I kicked off my week in the bridge lounge of our union this morning watching Disney shorts and listening to a piano player sing his heart out before my 11am class.
Growing up I thought of myself as an artist of sorts and even imagined working for “The Wonderful World of Disney” in their Pixar studios. As I got older the dream faded and I wondered what the likelihood of me as an African American male landing a job there would be. With this blog in mind I thought it’d be interesting to see if any Black men had not only made it into the animation industry, but excelled in it…
…And they have. Interestingly, Ron Husband is widely credited as the first African American animator and the first African American supervising animator for Walt Disney Studios. He supervised the creation of numerous characters and worked for the company nearly 40 years. He’s currently retired, working as an independent artist. Recently he published a book on animation and he continues to do illustrations on his blog.
Although his accomplishments as a black animator shouldn’t go without notice, doing a little more research brought me across Floyd Norman, who worked for Disney years prior to Husband. The now 80 year old creator has been involved in a host of Disney projects including Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and Toy Story 2. According to CartoonBrew.com, Norman is “one of the earliest African-American artists to be hired at the Walt Disney animation studio, and the first long-term African-American artist at Disney.” His work extends beyond Disney and includes animation for The Smurfs, and Fat Albert.
Like Husband, Norman continues to create art sharing it on his blog Mr. Fun’s Journal.
Ron and Floyd are just a couple of the many talented African Americans that have paved the way for the flood of diversity in the animation industry. With the recent #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the constant eye on Hollywood’s lack of inclusion it’s refreshing to know that this niche of the entertainment industry has grown to include numerous backgrounds and perspectives.
In her Fuse article, journalist Danielle Henderson hounds Hollywood for its “colorless landscape,” highlighting television and animation as being more diverse and representative of today’s society. She quotes writer and director Dean DeBlois saying: “Today, a visitor to a major animation studio will see men and women of every ethnic background going about their work. “At Disney and especially at DreamWorks, they seem to go out of their way to find international talent.”
However this wasn’t always the case. In the early world of animation, America’s climate of racial intolerance did not allow African Americans and other minorities to showcase their artistic talents in the creative fields. Instead cartoons depicted these groups negatively, showcasing stereotypes and demonizing them. A look at animation primarily in the 30’s and 40’s, also known as the Golden Age of Animation, bring to light America’s ugly past and how far we’ve come. Although these cartoons no longer air on television their existence can’t be denied and they mark an ugly blemish in the histories of Warner Brothers, Metro Goldwyn Mayor and other animation companies.
As time’s progressed so has change, with a major leap forward in the field being made in 2009 with the release of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Princess Tiana took the big screen as Disney’s first black princess. Controversy swirled around several issues in the film including the New Orleans setting, the princess’s occupation, and the fact that the prince was not black. Despite the complaints the film went on to win several awards and be recognized as a positive portrayal of black women for young girls.
Nice work Disney, I’m sure Ron and Floyd would be proud.
As this blog continues to explore the lives of creative African Americans and the world through their eyes, it’ll be interesting to see how the field of animation continues to expand and include.