By DASCHELL M. PHILLIPS
The DuSable Museum of African American History is commemorating the 40th anniversary of 1970s Saturday morning cartoons that featured positive Black characters for the first time in television history in its exhibit “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution.” The traveling exhibit opened at the museum on June 27 and will run through Oct. 20.
“Prior to the 1970’s, Black characters in cartoons were depicted in a very derogatory manner,” said Pamela Thomas, curator of the Museum Of UnCut Funk, which provided the artifacts for the exhibit. “This 1970s revolution in how Black animation characters were developed and portrayed in Hollywood represents historic change and the ultimate manifestation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream.”
Thomas said cartoons such as “Harlem Globetrotters,” “The Jackson 5ive,” “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” and characters such as Valerie Brown in Josie and the Pussy Cats, Lt. Uhura in “Star Trek” and Chuck Clayton in “The U.S. of Archie” represent, “the first time characters of all races lived, played and worked together as equals.”
She said practically every piece of art represents a historical first, including the first time that cartoons like Josie and the Pussy Cats and Kid Power and a series like Star Trek featured strong, positive Black female characters. It was also the first time that Black people like Bill Cosby and Berry Gordy led the development of animated television programming featuring Black characters, from concept through art creation and production.
She said the exhibit also brings light to the genre’s specific connection to Chicago and surrounding areas, such as The Harlem Globetrotters and Soul Train, which were created in the city. Muhammad Ali lived in Chicago while he voiced his animated character for the “I Am the Greatest” cartoon. Robin Harris was a Chicago native, and Reggie Hudlin who was the executive producer of the “BeBe’s Kids” film is from Illinois. Oprah Winfrey voiced the Coretta Scott King character in the “Our Friend Martin” film. Mellody Hobson, the first Black female chairman of a major animation studio, DreamWorks Animation, lives in Chicago.
“I believe these cartoons are national treasures,” Thomas said. “They were seen by a generation of children and not only changed the way that Black kids saw themselves but the way white kids saw them as well.”
Thomas said, “By highlighting this positive aspect of our experience we are able to engage and educate people in a fun and uplifting way.”