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The Messy Politics of Black Voices—and “Black Voice”—in American Animation
June 30, 2020
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.
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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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