Book recognizes talents of first black female cartoonist

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'Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist'
By Nancy Goldstein
The University of Michigan Press ($35)

During the past two decades, there have been a slew of books about baseball's "Negro Leagues," a very real part of our history that previously had been swept under the rug of both scholarly examination and popular culture.

Now, thanks to much historical detective work and skillful writing, the great names of that era -- Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and others -- have started to take their rightful place alongside the Major League icons, Babe Ruth and company, in terms of public awareness.

But such uncovered gold mines of important African-American history raise the question: What other treasure troves are yet to be unearthed?

At least one answer is provided by Nancy Goldstein in her groundbreaking new book. More than just a biography, this monumental homage pulls together for the first time pages and pages of reproductions from Jackie Ormes, an original American cartoonist, active from the mid 1930s through the mid-'50s.

She was important in the culture of pre-1960s segregated journalism but is almost completely neglected in the broader context of American cartoon history.

While focusing on the impressive life and imaginary characters of this one woman, Goldstein evokes a time when certain African-American newspapers, such as Pittsburgh's Courier and Chicago's Defender, flourished, showcasing the talents of many fine cartoonists, reporters and columnists.

Ormes was a woman of a solidly middle-class background, having grown up in the integrated town of Monongahela, south of Pittsburgh, acquiring access to an upper-middle-class lifestyle during adulthood. She became a reporter and a cartoonist, alternately making her living more from one pursuit than the other. She also was one industrious entrepreneur, with her fingers in such various other pies as fashion design, doll-making, modeling and political activism, and it is Ormes' politics that quickly become the centerpiece of Goldstein's book.

There is a rich tradition of expressing subversive political sentiments in the seemingly harmless format of the cartoon -- a cartoonist can get away with things that a writer can't, and Ormes got away with plenty.

During the McCarthy era, she repeatedly took playful jabs in her cartoons at the House Un-American Activities Committee. Delivered with much humor and gusto, the barbs were often spoken by an adorable little girl named Patty-Jo, who always had a way of summing up all that her older, more fashionable sister, Ginger, remained silent about while expressing a look of utter shock that her little sister could say such a thing as:

"It would be interestin' to discover WHICH committee decided it was un-American to be COLORED!"

Not surprisingly, Ormes was under investigation by the FBI for 10 years. Surprisingly, though, it was not because of her cartoons but because of the company she kept. During the 1950s, there was some overlap between the civil rights movement and American communist groups.

Ormes openly admitted to the investigators that she had attended "meetings," but she never claimed to be a communist and was never indicted. Most of her political activism centered around raising awareness and money for polio research and for ending the environmental racism found in certain parts of Chicago, where she lived most of her adult life.

She often used her cartoons to directly appeal on behalf of The March of Dimes or to address the injustice of segregation and American foreign policy.

Ormes derived much of her aesthetic from the need to present African Americans (and most often, women) with dignity and style, avoiding all the offensive cultural stereotypes most often found in other cartoons of the era, even ones by other African Americans.

Her characters speak without dialect and, like their creator, are quite articulate and witty. They wear the most fashionable clothes of the era and often appear in the swankiest of settings. Being a sassy, sophisticated and utterly urbane woman herself, mingling with the likes of Duke Ellington and Eartha Kitt, creating such a world was not a stretch for Ormes.

She often used her own quite charming and beautiful form as the model for her main characters such as Ginger and Torchy Brown, who are downright glamorous -- in such a manner not before seen in graphic art depictions of African-American women.

Goldstein's most joyous accomplishment is in having presented a portrait here of a subtle revolutionary of a bygone era. Ormes was a woman who broke into what was then the mostly male world of journalism, carving out a unique niche for herself and her self-respecting, outspoken characters with such verve and delicacy as to slip beneath the radar of censorship or outright dismissal.

Of course, until now, Ormes had slipped beneath the radar of American history as well, an omission that Goldberg has thankfully remedied in this remarkably thorough and loving tribute.

Let's hope her book will open the door to more such big digs into the lost mines of pre-integration journalism.

Jonah Winter, a Pittsburgh resident, is the author of "Steel Town," an illustrated children's book. First Published August 19, 2008 4:00 AM


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