Pre-Boomerang/Cartoon Network, when there were only three major networks (CBS, NBC and ABC), part of the television ritual for kids during the 1970s was Saturday morning cartoons. Indeed, while I could sleep like a rock on school day mornings, ignoring both the alarm and my mother’s high-pitched screams, on Saturday mornings I was up at dawn, transfixed in front of the boob tube.
Of course I had no idea that the cartoon racket was merely set up to sell kids sugary cereals and cheap toys, because I was too busy having misadventures with the Wacky Racers, roaming through haunted houses with Scooby-Doo and bopping to the cool Henry Mancini music on The Pink Panther.
While in my 1960s childhood, most of the human characters were still White (with the exception of a few racist Warner Bros. shorts), an absolute revelation occurred in Toontown by 1970. After the demonstrations, riots and deaths of the civil-rights era, surprisingly one the first fertile grounds of that mixed integration and imagination was found in animation programming.
With Fat Albert, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Jackson 5 and Valerie Brown from Josie and the Pussycats broadcast into our lives on a weekly basis, we were watching a revolution without realizing it.
“These cartoons changed the lives of a generation of children,” says Museum of UnCut Funk co-curator Pamela Thomas. Along with her business partner Loreen Williamson, she began collecting animation cels (the transparent sheets on which objects were drawn or painted for animation in the days before computers) to add to their collection of Black memorabilia that includes blaxploitation posters, comic books and advertising art. “We feel these cartoons are national treasures, and it’s up to us to get the word out.”
Opening February 5 at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Thomas and Williamson’s much anticipated animation exhibit—The Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution—includes 60 pieces of animation art from their Museum Of UnCut Funk collection. A fun, colorful, nostalgic experience culturally and historically relevant for the Black community, the show will also appeal to a broader audience who takes this brand of pop culture seriously. The show closes in mid June.
Williamson, who started buying cels in the ’90s, cites The Jackson 5ive as one of her passions from back in the day. “Like most kids, Bugs Bunny was an early joy, with Chuck Jones being my favorite animator,” she says. “But the Jackson 5 was something else altogether. I had their posters on my wall. I was in love.”
Owning one of the world's most extensive collections of 1970s Black animation art, the UnCut Funk exhibition focuses on one of the positive outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement, a story that to this point has not been told. “Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert was another important milestone,” Pamela Thomas says. “Many people don’t understand the dynamics of what he did with that show in terms of the heavy messages and powerful stories he presented each week. That show was very important.”
While Cosby and the Jackson 5 are represented in the show, other characters of color on display include Billy Jo Jive (a Black kid detective from Sesame Street), Franklin from the Charlie Brown movies, Verb from Schoolhouse Rock and Astrea of NBC’s Space Sentinels, the first Black female superhero character on a Saturday morning cartoon series.
As collectors, Thomas and Williamson have learned to be patient as they search for the perfect piece. “It took us three months to get a cel of Franklin,” Thomas says. Still, even after waiting, the price to obtain a quality piece can be rather steep. “When we started collecting, we could find the cels for $600 or $700. Today, prices are in the thousands.”
While some might have trouble equating the material in this show with “real art,” these images are as important to the legacy of Black pop culture as Octavia Butler novels, Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, the music of Sly Stone and Pam Grier movies. “It is important for us to collect and archive this work,” Thomas adds. “Otherwise, it disappears into collections that the public has no excess to and no one ever sees them.”
Determined that The Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution be seen, the show will be travelling to the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago (July 13-October 20, 2014) and the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, Washington.
That’s all folks…
For more information, go to TheMuseumOfUncutFunk.com.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.