George Herriman's Black Sentence: The Legibility of Race in Krazy Kat

By Amiran, Eyal | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2000 | Go to article overview

George Herriman's Black Sentence: The Legibility of Race in Krazy Kat


Amiran, Eyal, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


George Herriman, who passed for white, examines the place of color, both ink and ethnic marker, in the machinery of narrative. Color is necessary to narrative, but narrative conceals color, sentencing Herriman to perform his invisibility even as he relies on color to make this point.

In American literature and culture, color has been read in historical rather than aesthetic terms, as the expression of racial attitudes rather than the condition of their possibility. Both traditional studies of so-called ethnic American literatures and recent studies in whiteness tend to see human figures in color as representations of racial identity, and to assume a metaphorical transfer between color and race. At the same time, theories of narrative, despite an interest in materiality; have not considered color as an element of textual construction. How might one talk about the color of text, about color and narrative? How might a theory of narrative color--of the color of narrative--be developed, a theory that is both aesthetic and historical and that relates color to questions of race and of the perception of race?

George Herriman's work thinks this subject through. Herriman published the serial Krazy Kat newspaper cartoon from 1913 to the time of his death in 1944. This epic lyric is one of the wonders of modern literature, and though it was never very popular, it is now justly considered a classic of the art form. The strip projects a stylized life in Coconino county, Arizona, in a dusty town populated by humanized animals (much of the scenery actually comes from Kayenta, a Navajo trading post, and Monument Valley farther northeast). One plot dominates the comic: Ignatz, a cynical and ill-tempered mouse, beans Krazy Kat with a brick and is hauled to jail by the dog cop, Officer ("Offissa") Bull Pupp. Ignatz throws the brick in anger, but Krazy, who is a gentle and sentimental animal, interprets the toss as an act of love. Pupp represents a simple-minded literalist vision of law and order; after he hauls Ignatz to jail he likes to believe that "all's well." The brick doesn't hurt Krazy, and assumes symbolic valence in the work. It is often explicitly sexual--in one strip a lily is shown instead of the brick toss. "Sperm me," says Krazy once, "L'il 'inna owta" (Krazy and Ignatz 7:36).

My aim here is to explain the obsessive nature of the comic in terms of its preoccupation with color, both the social marker and the comic s material, physical resources of ink. The strip returns every day for thirty years to a repetitive plot that is itself about repetition and obsession. Herriman emerges in the strip as one possessed by ideas of an historical and a racial self. He elaborates what amounts to a theory of the necessity of race for narrative, and of narrative for race. There is no narrative without color, for Herriman, because narrative is made of color, of figure-and-ground perceptions of color difference. These contrasts that define color, in turn, constitute a circular racial ideology of perception where racial identities can be seen only against other identities that are themselves defined in terms of contrast. So there can be no written or illustrated narrative that is not about race, for all narrative is written in color. By the same token there can be no historical moment before color, before understanding saw color in racial terms. Any understanding is already a figural representation in color.

The comic struggles to determine how such a primacy of color--"original color," we might call it--is possible. This vision of consciousness leads Herriman to express several ideas that are at odds with each other. On the one hand, the work appears to hold that race is tied to blood, to an original constitution of the self. It returns again and again to think about the historical origin of some physical transformation, to an original family, to original time, and it returns repeatedly to consider what amounts to the one-drop rule of racial identity, which thought that personal identity depends on one's "racial" ancestors. …

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