his work in East German magazines but implied that his residency in Berlin was largely coincidental, saying that "I had no intention [for years] of staying in the G. D. R." and emphasizing that he was "not a citizen of the world" but most emphatically "an American"; the bulk of the interview deals with the cartoons Harrington drew for American publications on African American themes. Yet Helma offers here a picture of her late husband that is somewhat at variance with the image he gave of himself. She limns a portrait of Oliver as an artist, family man, and keen observer of global politics who situated his life and work at the intersection of the strong sense he always maintained of his own African American identity and his cosmopolitan political and aesthetic interests. Harrington's art in this period, like that of many other African American writers and artists of the post-WW II era, sought to broaden its focus to include a critique of injustice and the abuse of political and economic power worldwide.
Stephanie Brown: I know that your late husband came to Berlin in 1961, and that he left Paris and carne here because he had a contract with Aufbau and was supposed to do some illustrations. And then I know that you met him in 1964 at a radio interview--perhaps, I think that's not clear to me. I wonder if you could just tell me about how you met.
Helma Harrington: We met in a restaurant.
SB: Was it for work?
HH: Well, now, it was more or less accidentally. We sat at the same table, and then we started talking.
SB: I see. So, you were not interviewing him?
HH: No, I wasn't interviewing him.
SB: I didn't understand that at all. I think this is something that has been misunderstood. It was my impression that he came to your studio because he was supposed to write an article....
HH: No. At that time I was already working with Latin America, I had nothing to do with Americans. We were violently anti-Yankee, [but] naturally not against the individual....
SB: So you were in a restaurant and met and started to talk. I understand he was a great talker.
HH: Yes, he was very good at telling stories, also politically. You could talk very well politics with him.
SB: And did your late husband speak German very well?
HH: Uh, my husband, more or less, not very ... bur be could make conversation in German. Bur he never learned it profoundly or correctly. He preferred that people spoke English with him.
SB: It would have been around the election time in America....
HH: Oh, I don't remember. I think we talked about Europe, European questions.
SB: And he had been here for quite a while at that point, here in Berlin. He apparently always said that he was sort of trapped in Berlin. Is that true?
HH: No. I think that when he carne he didn't have in mind to stay for any length of time. At least, be wasn't decided. On the other hand, he had had that trouble in France and felt not absolutely safe, you see? (6) And then there was a chance to stay here and, considering what had happened in France with his friend and also with the Americans, and so on. So the thought that it would take so many years was naturally not in his mind. In the meantime, he thought several times of going to some other place.
SB: Also in Europe?
HH: No, for example, be had an offer to go Ghana. Nkrumah invited him and he went there and he was very favorably impressed with Nkrumah, whom he had met before. (7) Bur then the people below him.... Anyhow, he said he had the impression there was utter corruption and that anyhow he decided against it.
SB: When was that?
HH: That must have been right in the early sixties because then soon came the coup and Nkrumah was ousted. Then later he, in the seventies, he had an offer …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: "Bootsie" in Berlin: An Interview with Helma Harrington on Oliver Harrington's Life and Work in East Germany, 1961-1995. Contributors: Brown, Stephanie - Author. Journal title: African American Review. Volume: 44. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 2011. Page number: 353+. © 1999 African American Review. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.