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George Herriman’s mixed race and its influence in Krazy Kat

The “Don’t Touch My Comics” blog over on at the Times-Union has an interesting post about the mixed race heritage of Krazy Kat creator George Herriman. Apparently, his true race is somewhat of a mystery. His birth certificate says “colored” and his death certificate says “caucasian”. Many feel he spent his whole life trying to conceal his black heritage.

The interesting part of the issue is how his mixed race influenced his cartooning. In the same Times-Union blog post it explores episodes in Krazy Kat

Herriman introduced similar commentary into Krazy Kat. One gag, which ran during both the black and white and color eras, has Krazy going to a beauty shop and having his black fur died white. Ignatz (who usually hates Krazy and seeks to bean with him a brick, recall) is instantly smitten by the vision of the White Kat that emerges from the salon. It is only when he finds out the White Kat’s true identity that Ignatz reaches for his trusty brick. This is revealing. It suggests that Ignatz does not hate Krazy because he is a cat, but because he is a black cat. Similarly, Herriman employed a gag (again, in both the color and black and white periods of the strip) in which Ignatz falls into a stove-pipe and is turned black by the coal dust. When he throws his customary brick, Krazy is incensed. “A lil Eetiopium Mice, black like a month from midnights. Fuwi!” Krazy declares when he sees Ignatz in blackface. Again, Krazy only loves Ignatz when he is white.

Community Comments

#1 casey shaw
November/21/2008
@ 10:43 am

Mutts cartoonist Patrick McDonnell covered this topic quite well in his excellent book on Krazy Kat and George Herriman. Well worth the read, if you haven’t had a chance yet.

#2 Ted Dawson
November/21/2008
@ 10:49 am

I first read about this several years ago at Pioneering Cartoonists of Color.

http://www.clstoons.com/paoc/paocopen.htm

It’s estimated that about sixty percent of Americans have a colorful family history.

#3 J.G. Moore
November/21/2008
@ 10:50 am

He was a black man “passing” as white in America:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passing_(racial_identity)

Many blacks did and still do this because they want the benefits of being white. You can tell by Herriman’s use of slang and his drawing style that he is black.

When I was in art school (Herron Shool of Art) I could tell instantly if an artist was black, white or asian by looking at 5 or 6 of their pieces.

Before I even knew about Herriman’s background I knew he was black just from his work. I was also mad at him for hating himself. His work reeks of self hatred, as good as Krazy Kat is the strip is limited by this. Some of those Krazy Kat strips are essentially “minstrel shows.”

I like his work and think Krazy Kat is great. Herriman was one of the best artist to ever walk the earth. Krazy Kat would have been ten times better had Herriman been “braver” by being true to himself and not hiding who he was. Herriman could have been more than a great artist, he could have really helped shape people’s attitudes on race in America.

Look at Obama’s effect, now you have little girls and boys or all races thinking, “I can be POTUS!” Obama could not “hide” like Herriman did, but Obama was never trying to hide. Anytime you hide things you lie. Poor Herriman chose to live his entire life as a lie… sad. imho

#4 Beth Cravens
November/21/2008
@ 11:08 am

You have to consider the time period that Herriman lived in. He had to hide much the same as certain people have to hide today. Not much has changed, the prejudice has just shifted to other categories of people depending on the region you live in.

I think Herriman’s work does address his inner conflict about his mixed race. Krazy Kat to me has always been about love and hate which is how he likely felt about his mixed heritage.

George did the best he could with what he had and I’m glad he brought us Krazy Kat.

#5 CM Evans
November/21/2008
@ 12:46 pm

I’m always surprised about just how little I know about what I don’t know. As I get older, this feeling only gets magnified.

I heard an anecdote about a reporter, who asked Mahatma Gandhi for advice on how one should live a virtuous life. Gandhi replied, “Keep no secrets”. A simple ideal, but hard to achieve, due to time and circumstances. If only we could “Keep no secrets”!

#6 Ted Dawson
November/21/2008
@ 6:39 pm

An interesting note: There is more genetic diversity within any given ethnic group than between them, meaning there is no such thing as “race.”

#7 Susan Abe
November/22/2008
@ 4:42 am

My birth certificate says I’m white. The nurse filled it out looking at my mother when my father wasn’t in the room (and God knows Mom wasn’t putting her energy into proofreading).

I haven’t gotten over it yet, so I suppose it’s going to keep making me sick for the rest of my life.

#8 J.G. Moore
November/22/2008
@ 10:15 am

You’ll be fine Susan. Just “keep it real” and you’ll be fine.
The truth is you are both white and (your Dad’s race).

If your birth certificate says you are white then you are legally white. I came down on Herriman because he “dissed” his own race by trying to hide who he was, that is very bad on so many levels.

As long as you don’t hide who you are you will be fine. You don’t have to “wear who you are on your sleeve,” just “keep no secrets.” That Mahatma Gandhi was a smart kat. :-)

#9 Ted Dawson
November/22/2008
@ 11:01 am

If Herriman had been “black” there would have been no Krazy Kat.

Maybe Herriman wasn’t “dissing” one branch of his ethnicity, but just trying to be a human being.

Here are some photos of Herriman with his family.

http://ignatz.palmdrive.net/archives/pics/

He obviously, like most Americans, had a mixed heritage… Not mixed “races.” At least we are above the use of old terms like “octoroon,” but we still have a ways to go. And that includes the comics pages.

#10 Ted Dawson
November/22/2008
@ 11:11 am

Here’s another early photo of Herriman.

http://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bild:Herriman_1902.png&filetimestamp=20060822111121

#11 Antonio Diaz
November/23/2008
@ 11:28 am

I always thought that Herriman was a white person. I’m pretty sure that if he had been known to be a black man, in the period of our history in which he lived, Krazy Kat would have never become what it has become. Now that I know he was a black person makes me love krazy Kat even more. All the conflicts his characters were having are the things he must have been going throouh himself. Just like that other great comic Peanuts the characters are an extension of its creator.

#12 Antonio Diaz
November/23/2008
@ 11:33 am

Ted You’re are so right about us having a long way to go. Todays comic pages are made up of about 90% non-minority cartoonist.

#13 Dave Stephens
November/24/2008
@ 3:49 am

What’s really hilarious is that we are ALL black and we are ALL white and every color in-between…

I’m white, but put me in Africa. Wait 5,000 years or so – ta-dah! In that time, my ancestors would, by the God-given magic of natural selection, become black.

Or if you are black, take yourself to Finland, wait 5,000 years and your ancestors would become white…

Hilarious how the amount of melanin anyone has determines anything of consequence, but that’s how lots of people want it…

If I lived in a time when purple people made the rules and shot and lynched green folks often, I’d find some purple paint FAST!

Anyways, I have no doubt when you look far enough back in anyone’s DNA, you’ll find every color represented. That would make all racists to be haters of themselves, first and foremost. LOL

#14 Mike Lester
November/24/2008
@ 9:10 am

“Todays comic pages are made up of about 90% non-minority cartoonist.”- Mr. Diaz

So, lets’ apply affirmative action to the comics? Brilliant!!

The depths social engineers plumb has reached bottom yet they keep on digging. 80.1% of America is white (U.S.CENSUS) They don’t seem to concerned about quotas in the NBA. Nor should they. Newsflash: white guilt is dead. Welcome to AMERITOCRACY.

#15 Ted Dawson
November/24/2008
@ 9:44 am

“That would make all racists to be haters of themselves, first and foremost.” Well put, Dave. A recent U.K. study puts racists in the same psychological category as pedophiles, extreme bullies and corporate CEOs. Sociopaths.

There is one of those Forward-to-Everyone-You-Know e-mails circulating that starts out “I’m white and I’m not a racist, but…” and is one of the most ignorant and mean-spirited things I’ve read. “White guilt” has always been dead in certain Americans, due either to ignorance or sociopathy. Sometimes I think the only difference between Herriman’s time and ours is that racists have to be more careful.

Mike, you seemed to have missed the point, and didn’t bother to address the issue of the low number of minorities in comic strips, and probably editorial cartooning as well.

#16 Wiley Miller
November/24/2008
@ 11:34 am

â??Todays comic pages are made up of about 90% non-minority cartoonist.â?

Therefore… what? Is there a point to be made here? If so, perhaps someone could spell it out for the rest of us who are trying to figure out what relevance that has to anything.

#17 Mike Witmer
November/24/2008
@ 11:35 am

I think it’s sad that we still have to have this discussion. Even sadder to think of what talent (and not just in cartooning) we’ve missed over the last decade because of junk like this.

#18 Mike Lester
November/24/2008
@ 11:54 am

No relevance whatsoever. Didn’t vote for him but the best man won the election and thus ushered in a new and long awaited age of fairness. An age Herriman could only image.

#19 Rick Stromoski
November/24/2008
@ 12:48 pm

>>>Now that I know he was a black person makes me love krazy Kat even more.

To like or dislike someones work predicated on the color of the artists skin is blatantly racist and pathetically condescending.

#20 Wiley Miller
November/24/2008
@ 1:38 pm

“Even sadder to think of what talent (and not just in cartooning) weâ??ve missed over the last decade because of junk like this.”

Maybe I’m really dense or just plain ignorant… ok, there’s no maybe about it… but just what does that mean? What talent has been missed over the past decade, and over junk like what?

Are you intimating that there are cartoonists whose work has been passed over by syndicates because they’re not caucasian males?

#21 mike witmer
November/24/2008
@ 2:19 pm

Yeah, you’re dense…lol.

What I meant was, “How many potentially great artists, musicians, sports figures, etc, got smothered and hammered and pushed down just because of the color of their skin?”

#22 mike witmer
November/24/2008
@ 2:21 pm

…and I mean over the span of the last century.

#23 Wiley Miller
November/24/2008
@ 2:40 pm

Oh, ok. That’s what confused me. You said over the past decade in your post and I couldn’t figure out who or what you were talking about.

#24 Phil Wohlrab
November/24/2008
@ 4:06 pm

“Didnâ??t vote for him but the best man won the election and thus ushered in a new and long awaited age of fairness. An age Herriman could only image.”

Same here. I was happy he won because, A: he deserved to win, B: his election ment so much to so many people and C: I was never thrilled with McCain to begin with.

#25 Antonio Diaz
November/24/2008
@ 8:51 pm

When I said, Now that I know he was a black person makes me love krazy Kat even more, I wasn’t just referring to the color of Herrimen’s skin, but to the struggles as a human being of color in the era in which he lived. The things that make a great artist are life experiences. That’s why I said <<<Now that I know he was a black person makes me love krazy Kat even more. <<<For all you racists out there.

#26 Monty Rohde
November/30/2008
@ 9:42 am

From a medical and anatomical standpoint race does exist. It should not be a social consideration, but there is relevance to the concept.

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