Black artist reclaims racist cartoons for identity, white supremacy discussion
Cartoons and comics are just fun, right — funny little characters getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Andre Ramos-Woodard grew up loving cartoon characters and photography. While he was in graduate school at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque studying photography, he researched the history of American cartoons as way to combine his passions.
“I wanted to look at it through an African American lens as an African American,” he said. “Googling ‘African American’ plus the words ‘comic,’ ‘history,’ or the words ‘comics in history,’ quickly popped up a bunch of minstrel characters or racist caricatures because they are tied to America’s history.”
Ramos-Woodard said he was surprised and realized society has not reconciled with these images.
“A lot of them have been swept under the rug and pretended like they didn’t exist and perpetuate negative stereotypes in pop culture today,” he said.
The result of his research was the exhibition “Black Snafu.” Ramos-Woodard said he wanted images that were more indicative of the Black experience to pay homage to the reality of Black people.
“But I also wanted to juxtapose those with these illustrations that I knew were made by white supremacists, or at the very least racists in our American history, to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Black people at the very least, and people of color at a bigger scale,” he said. “My plan was to use images that were more celebratory, to fight against these caricatures that I’ve reclaimed. I’m using these caricatures to not only talk about identity, but also to talk about the negative hand that white supremacy and racism has had in the history of identity in our country.”
The cartoon characters are attractive and fun, which tends to hide the original intention, he said.
“I come to art through anime and comics, and a lot of things that are just, kind of, nerdy or can be reached by young adults or kids,” he said. “I recognize that these comic characters that are racist, they’re cute and they’re funny and they’re fantastical. They are accessible and they draw you in, because kids are attracted towards these fun, quirky things.”
Ramos-Woodard pointed at an image that incorporates an early rendering of Mickey Mouse, pointing out that the white gloves have their roots in vaudeville minstrel shows. He has juxtaposed the mouse with an image that represents Black people’s hair in a negative way.
“They didn’t have to say that, because those ingrained negativities were just part of part of it,” he said. “But just because something is cute and accessible and funny, like Aunt Jemima’s pancakes, doesn’t mean they don’t perpetuate negativities in our culture, that it becomes subconsciously ingrained. I’m trying to push characters that are, not forgotten by any means, but have been hidden in various ways.”
It is important that people talk about issues of social justice and discrimination, Ramos-Woodard said, but he has problems with idea of cancel culture. As a Black and queer person, he said he recognizes there are communities that do not share the same societal privileges white and heterosexuals and he advocates for camaraderie and solidarity across all groups of people.
As part of the installation “Black Snafu,” Ramos-Woodard wrote a quote on the wall by Huey P. Newton: “I do not expect the white media to create positive Black male images.” Ramos-Woodard crossed through the words “not” and “male.”
“I don’t agree with that anymore,” he said. “I think that that quote is really, really important and I understand where he’s coming from. Someone who doesn’t physically embody a specific identity can’t possibly fathom all of the repercussions and negativities that correlate with it. That being said, that doesn’t mean that we can just pretend the right people can’t help us.”
The works in “Black Snafu” offer an opportunity for dialogue, but Ramos-Woodard is committed to building bridges of understanding across all social groups. If he hears of an opportunity that he thinks could work for another artist, he looks for ways to include them.
“It is not even about social justice,” he said. “If I have an opportunity that I feel is indicative of you, or I feel like it’s something that we can do together, or we can compete against each other for, you best believe I’m going to send it to you because I like we have solidarity in that way. That can be transferred to all relationships, especially those that have to do with overcoming negativity and overcoming discrimination.”
Ramos-Woodard’s work is not simply photography. He incorporated found images, texts and even a flag into the “Black Snafu” collection. Some have questioned whether it is strictly photography, whether there is “too much media going on,” he said. His response, apart from citing his academic qualifications, is to say that the images were taken by his hand and his camera.
“I’m not just a photographer making pictures — I’m a Black photographer making pictures about Black identity,” he said. “These pictures are absolutely me thinking about how I can correlate my relationships with my Blackness, through a photographic lens through the medium of photography. If anyone were to fight me on that, I’d be like, ‘Well, at the very least, I know that these images are made by my Black-ass body. That’s not going to go away whether they like it or not.”
Ramos-Woodard spends most of the time talking about his art with a smile on his face, but he bristles when he hears people ask how the found images can be indicative of his identity if he is taking them from somebody else?
“Well, white racist people made caricatures of Black, brown, Italian, Irish, Jewish people that were not correlated with their identity,” he said. “So, what does it mean for me as a person who these characters have hurt the longevity of my identity? At least my ancestors and my people? What does it mean when I’m just taking them to reclaim them and talk about the fact that they have hurt my people? Yeah, I’m stealing, but I’m stealing them because I want to steal them and talk about why I need to steal them and what it means for me to steal them with my body. It’s just inevitably different when it’s a white person takes this caricature and puts it in a work. What does that mean? It’s just going to mean something different when I’m reclaiming it for these uses.”
A favorite piece in the show, “DR!P,” incorporates the Black character Gerald from the popular Nickelodeon cartoon “Hey Arnold.” Gerald is wearing a crown. The large head is superimposed over a wallpaper-like background which features the white characters Arnold and Helga. Two Black hands reach across the top in a handshake. When one looks closer at the background, one sees Ramos-Woodard has changed the white characters to various shades of black and brown.
Growing up, there were only a few cartoons where the family was predominantly Black, he said.
“You’re seeing a lot more of that now, thankfully, like Asian, and just BIPOC people in general, and even queer and trans people in cartoons, but I didn’t see that like growing up,” he said. “So, I wanted to recreate the dynamic of an overtly African American celebration.”
The photograph “BL!NG” is a celebration of gold and jewelry’s relationship to hip-hop and Black culture. Superimposed over the image is a character from “The Censored 11,” a group of Looney Tune and Merry Melodies cartoons which were withdrawn from syndication in 1968 as their use of racial stereotypes were considered too offensive for modern audiences.
“They were like, ‘Hey, Black people decided that they don’t want us to be racist to them anymore, so maybe we should get rid of the cartoons as well,” Ramos-Woodard said.
“authenticity (2 CHAINZ)” is personal, as it features his mother’s hands, held as if in prayer, with two bracelets wrapped around them featuring the words “Cultural” and “Experience.” He created it after a period where, he said, he was sick of men’s roles and found himself annoyed by the minstrels.
“I wanted to find different ways to celebrate Black authenticity,” he said. “I was thinking more about jewelry, but also the fact that so many rappers of all races wear a lot of jewelry. I don’t know what it means other than to showcase their glamour and showcase that they are on the come up or have made it in various ways. I know that Black people did that because (for) the first time they had money and access to these things that were being showed to them.
“But I also recognize that that in itself has a predominant place in pop culture, especially music and hip hop. There is a look that is related to rappers and, sometimes it’s, unfortunately, discriminatory and stereotypical. But in reality, chains, baggy clothes — that’s just fashion. And that has been influenced by Black people from the beginning of hip hop and rap.
“I love fashion and I think people of all different backgrounds need to continue to be inspired by others, obviously without appropriating, as long as they know what the origins come from, as long as they know the history, especially the histories related to a marginalized community.”
This story first ran in the Feb. 19, 2023 Black History Month special section of the Beaumont Enterprise.