Our Gang: A Racial His­tory of the Lit­tle Ras­cals

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Casey Sanchez by Ju­lia Lee, Univer­sity of

Thanks to YouTube, The Lit­tle Ras­cals shorts that were first recorded on silent film in the early 1920s may soon be en­ter­ing their se­cond cen­tury of fame. Orig­i­nally known as Our Gang, the se­ries was as en­joy­able for the slap­stick com­edy of its child ac­tors as it was for paint­ing a pic­ture of Amer­i­can child­hood rarely ex­pe­ri­enced at the time — black and white chil­dren play­ing to­gether as friends.

How this show about child­hood foibles man­aged to leapfrog cul­tural taboos while of­ten re­in­forc­ing racial stereo­types is the sub­ject of an en­gag­ing new book by Ju­lia Lee, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Ne­vada at Las Ve­gas. As the daugh­ter of Korean im­mi­grants, her fas­ci­na­tion with this show be­gan when she was a child in the late 1970s, watch­ing the black-and-white re­runs on TV. Like many other kids of that era, she had no idea that the film shorts were al­ready a half-cen­tury old, or that the show’s im­ages of kids of dif­fer­ent races am­i­ca­bly get­ting along were pure fan­tasy when th­ese films were made from the early 1920s through the mid-1940s.

At the silent-film pre­miere of the se­ries in 1922, mem­ber­ship in the Ku Klux Klan num­bered well into the mil­lions. Jim Crow re­stric­tions were so com­mon that Hal Roach, the show’s cre­ator and di­rec­tor, of­ten strug­gled to find South­ern Cal­i­for­nia ho­tels that would house both black and white mem­bers of the show, even as the troupe had be­come na­tion­ally fa­mous. In most the­aters, African-Amer­i­cans who wished to view th­ese films were forced to watch them from a dis­tant blacks-only bal­cony.

It is against this cul­tural back­drop that Lee fo­cuses her book on the stu­dio and life ex­pe­ri­ences of the se­ries’ four African-Amer­i­can ac­tors — Bil­lie Thomas (Buck­wheat), Allen Hoskins ( Lit­tle Fa­rina), Matthew Beard (St y mie), and Ernie Mor­ri­son (Sun­shine Sammy). On screen, their roles of­ten re­quired th­ese ac­tors to de­liver un­sa­vory ren­di­tions of racial stereo­types. Buck­wheat had un­kempt hair and slurred speech, and Lit­tle Fa­rina, a boy, was forced to wear girls’ clothes and pig­tails to play the “lit­tle sis­ter” to Sun­shine Sammy, who of­ten played a watermelon-eat­ing “pick­aninny.” (Mor­ri­son ac­tu­ally starred in a fea­ture film called The Pick­aninny, di­rected by Roach.)

De­spite the stereo­types run amok in this show, many black ac­tivists in the 1930s were en­thu­si­as­tic about its black child cast mem­bers, as they pro­vided a ve­hi­cle for African-Amer­i­can ad­vance­ment and wide­spread recog­ni­tion. In an amaz­ing archival dis­cov­ery, Lee re­veals that the lead­ing African-Amer­i­can in­tel­lec­tual of the era, W.E.B. DuBois, had his pic­ture taken with Sun­shine Sammy and pub­lished the im­ages in his ac­tivist news­pa­per, The Cri­sis.

Later gen­er­a­tions of 1960s civil-rights ac­tivists would dis­tance them­selves from the show, view­ing it as a ret­ro­grade throw­back to ear­lier Jim Crow- era con­ven­tions. In our own time, Lee ar­gues that the show should be ap­pre­ci­ated for its path­break­ing, if ul­ti­mately un­ten­able, jug­gling act of pro­vid­ing im­ages of utopian child­hood racial equal­ity while de­liv­er­ing its slap­stick jokes through the dis­torted racial car­i­ca­tures of its day. “Even as it re­flected the na­tion’s racist her­itage, Our Gang had al­ways of­fered an ide­al­ized, hope­ful vi­sion of the na­tion’s fu­ture,” Lee writes. “It rep­re­sented both the best and worst part of the na­tion’s tor­tured re­la­tion­ship to race, it tapped into a deep vein of nos­tal­gia for the in­no­cence of child­hood, and imag­ined a space where black and white chil­dren could join hands.”

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