Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution takes viewers on a tour of the cartoons and animations of the 1970s that were among the first to present positive black characters. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which grew out of comedian Bill Cosby's stand-up routine, was the first cartoon with a positive black cast.

The Brown Hornet from The New Fat Albert Show.

"Number One Super Guy" Hong Kong Phooey was the first black male superhero character in a Saturday morning cartoon series. The alter ego of mild-mannered police janitor Penrod "Penry" Pooch, Hong Kong Phooey used Chinese martial arts to fight crime.

The first cartoon to positively feature a Black sports team, The Harlem Globetrotters aired six years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act--only two years after racist cartoon shorts featuring derogatory depictions of black characters were banned from television syndication.

When it aired in 1969, The Hardy Boys was the first cartoon series to feature a positive black male character--the band's drummer, Peter Jones.

The Jackson 5ive aired in 1971. Here's Michael and other band members in silhouette in a famous dance sequence.

A production cel from I Am the Greatest, which aired in 1977, featuring Muhammad Ali.

Our Friend Martin, a 1999 children’s educational film about Martin Luther King Jr. and the American Civil Rights movement, features two friends traveling through time, meeting Dr. King at several points during his life.

Valerie Brown of Josie and the Pussycats, which aired in 1970, was the first positive black female cast member in a Saturday morning cartoon series.

Astrea, of Space Sentinels, was the first black female superhero in a cartoon.

The Soul Train, a black music show hosted by Don Cornelius, ran for 35 years in syndication.

Franklin Armstrong playing the drums in Peanuts, 1973.

Micro Woman and Super Stretch, from Tarzan and the Super 7, 1979.

Lt. Uhura, from Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Part of the Grammar Rock series, Verb was the first black male
superhero character featured in a cartoon. Verb's theme song, "That's What's Happenin'," parodied Shaft and other Blaxploitation films, while teaching kids about verbs.

Co.Design

How Fat Albert Helped Change Cartoons Forever

For decades, black cartoon characters were mostly reduced to racist caricatures. A new exhibition shows how all that changed with a 1970s cartoon revolution.

Fat Albert, Schoolhouse Rock, The Harlem Globetrotters: with their retro animation styles, these 1970s cartoons seem dated now, but in their time, they were groundbreaking. Before the 1960s, black characters in cartoons were uniformly reduced to racist caricatures--the more than 600 cartoon shorts featuring black characters from 1900 to 1960 were basically animated minstrel shows. But with the Civil Rights Movement came Saturday morning cartoons that featured black animated characters in a more positive light.

Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution, a new exhibit from the Museum of Uncut Funk at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, takes viewers on a tour of the cartoons and animations of the 1970s that were among the first to present positive black characters, helping to chip away at entrenched stereotypes.

Space Sentinels Astrea Original Production Cel

"I believe these cartoons are national treasures,” curator Pamela Thomas said in a statement. “They were seen by a generation of children and not only changed the way that black kids saw themselves but the way white kids saw them as well.”

Many characters celebrated in Funky Turns 40 were the first of their kind: Peter Jones of The Hardy Boys in 1969 and Valerie Brown of Josie and the Pussy Cats in 1970 were the first positive Black characters in Saturday morning cartoon series. The Harlem Globetrotters and The Jackson 5ive brought viewers the first positive black cartoon casts in 1970 and 1971. The character Verb on Schoolhouse Rock, with his theme song “That’s What’s Happening!”--a parody of Shaft and other Blaxploitation films--was the first black male superhero character in a cartoon. The first black female superhero, Astrea, in Space Sentinels, didn’t come along until 1977. For children, these characters were empowering instead of denigrating. These cartoons also gave voices to black animators, musicians, and actors, like Bill Cosby and Berry Gordy.

Harlem Globetrotters Original Production Cel

Forty years later, there’s still some work to be done. The first black Disney princess didn’t show up until five years ago, when Tiana made her overdue debut in The Princess and the Frog. Still, the legacy of the cartoons in Funky Turns 40 paved the way for their modern counterparts, like The Proud Family, Little Bill, Static Shock, Fillmore, and Doc McStuffins, which feature characters full of insight and wit.

Funky Turns Forty: Black Character Revolution is on view at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Latimer/Edison Gallery in Manhattan until June 14th.

[*The headline on this article originally read How Fat Albert Changed Cartoons Forever]

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1 Comments

  • Ah man, I grew up with most of these shows! But, I'm confused... is this a shortened article? It just kinda ended and with no mention of Fat Albert after the first line!

    Confused.