Where is Ollie Harrington When You
By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)
Friday, March 3, 2017.
The last Valentine Day marked the 105th
anniversary of the birth of Ollie W. Harrington. More than half a century
before Aaron McGruder’s first introduced The
Boondocks as a comic strip and decades before the biting social commentary
found in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury
and Berke Breathed’s Bloom County (whose
"Oliver Wendell Jones" may have been a nod to Harrington), cartoonist
and essayist Oliver W. Harrington set a standard for Black readers throughout
the 20th century, combining his signature wit with incisive critiques
and observations about Black life in America.
Born February 14, 1912, in Westchester County,
Ollie Harrington came of age in the South Bronx, a New York community that
would come to define urban deterioration by the late 20th Century.
Harrington’s experiences in the South Bronx helped shape his later career
and his political sensibilities, particularly his experience in the classroom.
Perhaps anticipating the challenges faced by the fictional Huey and Riley
Freeman, and far too many school aged Black children, Harrington began drawing
caricatures of a White female teacher, who Harrington writes, would bring he
and another black male student to the front of the classroom and say “these
two, being black, belong in the waste basket.”
With the teacher, Miss McCoy, as his racist muse,
Harrington began documenting the everyday pitfalls of his life via cartoons
that he kept in his notebook. Harrington also recalls a police officer
named Dougan, who “had a bad habit and that was going on a spree every Saturday
night and beating the hell out of every Black kid he could find…that was life
in the Bronx.” With little recourse, Harrington turned to art and never looked
Upon graduating from DeWitt Clinton high school at
age 17 in 1929, Harrington left home and set up residence at the famed Harlem
YMCA. Though the financial crisis of 1929 would dampen the excitement
that had been brewing in Harlem since the first cadre of Black New Yorkers
migrated from lower Manhattan, uptown to Harlem at the beginning of the 20th
century, the still teen-age Harrington was able to connect with Harlem
Renaissance stalwarts like Wallace Thurman, Rudolph Fisher and of course
Langston Hughes, who took the young cartoonist under his wing. Among the
residents at the Harlem YMCA, where Harrington rented a room for $2 a week, was
Dr. Charles Drew, who would later revolutionize blood plasma research before
his untimely death in 1958.
Harrington’s first published pieces in 1932
appeared in Black magazines like the New
York State Contender and The
National News, which were edited by noted Black satirist (and influential
conservative thinker) George S. Schuyler. A year later Harrington, began
his long term relationship with The Pittsburgh Courier, which along with The
Chicago Defender and New York Amsterdam News (which also published Harrington’s
work) were the premiere Black newspapers in the country.
Harrington’s relationship with the Black Press—a
conscious choice when there weren’t legitimate alternatives—highlights the
critical role that the Black press has played historically in developing the
skills of Black journalists, sales professionals, designers and publicists.
Though Harrington could never have hoped to have a cartoon placed in the New
York Times, the Black Press offered both the kinds of audiences he desired as
well as the opportunity to sharpen his skills.
Harrington’s strip “Boop” (later renamed “Scoop”)
began appearing in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1933 and like his earliest work
found its inspiration in the lives of Black children, including the classroom
dynamics that Harrington was himself politicized by. Well before the
broader society found any significance in what we now refer to as “youth
culture,” Harrington used Black children to offer commentary on the realities
of everyday life. It should be noted that “Scoop” debuts nearly twenty
years before Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts
strip—which McGruder has cited as an inspiration for him—and though there’s no
evidence that Schultz was at all familiar with Harrington’s work, Schultz
became friends after World War II with Morrie Turner who was the first
African-American nationally syndicated cartoonist with his strip Wee Pals. We can only wonder what
the trajectory of Harrington’s career might have been if he had access to
national syndication like Schultz experienced.
Ultimately Harrington would find his most
influential “voice” in 1935 when his “Dark Laughter” series first ran in The
Amsterdam News. It was in the ‘Dark Voices” strip that Harrington first
introduced the character of Bootsie, a Harlem everyman, who as scholar M.
Thomas Inge, suggest in his book Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W.
Harrington, attempts to “reconcile the contradictions and absurdities of their
daily lives, especially the incongruity between the American Dream and
the nation’s failure to fulfill it.” As Harrington recalls, he was “more
surprised than anyone when Brother Bootsie became a Harlem household
celebrity,” noting in the essay “How Bootsie was Born,” that “to really dig Brother
Bootsie, his trials and tribulations, you’d have to see Harlem from the
sidewalk.” Every bit as popular as Langston Hughes’s “Jesse B. Semple,”
Hughes would later write the introduction to Harrington’s 1958 collection
Bootsie and Others: A Selection of Cartoons.
Always creatively and professionally restless,
Harrington moved to Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.’s fledgling The People’s Voice in 1942, becoming the newspaper’s art director.
One of Harrington’s first projects at The
People’s Voice, was a serialization of Richard Wright’s Native Son, which had been published two
years earlier. Given the politics of respectability that had dogged even the
careers of Black literary celebrities like Hughes, the serialization was pulled
because of reader complaints about the profanity that was presented.
Some of the criticism of the Native Son strip also took aim at Harrington, who in another
strip commented on the popularity of the Zoot Suits (the hip-hop style of the
1940s), leading readers to complain about his focus on “pimps” and other
characters that were thought to demean Black folks. This is also a
critique that has been aimed at many Black comedic artists who embrace satire,
but in Harrington’s era it also represents his unwillingness to only use his
art for simple “uplift” purposes.
As World War II began to rage, Harrington was hired
by the Pittsburgh Courier to provide illustrated stories about the experiences
of Black soldiers, including the 332nd Fighter Group—the famed
Tuskegee Airman—and to create an original strip, “Jive Gray,” which also
documented the black experience in the war. As part of his
responsibilities with the paper, Harrington also served as the paper’s war
correspondent in North Africa and Europe, allowing him the opportunity to
develop a more cosmopolitan worldview.
The experiences covering the war further
politicized Harrington. After a spirited debate with US Attorney General
Tom Clark in 1946 about several unsolved lynchings of Black men in Georgia,
Clark, in response to Harrington’s public militancy, labeled him a communist.
Given Harrington’s role as head of public relations at the NAACP (which
in the late 1940s was still staffed by legitimate political radicals), he was
an easy target for the stream of anti-communist sentiment that took over the
county in the form of McCarthyism.
Sensing the political shift, Harrington headed to
Paris with a generation of Black expatriates including Wright, James Baldwin, Chester
Himes, artist Beauford Delaney and Josephine Baker, who had lived in Paris
since the late 1930s. In Paris, Harrington became particularly close to
Wright and was among the many who believed that Wright’s sudden death in 1960
was the work of CIA operatives. As Harrington wrote seventeen years after the
writer’s death, “Wright seemed obsessed with the idea that the FBI and the CIA
were running amuck in Paris. He was thoroughly convinced that Blacks were
special targets of their cloak and dagger activities.”
After Wright’s death, Harrington only returned to
the United States on two occasions, first in 1972 and in 1991, when his worked
as being exhibited at Wayne State University in Detroit. From aboard Harrington
continued to publish his “Bootsie” strips for the Chicago Defender and after
that relationship ended, he published regularly for a newspaper in East
Germany, where he lived until his death in 1995 at age 83. Harrington’s
collection of essays Why I Left America was published
Sadly, Oliver Wendell Harrington remains a footnote
to African American politics and popular culture, though his willingness to
sacrifice his career and comfort in the name of using his art to directly
address the racist nature of American society create opportunities for others.
In February of 2008, eight African-American cartoonists staged a “sit-in”—each publishing
a common themed strip—to bring attention to the few slots available to Black
cartoonists. The artists chose February 10th as the date of
the protest because of its proximity to February 14th, which would
have been the 96th birthday of Ollie Harrington. Indeed one of
the protesters Keith Knight, who has found success as a Black cartoonist in the
digital era, cites Harrington as an inspiration for his own strips (Th)ink, The Knight Life
and The K
We can only imagine what Ollie Harrington would
have had to say about the nation’s first Black President or the man who
followed Barack Obama into the Presidency, though I suspect Harrington would
have drawn lines as he always had – in the name of those who were voiceless,
invisible and Black.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of Africana
Studies at Duke University. He has been conjuring analog for a digital world
for a quite a while now. Check him at @NewBlackMan + @LeftofBlack +
BookerBBBrown on the ‘Gram + and the homebase at NewBlackMan (in Exile).