“Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives,” running through January 2015 at the Museum of Science and Industry, keeps the racist skeletons securely stowed in Walt’s vault. As the show charts the Mouse House’s technical advancements, the content omissions are numerous: a blackface production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933); the Japanese caricatures of Commando Duck (1944); Song of the South (1946), a musical deemed so insensitive it’s never been released on home video; Ariel’s dutiful Caribbean stereotype sidekick Sebastian in The Little Mermaid (1989); the Arab burlesque of Aladdin (1992).
Less than two miles west of the MSI, a very different animation history is on display at the DuSable Museum in “Funky Turns 40,” a traveling exhibit about the breakthrough of positive black characters in 1970s cartoons. In the wake of the civil rights movement, Afro-centric ‘toons and shows with integrated casts—and increasingly integrated art departments—responded indirectly to decades of offensive portrayals by Disney and other companies. This era is represented by dozens of original production cels and drawings: Peter Jones of The Hardy Boys (the earliest black Saturday morning star), moments from Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (which featured the pioneering black cartoon ensemble), Valerie Brown of Josie and the Pussycats (the first regularly appearing animated African-American female character), Schoolhouse Rock‘s Verb and Space Sentinels‘ Astrea (the first black male and female ‘toon superheros, respectively).
“I saw these images on TV and realized it was OK to be black,” recalls Pamela Thomas, who curated the show with Loreen Williamson. Together they run the Museum of UnCut Funk, an online gallery of African American cultural artifacts. “I have to believe a generation of black children had the same experience.”
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the correct title of Song of the South.