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The Messy Politics of Black Voices—and “Black Voice”—in American Animation – The New Yorker

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The voice of Missy Foreman-Greenwald, a mixed-race character on “Big Mouth,” was provided during the show’s first four seasons by a white actress.Courtesy Netflix

It was 1948 or so, and the comedy duo Freeman F. Gosden and Charles J. Correll faced a dilemma. Radio was no longer the nation’s dominant form of entertainment, and Gosden and Correll’s long-running program, “Amos ’n’ Andy,” about a pair of Southern migrants making their way in Chicago, had lost its pizzazz, growing hokey and hemmed in by the late-stage half-hour format. It was time to transition to the burgeoning medium of television, and the pair had a lucrative deal lined up with William S. Paley, of the Columbia Broadcasting System. But how to translate the aural alchemy of their radio show—which, in its twenty-year run, had amassed a mixed-race audience of millions in segregated America—to television? Both men were white, while Amos and Andy were black. Gosden and Correll toyed with the idea of retaining their titular roles in sound but not in body—they would hire black actors as their avatars and dub over the performers’ voices with their own—but, in the end, simply sought black actors who could perform serviceable impressions of their fictional Negroes. “If we can find actors with suitable voices, we’ll let them do the talking,” Gosden said, in a 1948 interview. The “Amos ’n’ Andy” television show, starring the luminous performers Alvin Childress, Tim Moore, and Ernestine Wade (reprising her role from radio), ran in prime time for two seasons before going into syndication for a little more than a decade. Audiences liked the show well enough, but it failed to replicate the enormous success of its radio predecessor, apparently unable to capture the American imagination as thoroughly onscreen.

Last Wednesday, two white actors announced that they would be taking leave from the black animated characters they had been voicing. The first was Jenny Slate, who played the breathy, bright-eyed, and horny Missy Foreman-Greenwald for four seasons of the animated comedy “Big Mouth.” (Season 4 has not yet been released.) In a statement posted on Instagram, Slate explained that although she once thought it “permissible” to play Missy “because her mom is Jewish and White”—as Slate herself is—Missy “is also Black,” and “Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” Later the same evening, Kristen Bell posted a statement from the team behind “Central Park,” stating that Bell would relinquish her character, Molly Tillerman, another animated daughter of an interracial marriage. It read, “Kristen, along with the entire creative team, recognizes that the casting of the character of Molly is an opportunity to get representation right—to cast a Black or mixed race actress and give Molly a voice that resonates with all of the nuance and experiences of the character as we’ve drawn her.” The announcements continued thusly throughout the week. Mike Henry, a white voice actor on “Family Guy,” tweeted that “persons of color should play characters of color,” ending his twenty-one-year run as the voice of Cleveland, Peter Griffin’s high-talking black friend, who’d inspired his own spinoff show. “The Simpsons,” by now well versed in the subject of impertinent white voices, will, according to a statement released on Friday, “no longer have white actors voice non-white characters.”

American animation, populated by sentient foodstuffs and puttied humanoids, has often been considered exempt from the country’s prejudices—an understandable, if convenient, fantasy of exceeding real life’s doldrums. In fact, it is a genre built on the marble and mud of racial signification. Much like vaudeville and the sitcom, and the American stage and screen writ large, the business of cartoons emerged from the performative tradition of cross-racial desire, also known as minstrelsy. If you’ve ever wondered why our looniest ’toons wear enormous buttons and have outsize gloves for hands, take a look at Zip Coon, the uppity black dandy whose formal attire only served to accentuate the uncouthness of his character. Scholars such as Christopher P. Lehman, the author of “The Colored Cartoon,” and Nicholas Sammond, the author of “Birth of an Industry,” have pointed out that the sartorial inheritance is more than cosmetic: the manners and antics of cartoons were always borrowed from the minstrel’s stage, even as the minstrel himself faded as a staple of mass culture in the twentieth century. In Walt Disney’s first sound film, “Steamboat Willie,” a proto-Minnie Mouse cranks the tail of a guitar-chomping goat, whose gaping mouth reproduces the popular minstrel tune “Turkey and the Straw,” while Mickey shuffles along. But while early cartoons had a penchant for the sights and sounds of black masquerade, along with traditionally black musical forms, the black voice lagged behind. “Because animators struggled to draw the movement of a figure’s mouth accurately, unintelligibly pronounced ‘Negro dialect’ would have been an especially formidable challenge to them,” Lehman writes. Animators would catch up, of course, as the jive-talking murder of Jim Crows in Disney’s “Dumbo,” from 1941, can affirm. But most cartoons had, and still have, a bit of jive-talking to them—a feature, like their general unruliness, yoked to stereotypes of the Negro.

All of this is a far cry from any kind of real investment in black people, in black art and black artists and talent, of course. Conversations about representation in animation tend to focus on gender disparities, studying the content of stories featuring female protagonists (who are mostly white) and noting the scant presence of women (also mostly white) in directorial or otherwise substantial creative roles. Discussions of race and ethnicity, meanwhile, are usually preoccupied with the few characters of color who are most visible—the grievance, for instance, that Disney’s one black princess spent most of her movie as a frog. (I was reminded how shallow the pool of human black characters is, recently, when I attempted to find my cartoon doppelgänger to participate in the “cartoon me” meme circulating on Twitter.) Already more financially precarious than live-action television and film, the animation industry has been more liberal about casting white actors to play black characters than it has been about hiring black actors to play anybody at all. It’s telling that a good portion of known black voice actors—Regina King, James Earl Jones, Keith David—established careers elsewhere before stepping into the sound booth.

It would be folly, though, to ask that the categories of creator and creation—cartoonists and actors, writers and characters—align neatly. Cree Summer, a black voice actor whose dominance in the field rivals that of Mel Blanc, has delighted as a mercurial lavender poodle and a tiny-toons tot, a ponytailed teen bully and an Atlantean princess, plus at least a hundred more characters, some black and some not. Such is the power of a voice that seems to come from nowhere—it can become anything. Phil LaMarr may voice the dubiously Jamaican character on “Futurama,” but he is also Samurai Jack and Wilt, my personal favorite, the long-legged, siren-red imaginary friend who plays basketball—a character who is not black but also totally black. Revisiting his memorable roles in an interview with Vanity Fair, LaMarr spoke about being passed over for the role of Aqualad, a queer black superhero, on Cartoon Network’s “Young Justice,” but being offered the role of Aquaman on the series instead. “I’m, like, Oh, I get to be black Aquaman. Nope, nope, regular Aquaman.”

The idea of a “black voice” is tricky, anyhow. Marked dialect, so often relied on as a substitute for actual character traits, has been rebuked and remade again and again by black writers in the American literary canon. Richard Wright, talking out of turn in a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” was scandalized that “Miss Hurston” would “voluntarily” write dialogue reminiscent of, in his evaluation, “the minstrel technique.” In her study of the “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” however, Hurston rebuked the idea of a stable, stereotypical black vernacular. “If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing,” she writes. “Fortunately, we don’t have to believe them.” George Schuyler, who went toe to toe with Langston Hughes on the question of a blackened art tradition, rejected black speech outright in his novel “Black No More,” in which black people blend into white society with the help of a race-changing procedure. In the contemporary novel “Erasure,” by Percival Everett, a black author with little faith in race as culture has a massive seizure, besieged by visions of “Native Son and The Color Purple and Amos and Andy,” and hurls up a novella written in eye dialect, which propels him to mainstream recognition.

Meanwhile, in real life, or something like it, pop-cultural celebrities from Billie Eilish to Awkwafina have attracted insistent skepticism with their “blaccents,” or put-on black voices, a critique that coexists awkwardly with another commonly heard refrain: that black people, and black voices, are “not a monolith” in ideological, cultural, or linguistic terms. But the notion that “the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon,” as Schuyler puts it, indistinguishable in art or language from our nearest whites, is as unsatisfying as it is provocative. Even if our idea of a “black voice” ought not to register as anything stable or essential, there is something recognizable about the voices we call black, particularly when the people using them are not black themselves. In that case, what’s perceived is not a black voice but the want of one. Perhaps that is the sound of black voice: the sound of want.

Studios should contract more black people—or rather, endow more black talent. This is what’s meant when people call, in animation and elsewhere, for more black voices. But suturing the visual to the sonic, and animated characters to the talent behind them, limits animation’s power to transcend the borders of the flesh. “Early in my career, white directors would ask me to make a read ‘blacker,’ to which I would reply, ‘Would you ever ask a white actor to make it ‘whiter’?” the voice actor Dave Fennoy told Vice, in 2016. The requests for black characters to be voiced by black actors and for black characters to have blacker voices are more alike than not—one could argue that Amos and Andy were better minstrels when embodied by black actors than when voiced by two white men. In the end, the well-meaning statements of Slate and Bell and the others, like so many in this time, answer calls for justice with a promise to blacken up bourgeois workplaces. There is every chance that, in so doing, they are simply helping to forge a new set of racial terms to gird what black is and what it ain’t.

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President Donald Trump playing politics with the pandemic: experts – Global News

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It’s been roughly five months since the United States was first introduced to a novel coronavirus, which would become commonly known as COVID-19 — the name of the disease caused by the virus.

Since then, a health crisis not seen in more than a century has become more and more politicized.

American cities and states have been forced to grapple with a constant unknown — exactly when this virus is going to spike or subside, leaving businesses, lawmakers and residents to approach each situation in one of two ways: with caution or defiance.

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Social distancing measures have been at the forefront of the attempt to slow the spread, and have been met with headwinds from lawmakers who feel government shouldn’t be telling people what to do.

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Like wear a mask.

Experts say U.S. President Donald Trump has turned the simple mitigation effort into a divisive political football, volleying back-and-forth on whether or not he thinks Americans should wear a mask while remaining steadfast in his inability to wear one in public.






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“The fact that Trump is not wearing a mask fits his coalition beautifully,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “They’re strongly anti-government. They’re opposed to rules from on high,” Sabato added, who noted that to Trump’s male supporters, “this is a question of machismo. Are they manly enough to go out without a mask on?”

Health experts fear the act of turning a potentially life-saving effort, like wearing a face-covering, into a political matter can lead to confusion in the general public.

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“It makes people feel (that) if they put a mask on, potentially they are defying the president,” said Sara Bleich, a public health policy professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Trump has said in the past that people who wear a mask could be doing so just to “signal disapproval” of him, but then changed his tune during an interview with Fox Business when he proclaimed he’s “all for masks.” Trump also admitted he would wear a mask in a small group setting.

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To date, Donald Trump has never been in front of a camera with a face-covering.

“If he were to do that simple thing, it would really encourage people to actually do the right thing,” said Bleich, echoing a comment from Lamar Alexander, a Republican and chair of the Senate Committee on Health, who said, “it would help if from time-to-time the president would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate.”

In the early weeks and months of this pandemic, masks were nearly non-existent during press briefings involving the president. Things started to change as the country experienced a significant second outbreak during this first wave. Lawmakers, notably Republicans, began to cover their faces when in public.

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Coronavirus: Republican Senate leader urges use of masks in public

The break in ranks within the GOP has left Trump as the odd man out, at a time when he needs as much public support as he can get. The 2020 election is fast approaching, and polls have put Democratic front-runner Joe Biden upwards of 10 points ahead of Trump.

Biden has repeatedly been seen wearing a mask but faces a firestorm of insults and comments for doing so, including in late May when he wore a black face-covering while attending a Memorial Day ceremony. That led to a comment from Trump that his political rival looked “unusual,” adding “he was standing outside with his wife, perfect conditions, perfect weather. They’re inside, they don’t wear masks.”






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The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has urged Americans to “wear cloth face coverings in public settings,” saying it prevents spread “especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”

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There’s a strong party-line divide when it comes to wearing a mask in the United States. One study shows that more than seven in 10 Democrats (or 70 per cent) admit to wearing a mask when outdoors or in stores, compared to just 56 per cent of Republicans.

“It’s very concerning that something like a mask has somehow become an ideological partisan symbol instead of what it is, which is it literally saves your life,” said Dr. Leana Wen, former public health commissioner for the City of Baltimore.

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Concern has now prompted several states and municipalities, including some with Republican leaders, to implement a mask policy. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been seen in public with a face covering, has told all cities in his state that are reporting at least 20 cases to make masks mandatory. Heavily populated tourist areas including Myrtle Beach and Knoxville, Tenn., have also put similar policies in place.

No federal mandate exists in the United States to wear a mask; it is simply recommended by leading public health experts, including the surgeon general. That can muddy any effort to ensure public safety is a number one priority.

“Bottom line, this is not a confusing issue. We are in a pandemic. And if we want to prevent this pandemic and get people back to work and get kids back to school, people have to put their masks on,” said Bleich.

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© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Politics, pandemics and Russian aluminum: why Canada faces fresh U.S. tariffs – CTV News

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WASHINGTON —
Why the United States chose to taint the debut of North America’s celebrated new trade deal by threatening fresh tariffs against Canadian aluminum, only President Donald Trump and trade emissary Robert Lighthizer can say for sure.

But industry insiders point to a convergence of disparate factors: COVID-19, international metals arbitrage, presidential politics and $16.3-billion worth of the stuff from Russia, the world’s second-largest producer.

Aluminum is one of the elemental components of the Canada-U.S. trade relationship, a bond forged in the blast furnace of the American war effort. Experts say smelters on both sides of the border stand to benefit from the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which took effect Wednesday and imposes new requirements for regionally sourced metals.

Jean Simard, president and CEO of the Aluminum Association of Canada, is at a loss to understand why his industry is being targeted by the White House for the second time in two years. The U.S. has nowhere near the capacity to meet growing demand.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Simard said. “It’s like an oxymoron. It’s so contradictory to the spirit of USMCA.”

The answer may lie in how aluminum production works around the world, and how traders and marketers profit from it.

Because they traffic in white-hot liquid metal, aluminum smelters can’t simply shut down when demand for the product dries up, which is what happened to Canadian producers — who provide the bulk of the metal to U.S. markets — when the pandemic forced auto manufacturers to idle their assembly lines.

Smelters pivoted away from the specialized premium products demanded by the auto sector and instead produced the more generic primary aluminum known as P1020, shipping it to the only storage warehouses that are cost-effective, Simard said: facilities in the U.S., which is where the lion’s share of the North American aluminum market is located.

The ensuing “surge” in Canadian imports caught the attention of the U.S. trade representative’s office — or more specifically, the two U.S. producers that raised a red flag: Century Aluminum and Magnitude 7 Metals, which together comprise a Trump-friendly lobbying effort known as the American Primary Aluminum Association.

“The surge of Canadian metal has a caused the price to collapse and is endangering the future viability of the U.S. primary industry,” the association wrote to Lighthizer in May.

“Action — real action, not mere monitoring, and endless discussions in multinational fora — is needed now if the United States is to save what is left of its primary aluminum industry.”

A separate group — the Aluminum Association, which represents dozens of U.S. and international producers — disagrees, calling Canadian suppliers an integral element of the North American supply chain and a key component of the industry’s success.

Politics is undoubtedly a factor: two of Century’s four smelters are in Kentucky, while Magnitude 7 operates in Missouri, two states vital to Trump’s electoral fortunes.

“These are the states that keep campaign managers up at night,” said Gerald McDermott, an international business professor at the University of South Carolina.

A spokesman for the American Primary Aluminum Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Glencore Plc, a metals trader and producer based in Switzerland, holds a 47 per cent stake in Century. Magnitude 7, founded by a former Glencore aluminum trader, operates a single Missouri plant that won a new lease on life after Trump’s first round of tariffs in 2018, but which warned in February it was on the verge of shutting down.

And Glencore holds the exclusive rights to sell Russian-made aluminum in the U.S., having agreed in April to spend $16.3 billion over the next five years on up to 6.9 million tonnes of the metal from Rusal, the second-largest aluminum producer in the world.

Glencore is also a major player in the world of metals arbitrage — buying commodities at the lowest price possible, then shipping and storing them before selling on a futures contract in hopes of a higher price. The pandemic has fuelled a global collapse in the price of aluminum, Simard said, while the threat of tariffs has had the opposite effect.

“What do the traders do? They buy the metal at a very low price because the crisis is what brought you to pivot to this position, and they warehouse it when interest rates are very low because it’s a crisis,” Simard said.

“The key player over and above everybody else is Glencore.”

Rusal, once controlled by the Russian billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska, was subject to U.S. sanctions since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — sanctions that were lifted in January 2019 as part of an extensive restructuring that saw Deripaska relinquish control of the company. Glencore was involved, too, swapping shares in Rusal for a direct stake in its parent company, En+.

The USTR and the Trump administration “cannot be unaware of the corporate structure around Rusal and Glencore. I would doubt it very much,” said Simard.

A spokesman for Glencore declined to comment Friday.

The Canadian aluminum industry, the bulk of which is located in Quebec, owes its origins to soaring American demand for the metal in the months prior to the U.S. entry into the Second World War — a partnership that cemented Canada’s role in the continental military industrial base. Is the Trump administration trying to end that relationship?

“It’s worth raising the question,” Simard said.

Trump’s disdain for Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has long been an open secret — “Trudeau’s a ‘behind-your-back’ guy,” former national security adviser John Bolton’s explosive new book quotes the president saying — and with an uphill battle for re-election looming, he may be looking to score political points, McDermott said.

“Why is the Trump administration doing what it’s doing? The short answer is it’s in a free fall,” he said.

“It’s got to show that it’s doing something for these Midwestern manufacturing states, and that means getting tough with non-U.S. people. What better thing, then, to piss off the Canadians?”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 3, 2020.

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A massive repudiation of Trump’s racist politics is building – The Washington Post

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Those words seem prescient today, after four years of President Trump’s racism, from the “very fine people” marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville to, in just the past week, a “white power” retweet and a threat to veto defense spending to protect the names of Confederate generals; after a pandemic disproportionately ravaged African American communities while an indifferent president tried to move on; after Trump-allied demonstrators, some carrying firearms and Confederate flags, tried to “liberate” themselves from public health restrictions; after the video of George Floyd’s killing showed the world blatant police brutality; after Trump used federal firepower against peaceful civil rights demonstrators of all colors.

The reckoning Parker foresaw is now upon us. White women, disgusted by Trump’s cruelty, are abandoning him in large number. White liberals, stunned by the brazen racism, have taken to the streets. And signs point to African American turnout in November that will rival the record level of 2012, when Obama was on the ballot. This, by itself, would flip Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Democrats, an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress shows.

Surprisingly high Democratic turnout in recent contests in Wisconsin, Georgia, Kentucky and Colorado points to the possibility of a building wave. The various measures of Democratic enthusiasm suggest “turnout beyond anything we’ve seen since 1960,” University of North Carolina political scientist Marc Hetherington predicts. If so, that would mean a historic repudiation of Trump, who knows his hope of reelection depends on low turnout. He has warned that mail-in ballots and other attempts to encourage more voting would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”

That may not be wrong. Trump has accelerated a decades-old trend toward parties redefining themselves by race and racial attitudes. Racial resentment is now the single most important factor driving Republicans and Republican-leaning movers, according to extensive research, most recently by Nicholas Valentino and Kirill Zhirkov at the University of Michigan — more than religion, culture, class or ideology. An ongoing study by University of North Carolina researchers finds that racial resentment even drives hostility toward mask-wearing and social distancing. Conversely, racial liberalism now drives Democrats of all colors more than any other factor.

Consider just one yardstick, a standard question of racial attitudes in which people are asked to agree or disagree with this statement: “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

In 2012, 56 percent of white Republicans agreed with that statement, according to the American National Election Studies. The number grew in 2016 with Trump’s rise, to 59 percent. Last month, an astonishing 71 percent of white Republicans agreed, according to a YouGov poll written by Parker and conducted by GQR (where my wife is a partner).

The opposite movement among white Democrats is even more striking. In 2012, 38 percent agreed that African Americans didn’t try hard enough. In 2016, that dropped to 27 percent. And now? Just 13 percent.

To the extent Trump’s racist provocation is a strategy (rather than simply an instinct), it is a miscalculation. The electorate was more than 90 percent white when Richard Nixon deployed his Southern strategy; the proportion is now 70 percent white and shrinking. But more than that, Trump’s racism has alienated a large number of white people.

“For many white Americans, the things Trump is saying and getting away with, they just didn’t think they lived in a world where that could happen,” says Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist specializing in public opinion at the University of Michigan. Racist appeals in particular alienate white, college-educated women, and even some women without college degrees, he has found: “One of the best ways to exacerbate the gender gap isn’t to talk about gender but to talk about race.”

Trump’s racism has also emboldened white Democrats, who have often been on the losing end of racial politics since George H.W. Bush deployed Willie Horton against Michael Dukakis in 1988. “They’re embracing the racial issues they used to cower on in decades past,” Hetherington says.

This is what Parker had in mind when he wrote in 2016 that Trump could be “good for the United States.” The backlash Trump provoked among whites and nonwhites alike “could kick off a second Reconstruction,” Parker now thinks. “I know it sounds crazy, especially coming from a black man,” he says, but “I think Trump actually is one of the best things that’s happened in this country.”

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