Growing up in the ‘70s, Loreen Williamson and Pamela Thomas always spent Saturday mornings watching their favorite cartoons—the “Jackson 5ive” and “Josie and the Pussycats.”
At that time, those were just two of a small handful of cartoons that featured positive black characters that the girls looked up to.
The cartoons they watched as children stayed with them through adulthood, and they both began collecting memorabilia from those beloved shows, including hundreds of drawings and cels used in the animation and filming process. Eventually meeting over shared interests, Williamson and Thomas created the virtual Museum of UnCut Funk in 2007, an online showcase for original animation cels, posters, storyboards and other objects celebrating black culture of the 1970s.
That “funk” which inspired the two women so much in their childhood would eventually lead to a traveling exhibition, “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution,” which opens this week at the Pensacola Museum of Art.
The exhibit, co-curated by Williamson and Thomas, will feature memorabilia from 24 animated productions, including Saturday morning and after-school cartoons and animated feature films that featured positive black characters in the ‘70s.
Who would have thought that a rather large, albeit civic-minded, character on Saturday morning cartoons in the ‘70s would have such an impact today? Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, premiering in 1972 and ending in 1984, was the longest-running positive black cast Saturday morning cartoon series.
“Thomas and Williamson are cartoon aficionados, and ‘Funky Turns 40′ commemorates the 40th anniversaries of popular ‘70s Saturday morning cartoons that featured positive and realistic black characters for the first time in television history,” the Museum of Uncut Funk’s website said. “Fueled by the civil rights movement and the overwhelming success of black musicians and athletes during the period, television producers began to explore projects with a wide, multicultural appeal.”
The museum’s website said that shows like “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” paved the way for other black characters and shows featuring music icons, sports heroes and multicultural casts such as “The Jackson 5ive,” “Josie and the Pussy Cats,” “The Harlem Globetrotters” and “I Am The Greatest” featuring Muhammad Ali.
Shows like “Hardy Boys” and “Super Friends,” which previously had overtly white casts, began to introduce positive black characters who worked side-by-side with their white counterparts.
“These shows helped empower a generation of children with cartoon role models who promoted family values, education, friendship, civic duty, personal responsibility and sportsmanship in fun, vibrant bursts of animation,” the museum’s website said. “Forty years later, the legacy of these cartoons pioneered the way for a new generation of black animation like “The Proud Family,” “Little Bill,” “Static Shock,” “Fillmore” and “Doc McStuffins.”
From 1900 to 1960, over 600 cartoon shorts featuring black characters were produced by some of Hollywood’s greatest white animators and biggest film studios. These film shorts portrayed blacks in a racially derogatory and stereotypical manner with exaggerated features and ignorant dialect. In the 1950’s, several of these racist cartoons were shown on television. As a result of the Civil Rights Movement, in the 1960’s the racial content of many of these cartoons was edited out or the cartoons were pulled from television altogether.
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Saturday morning television cartoons started to feature image-affirming black animated characters with a modern look and positive story lines that delivered culturally-relevant messages. For the first time, black people like Bill Cosby and Berry Gordy led development of animated television programming featuring black characters, from concept through to art creation and production.
For the first time, black children saw cartoon characters that looked, talked and acted more realistically like them, such as Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. For the first time, black children had cartoon role models who taught positive messages. Also for the first time, cartoons featured strong black female characters and multicultural casts.
“Black History Month is a time of celebration and an opportunity to highlight unique African-American contributions to art history,” Pensacola Museum of Art Director of Curatorial Affairs Alexis Leader said. “The Museum annually honors these artistic achievements through exhibitions and exhibition-related programming. ‘Funky Turns 40’ commemorates the first positive black animation characters in television history.”
A self-professed “star child” of the ‘70s, Thomas said that these cartoons are national treasures, as “they were seen by a generation of children and not only changed the way that black kids saw themselves, but the way white kids saw them, as well.”
Leader said that to date, the exhibit has been viewed by over 100,000 people to an overwhelmingly positive response and the family-friendly and interactive exhibit has broad appeal while remaining culturally and historically relevant.
“The nostalgia in this exhibit is particularly high,” Leader said. “Viewers will rediscover old friends from their Saturday morning cartoons, and new fans will be created. Visitors will be able to tour 60 pieces of original animation artwork, view cartoon clips, create their own original characters at the ‘animation station’ and pose for a photo as one of the Jackson 5ive.”
Leader said that the cartoons on exhibit paved the way for black characters on television, and it certainly comes through in the exhibit.
“Animation is an engaging and universally-beloved medium,” Leader said. “This exhibit utilizes that draw to highlight a unique and eye-opening element of black history within both art and pop culture.”
FUNKY TURNS 40: BLACK CHARACTER REVOLUTION
WHAT: An Exhibit from the Museum of UnCut Funk Collection
WHEN: On display Feb. 23- April 9; Opening Reception 5:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 26
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: $5—$7, Opening Reception is free and open to public