Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals
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.”