‘Pioneering cartoonists of Color’
By Lauren Adams
When most people think of famous Black cartoons, political Black cartoons, revolutionary Black cartoons, or any Black cartoons for that matter, most people think of the Boondocks, a comic strip turned TV show created by Aaron McGruder. McGruder shares searing commentary of race and culture told through the lens of two young boys, Huey and Riley. Huey’s a young militant, who waxes poetic about reparations and laments the acquittal of R. Kelly, and Riley’s trying to thwart his big brother, Huey, and chill with his favorite rapper, Thugnificent. The show tackled issues like race, class, pop culture, and the N-word, among a multitude of other issues involving not only the Black but also the larger American experience.
When I researched other Black cartoonists and the history of Black cartoons, most of the searches lead back to one name—Tim Jackson. Jackson experienced this himself while researching for his own website and book, “Pioneering Black Cartoonists.”
Jackson is a Black cartoonist who has devoted his life to not only using his art to speak out against political, social, and racial issues, but also to highlight other Black artists and make sure their work is recognized as well.
“For the first time, this book provides a historical record of the men and women who created seventy-plus comic strips, many editorial cartoons, and illustrations for articles,” Jackson writes in his press release for the book. “The volume covers the mid-1880’s, the early years of the self-proclaimed Black press, to 1968, when African American cartoon artists were accepted in the so-called mainstream.”
Jackson grew up in Dayton and realized he had a love for cartoons and drawing at an early age. He was unable to find cartoonists he could identify with in the local newspapers nor cartoons after which he could model his work.
“I had reached the point where I… couldn’t go on, basically,” Jackson says. “I’d drawn as much as I could. I had all these different samples and illustrations I had done up until that age—I guess it was about… before 10 or so—and I would write to different cartoonists… Dayton, Ohio has had a lot of cartoonists. I wrote to, in particular, Milton Caniff, who created Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon comics. He was the first Ohio cartoonist that I was aware of. And I would ask questions about how to do certain things or just get an opinion of what they thought of my work. And a lot of them were pretty friendly about it, and they would write back and give me some advice.”
Jackson’s penchant for drawing followed him as he went to Colonel White high school, and then Sinclair for a Commercial Art class. Realizing he was looking to take his work in a different direction, he moved to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. Chicago, where he still lives and works, offered more in the way of his artistic interests, but it was also a way to stay close enough to his Dayton home.
Years ago, Jackson created a website to showcase pioneering cartoonists of color, and the book provides a broader lens of that work in addition to historical context (like the Great Depression, Harlem Renaissance, WWI, and WWII). In 1997, Jackson began showcasing biographies of African-American cartoonists, illustrators, and graphic designers by digging through historic newspapers and magazines, as well as books and “Who’s Who” directories, as his website displays.
“When the cartoon world was preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the American comic strip,” his site explains, “Jackson anticipated that books and articles published upon the anniversary would either exclude African American artists or feature only the three whose work appeared in mainstream newspapers after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968. Jackson was determined to make it impossible for critics…to claim that there [was] no information on them.”
In the introduction to his book, Jackson cites his purpose: “While I cannot claim all the credit for [the visibility of American cartoonists of color in publications today], since change is inevitable, the information is out there to be found by anyone who believes that it is worth the effort to track it down.”
He explains his struggle finding the models he has found for others: “I would get books about cartoonists and books about cartoons and different things of that nature, but they didn’t include the African-American cartoonists. And so, I was feeling like, ‘Am I the only person who wants to be a cartoonist? Because surely, there must be some other African-Americans who do this.’”
After Jackson “slowly accumulated information” for his website, the University of Michigan spotted his work and pushed for book publication, until they moved on and the University of Mississippi finished the job.
When he attended college himself, he recalls first-year seminar electives. “The course I chose was called Laughin’ to Keep from Killin’—it was a course on the ways in which Blacks used subversive techniques to survive slavery and to gain and retain their humanity and their voices,” he remembers. “They created coded songs and jokes that they oftentimes performed in front of their masters, and whites were none the wiser. Once I began learning about this rich culture and history that I hadn’t had access to before, I became hungry for the knowledge. It inspired me to become an Africana studies major so that I could learn as much as I could about so much overlooked history and, quite frankly, history that I knew I wouldn’t learn otherwise.”
The main reading material in the class was “On the Real Side” by Mel Watkins, who used the book to chart Black comedy from its slavery roots to Dave Chappelle. An overview from the Chicago Review Press explains the text’s importance in Jackson’s repertoire: “Blackface minstrelsy, Stepin Fetchit, and the Amos ‘n’ Andy show presented a distorted picture of African Americans; this book contrasts this image with the authentic underground humor of African Americans found in folktales, race records, and all-Black shows and films. After generations of stereotypes, the underground humor finally emerged before the American public with Richard Pryor in the 1970s. But Pryor was not the first popular comic to present authentically Black humor. ”
When I read Tim Jackson’s book about pioneering cartoonists of color I couldn’t help but think back to the book by Watkins.
In the same way Pryor was not the first popular comic to present authentic Black humor, McGruder was not the first cartoonist of color to use his art to speak out about political, social, and cultural issues. For centuries, the Black community has been struggling to gain control of the ways we are represented in mainstream media. Beginning with slavery, there have been negative depictions of everything from skin tone to work ethic. Just this year, the Oscars faced backlash with #OscarsSoWhite, a movement that began with the Academy Awards not celebrating diversity in its nominations. Even with institutions that seek to control the narrative and provide Black entertainment for the mainstream, there have been issues throughout history. BET has faced more than its share of criticism for the ways in which it represents, or misrepresents the Black experience. Black artists have used every medium available to subvert the main narrative and gain control over how our stories are told and how we are represented for the world to see. There are Black artists all over the spectrum, yet very few enjoy mainstream success and exposure. Jackson has decided to use his work to make sure that his artistic and political voice is heard, but he’s also giving voices to as many other artists of color as he can.
The book is so extensive, and Jackson deftly covers so many details, that I wondered how he managed to research and compile all this information. He responds, “There were two artists who were significant in this: one was Samuel Joyner, who is in Philadelphia. He’s… an editorial cartoonist who collected newspaper clippings from his lifetime. He’s from the ’30s and ’40s. He had been collecting all this information about cartoonists, and he would send me copies from time to time… [He’d say], ‘Have you ever heard of such and such or so and so?’ and it’s like, ‘Never heard of these people.’ There’s nothing out there that lets anyone know they exist. So from him, I got information… The biggest influence in my development was Morrie Turner, who did the comic strip called Wee Pals. And, he would sometimes mention names of cartoonists that I had never heard of, so from what I was getting from these two people I would do research and microfilm of various newspapers.”
“But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a cartoon that can just be funny,” he adds. “I tried to make those things go together when I created a series of comic strips called What Are Friends For? back around [the] high school years. I wanted to make an important statement, but I still had to make it funny so people would read it. So, after I left Dayton and started setting up in Chicago, I took the comics that I originally had meant to send out for syndication, and after they were all turned down, I decided to take the comic strips and tape them together into a comic book format… And, I had it printed as a book, which I called What Are Friends For? stories, which would choose a topic or a subject that I felt was important at the time, and I would come up with a comic book about it. And I would market it to, for instance, the Board of Education or the Department of Health or something like that, depending on the subject matter. I think it’s possible to do both, it just… depends on what a person wants to do with it.”
Jackson was sure to mention some key figures in the history he captured: Ohioan Jay Jackson, no relation, who created the most cartoons; Ollie Harrington, who Jackson credits with “the most political comic at the time”; and, the most innovative, E. Simms Campbell, a known cartoonist of color who created for white publications (cartoons remained segregated until the ’60s). Jackson even came across the first female cartoonist, Daisy Scott, who wrote for the Tulsa Star a year prior to the Tulsa race riot in Oklahoma in the early 1920s.
The breadth and the depth of the work throughout the years, coupled with Jackson’s meticulous research is painstakingly catalogued and illustrated. These artists have done work depicting family life, friendship, war, cowboys—a whole spectrum of Black life that never saw mainstream success. Without this contribution, people wouldn’t have a chance to immerse themselves in this world and this culture.
Tim Jackson’s ‘Pioneering Cartoonists of Color,’ is available with major retailers. For more information on Tim Jackson and his work, please visit Obita4.WixSite.com/CLSToons2.