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.”