Nothing captivates young minds more than cartoons. Some of the most memorable pieces of advice I’ve received in my life has come from the 2D lips of girls, boys, talking animals, friendly aliens and animated toys. Like most children, I loved letting my mind hop from one 20-minute-long animated dreamscape to the next.
As a little black girl, I had secretly accepted that these cartoon worlds were just not intended for someone who looked like me. There was a chance that Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network or Disney Chanel would graciously bless me with black female cartoon characters, even if she was just a one episode wonder.
But this joy was hollow. These characters felt familiar yet foreign to me. I remember having running questions at the back of my mind during binge watching sessions. “Does Orange flavoured Kool-Aid taste like Oros?” and “Aren’t NikNaks and Cheetos the same diff?” I was a kid who desperately wanted to have a taste of what she saw. I desperately wanted to associate myself with the brown skinned cartoon characters I saw.
I had mistaken African-American blackness as the only blackness. I tried to assimilate to it while ignoring all the richness of my black South African cultural identity. I was subconsciously studying my butt off, I made sure to never miss the shows that featured black characters. I wanted to be the best ‘African-African-American’ I could be. But this self-denial was okay because the other black children were doing it too.
Our playground discussions and games divided us: those who had access to DSTV (with every kids channel imaginable) and those who watched whatever cartoons available on SABC (South Africa’s national broadcast station). Being a DSTV child, I had 24 hour access to the cartoon shows that influenced our young identities. During playground games we appropriated accents, vernacular, and mannerisms because this is what all black people do, right?
In retrospect, I understand that I wasn’t looking for cartoons to exactly replicate my life because that would’ve defeated the purpose of stimulating our imaginations. What I was searching for was validation. I felt inauthentic as a black child when I compared myself to this singular and narrow conception of blackness that lived on my television screen.
This idea of an one-size-fits-all sense of blackness is supported by the limited pool of black voice actors that are given these types of animation opportunities. Cree Summer is an iconic African-American voice actress, or at least iconic to my ears, because she has gifted her talent voice to bring hundreds of animated characters to life. What stands out to me is that every black or brown female cartoon character that I can think of on the top of my head has been voiced by her.
Susie Carmichael from Rugrats (source)
Even though sweet little Susie Carmichael’s role was minor in the series, I appreciated the character’s well-adjusted attitude because of her positive personality. She was a pleasant, clever and generous girl who I wanted to both be and befriend.
Numbuh 5/ Abigail “Abby” Lincoln from Codename: Kids Next Door (source)
The most mellow character of my childhood has to be Numbuh 5. She exuded comfortable confidence with her base-like voice, cool kid style consisting of over-sized shirt, sneakers and flat-cap. Numbuh 5 was the mature voice of reason in the Kids Next Door gang.
Miranda Killgallen from As Told By Ginger (source)
One of the first unfriendly black hottie to grace the scene was Miranda. She had the facade of the intimidating, sarcastic sidekick to the ditsy high school ‘it-girl’. Granted, Miranda was not the best role-model for little girls but she was popular and pretty which are redeeming factors according to tween cartoons.
Although, they are different characters, the single voiced-ness reinforced the idea that there is uniformity to blackness. We all sound like this! It was an indirect ultimatum: adopt ebonics that is specific to African-American culture or simply don’t speak, black child. In South Africa, people who speak with a learned American or British accent are mocked for speaking with a ‘twang’. Perhaps, I was very impressionable but I internalised ‘twang’ so deeply because my accent is misleading.
If I wasn’t like that kind of black, was I even black at all?
As a kid, I didn’t realise that I was experiencing an existential crisis. I was caught between an ideal and my reality. I attempted to emulate a mediated American blackness vs. participating in an under-documented yet undeniable African blackness. Ironically, I was striving for a misrepresentation of the African-American experience because these black cartoon characters were loaded with damaging stereotypes.
I loved these melanin rich characters but I noticed that they were written as difficult to love. My love for these these animated role models endured despite their problematic characterisation. They were called ‘sassy’ which is code for annoying, stubborn, sarcastic, overpowering, mean-spirited and intimidating. As a young African child, I blindly consumed and reproduced these stereotypes while unintentionally erasing myself in the process.