"I'm a Cartoon!" the Jackson 5ive Cartoon as Comodified Civil Rights & Black Power Ideologies, 1971-1973
Breaux, Richard M., Journal of Pan African Studies
The Jackson 5ive Cartoon Paved the Way
I was already a devoted fan of film and animation by the time "The Jackson Five" Saturday morning cartoon show started appearing over network television in 1971... but being a cartoon character pushed me over the brink into a full-time love of the movies and the kind of animated motion pictures pioneered by Walt Disney. I have such admiration for Mr. Disney and what he accomplished with the help of so many talented artists.I loved being a cartoon. It was so much fun to get up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and look forward to seeing ourselves on the screen. It was like a fantasy come true for all of us.--Michael Jackson, Moon Walk (1988). (1)
With the December 2009 release of Disney's The Princess and the Frog and the continued airing of the animated series The Boondocks (November 6, 2005-Present) and Little Bill (November 28, 1999-July 2, 2007), television viewers and movie goers seem to forget that just over forty year ago, it was rarely if ever a time when non-stereotypical, minstrel-type caricatures did not represent the only images of African Americans in animated film or television. (2)
The Jackson 5ive animated series (September 11, 1971-September 1, 1973) became only the second animated television series starring more than one non-stereotypical African American character to air on a major television network, and was one of the longest running cartoons with non-stereotypical African Americans as title characters excluding Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids (September 9, 1973-August 29, 1984) until 1999. (3) In many ways, the Jackson 5ive animated series was to cartoons, what Michael Jackson was to Music Television (MTV)? Rather than the first (MTV played Joan Armatrading, Gary Bonds, Tina Turner, and Prince before Jackson), (4) both helped the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson appear as creators of media equal opportunity for future Black entertainers while opening more doors for white and Black media capitalists to profit from Black cultural production and expression. Motown and American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television executives like Vice President of Children's Programming Michael D. Eisner, organized the idea of the series around at least three selling points: 1) young African Americans were a viable target audience; 2) "bubble gum" soul and soul music artists could have enough Black/white listener appeal to become pop artists; and 3) that Black cultural and economic power brokers and discourses whether defined as "cultural bargainers," "moral crusaders," "alienated reformers," or "alienated revolutionaries" (5) could be commodified in such a way that neoliberal white and Black audiences viewed the Jackson Five animated series as a fulfillment of Martin Luther King's interracial dream. At the same time, parents who advocated popular Black cultural, social, or economic nationalism claimed the pioneering and non-stereotypical depictions of Black children on television as a positive affirmation of their belief of presence as empowerment. (6) In either case, the Jackson 5ive cartoon paved the way for Fat Albert & the Cosby Kids, I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali, and a number of other animated series starring real and fictionalized animated Black characters.
The death of Michael Jackson has not only been shrouded in controversy and sparked a mad scramble for Jackson Five and Michael Jackson paraphernalia. Jackson's death has forced scholars of African and African American popular culture to examine, explain, and reflect of the meaning of Michael Jackson's career, which spanned from the Black Power Era to the first year of Barack Obama's presidency. This essay explores Motown Productions and Rankin/Bass Productions Incorporated's collaboration that brought the Jackson 5ive cartoon to the ABC's Saturday morning line-up and the place of the Jackson 5ive cartoon in the history of Black characters in animated television and film. Because the Jackson 5ive series was one of the first animated series on Saturday morning television with a non-stereotypical all-Black title cast, Michael Jackson and his brothers hold a permanent place of importance in the public's consciousness and the collective memory of those who were children and parents who struggled to understand Civil Rights and Black Power ideologies during a period when both were being increasingly commodified in popular culture.
Racists Animated Black Caricature in the Early Years, 1915-1960
Stereotypical Black characters have shown up in their own animated movie short series since Pat Sullivan created Sammy Johnsin in 1915, the same year D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation premiered. Sullivan reportedly adapted William Marriner's Sambo character from the "Sambo and Funny Noises" newspaper comic strip after Marriner's death. The series lasted from 1916 to 1918. Similarly, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising created Bosko the "Black minstrel" and "his girlfriend, Honey" in 1930. Bosko first resembled characters like Oswald the Rabbit, the first Mickey Mouse, and Felix, later emerged as a definite Black pickaninny caricature. (8) Sammy Johnsin, Bosko, Jasper and Inki were total inventions and wholly stereotypical Black caricatures. Cartoonists caricatured a number of real Black jazz musicians and actors, their speech, facial features, and clothes were extremely exaggerated. Film Scholar Clyde Taylor's claim that Hollywood had an unwritten code the "thou shall not show Black people as human beings" (9) extended to animated film, comics, and children's toys and books well into the 1960s.
Animators regularly used Cab Calloway, Thomas "Fats" Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Lincoln "Stepin Fetchit" Perry as archetypes for a host of animals and people in animated features, but many of these caricatures reinforced stereotypes about Blacks' natural ability to dance and sing and their supposed animalistic nature. Cartoons that caricatured Cab Calloway began with David and Max Fleisher's Betty Boop--Minnie the Moocher (1932) and The Old Man of the Mountain (1933). Each contained live action footage of Cab Calloway and his Orchestra and caricatured ghost-walrus and cave hermit. Between 1932 and 1955 twenty different shorts featured a caricature of or reference to Cab Calloway. Other animated features like The Old Mill Pond (1936) included an ensemble of Frog caricatures such as Fats Waller, Bill Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Stepin Fetchit, and Cab Calloway and Swing Wedding (1937) contained all these except Waters. Racist and racialized caricatures of these entertainers appeared in at least a dozen films including: six with Fats Waller, six with Bill Robinson, seven with Louis Armstrong, two with Ethel Waters, and seven with Stepin Fetchit. (10)
In total, racist animated Black caricatures were ubiquitous before 1960 and protests by a civil rights groups brought this era in animation history to a close. Henry T. Sampson notes that over 400 animated cartoons with mostly racist Black caricatures were made between 1900 and 1960. (11)
Black Animated Television Characters in the Black Power Era
Black literary, performing and visual arts emerged as a crucial form of cultural expression during the Black Power Movement. Known as the Black Arts Movement, African Americans mostly politically left and center produced poetry, theater, live-action film, visual arts, and other forms to spread their messages and influence.
Historians Komozi Woodard and Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar note that cultural nationalist institutions like Amiri Baraka's Harlem-based Black Arts Repertory Theater/School and similar organizations in the Midwest, South, and West proposed "acting, writing, directing, set design, production, and management," for Black youth and established artists. (12) While many Black Panthers, unlike Baraka, did not consider themselves cultural nationalists, their promotion of soul and …
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Publication information: Article title: "I'm a Cartoon!" the Jackson 5ive Cartoon as Comodified Civil Rights & Black Power Ideologies, 1971-1973. Contributors: Breaux, Richard M. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Pan African Studies. Volume: 3. Issue: 7 Publication date: March 30, 2010. Page number: 79+. © 2008 Journal of Pan African Studies. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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