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I'm writing a cartoon script aimed at a children/young-adult audience (similar to the audience of Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, and Over the Garden Wall).

It deals with the daughter of a Bonnie-and-Clyde-like couple who has to find her parents after they go missing (she later goes on to realize that they were more manipulative and evil than she could possibly imagine). She enlists the help of a Latino cop to help her crack the case. They'll meet interesting people on their adventures through North Texas and Arizona.

Many of these characters will be criminals (for example: a pickpocket, a highwayman, the perpetrators of the kidnapping). Others will be in more poor, passive roles such as gas station attendants and general store owners.

At first I thought I could easily include black characters but now I am not so sure.

Should they be happy regulars at the risk of resurrecting the "Happy Darky" myth, prevalent in older stories like Gone with the Wind?

Or should they be pissed off at the situation like the hilariously woke and sarcastic Burma Jones from Confederacy of Dunces?

The 1930s was one of the worst eras for black people, with segregation, rise of the KKK, indentured servitude, lack of opportunities, etc.

Even though there are multiple murders involved in the plot, none are shown so candidly. I don't feel qualified to deal with such high-stakes racial themes in a children's cartoon - when there are so many great black animators out there.

Sidenote: the 1930s were a time of antisemetism as well. However, I am avoiding writing about Jewish themes, even though I'm Jewish. I just don't feel comfortable working that into the plot.

It would also be wrong to avoid black characters altogether: that's a cop-out, and plus I genuinely want black people to relate to my story.

But I don't know what role they should have in this story and in this time period.

What do you guys think?

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    In cartoons for kids such as the ones you cited where people of color exist and are sometimes main characters, is racism ever mentioned? Granted, the context is very different for something like Steven Universe versus 1930's America, but Connie of Steven Universe is not white, but her race isn't a big part of how her character is developed, nor is it an obstacle for her in the world. – weakdna Feb 6 at 22:39
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    Don't have the time to turn this into a real answer, but basically include more than one black person. Include even 4-5 black people, all of which have different opinions, roles in the story, +and personalities. One black character is a statement about All Black People. Lots show diversity and inclusion and variation within a community. – Jerenda Feb 7 at 18:37
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    So as a general question, what do you know about the history of Arizona during the period with regards to race? – hszmv Feb 7 at 19:46
  • Are you including the Great Depression in your story? – Rasdashan Feb 8 at 13:11
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To start I will say I find it creditably difficult to write any character that is not my race, gender, age, or religious belief. Any negative trait that the character possess always feels like me making a stereotypical judgement about the entire group. Unfortunately like it or not my book can't be full of nothing but white, male 30 year olds.

So what can we do? First we should imagine all characters as people. If you stereotype someone as 30th man of color, that is what you are going to write. Picking your preferred stereotype does not solve the problem. While a percent of the population are pretty much a cartoon of their stereotype, most people are not. They hold a mix of beliefs. There are plenty of republicans there that accept 90% of the doctrine, but some may dislike guns, others may like abortion, and some may support welfare. In fact having at least one belief that does not match the party doctrine is more typical than fully lining up on all points.

So your characters can be the same way. Grab some ideas from bucket A, some from bucket B. Think about why they hold those ideas. What happen in their life to make them think one way or another. Also use multiple characters to show that there is a spectrum. Some could be happy and belie in the system thinking that it's the best it has ever been for their race in America, others may be pissed off. Show arguments, don't take sides. Let the reader decide who is right and who is wrong.

Your final goal is to not have the reader see the the author. They should see characters moving on their own motivations and beliefs, not some white guy in his 30s explaining his view of the world.

  • Oh darn! You're right! Would suggest at least including some women - the best way to include is just to swap the gender and that's it - creates some unique characters! I might take your advice by having two black characters (one oblivious/happy and the other "woke") have a few scenes of argument about the current times. Thanks for the answer:)) – Avital S. Feb 6 at 23:00
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    @AvitalS. This isn't a bad answer, but if your goal is to AVOID controversy, staging a debate about racism isn't going to do it... – Chris Sunami Feb 7 at 20:42
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First, thank you for asking this question. All too often, I encounter things in the media where I desperately wish people had asked questions like this beforehand. It can be especially painful in the kids' sector (which has made less progress in the last 30 years since I was a child than I might have hoped). With all that said, this is a real genuine challenge. Here are what I see as the options:

  • To hell with historical accuracy, just present 30's Arizona as a colorblind society. For me as a viewer of color, this is far from ideal, but better than either being excluded entirely, and/or only showing up in menial roles, both of which are pretty noxious. It's basically the colorblind casting concept. Not perfect, but the easiest option that's at least making an effort. A variation on this would be resetting your concept in a 1930s themed alternate reality, science-fiction or fantasy setting that doesn't imply any historical accuracy.

  • Get a consultant of color. It really does make a difference. I can always tell when watching a movie or a television show who actually has writers of color on the staff, and who doesn't. I'm assuming this is low or maybe zero budget, but maybe you have a friend who would enjoy having impact on the creative process.

  • Put the time and research in, and do it right. If you look hard enough, you might be able to find a historically accurate character and/or community that doesn't fall into the stereotypes. For instance, towns of the time were generally segregated. So, on the black side of town, you would have an entire second community --with its own doctors, lawyers, store owners, and so forth. You could set a storyline or two in one of those communities. When everyone is black, you don't have to worry as much about stereotypes, because one character doesn't have to represent a whole race. I have to admit, even one or two episodes like this would make this a much more interesting show to me (personally) because it would be showing something new (to the viewer). You could do a similar episode in a Jewish community, which would allow you to sidestep the antisemitism issue.

It sucks that there are no good options that are also easy. But the truth is that you can't avoid politics. Even things that seem neutral are often just quietly propping up the status quo. Sometimes the most innocuous seeming entertainment is really the most noxious if you look a little deeper. With that in mind, let me challenge you a little: Why are you doing this particular story --one that doesn't connect at all to your own identity? That's something I've been wrestling with in my own work. On the one hand I don't want to be forced into only writing about people of color. But when I don't focus on people of color, I ended up producing work that I wouldn't be personally excited about if I was a reader. There's plenty of other people out there who can write the mainstream-oriented stories.

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    WOW!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS IS A wonderful comment and you're so right. It wouldn't be difficult to create a town where everyone happens to be black (but they're known for something else, like pottery, etc). Maybe their car can break down or some other big thing can happen that requires the help of an entire community, which would be a great way to showcase many different types of black characters, I completely agree! (P.S. I would love to get black friends to read over my draft, you're right. As soon as I write an episode like that, I definitely would) Thank you so much for the respectful answer!!! – Avital S. Feb 7 at 21:41
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Don't avoid entire groups of people because you don't know how to write them. Learn how to write them. It's part of becoming a writer. You must learn how to get inside the heads of people who aren't like you.

Do this by getting to know people who are different from you (in a million different ways). Spend time in places you might not ordinarily go. Pay more attention in places you are regularly in. Join groups in real life and online. Read. Read some more. Read blogs and novels and essays and articles. Grab some theme-based anthologies from the library and see how a couple dozen people from the same target group approach a similar theme in a couple dozen ways.

For every character, create a backstory. Don't use it directly in the work, but use it to inform your writing of this character. Even if they are there for just a moment. The backstory need not be elaborate, or even written down. Just something to make the person unique.

Think about your evoking the awful stereotype of "happy darkies"...think about the human beings in one of those settings. Even Gone with the Wind if you know it well enough. Don't try to remember actual characters, just the people that might have been there.

Okay, they're all black and living in X year and Y place...but how are they different? Not just age, gender, marital status, parental status, and so on. Not just job, social class, educational level, etc. But their hopes and dreams. Their hobbies. The chores they hate the most and why. Who their friends are. Which family members don't they speak to?

I'm not suggesting you engage in hours of research to come up with full backgrounds for 20 characters when you're just planning to have a 2 minute scene where 3 people have a single line each. But this sort of thinking is what's going to get you past the stereotypes and infuse your writing with the reality of American life (international life can come later).

Black people in 1930's Arizona will...exist. Some will be ***holes. Some will be lovely. Some will be college professors and some will be janitors. Just like anyone else. There will be some cultural shared experiences and that's what you need to learn about. It's not enough to say "write them like normal people" or something. You need to know the place and time you're dealing with. So research that and work your characterization around and through it.

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This is fiction, and a cartoon for kids, no less. And the point is to meet interesting people, I don't think what is "interesting" has to be about racism, oppression, or any social aspect of their lives. What is interesting should not have anything to do with the color of their skin. Perhaps it is how they are farming, or hunting, or the art they are doing. In any case, even if they are criminals, I would make sure that has nothing to do with the color of their skin, either.

My instincts would be to first, meet them in isolation; not in a mixed setting where the oppressed characters are actually in the process of being oppressed.

Second, write about, as MLK would say, the content of their character, not the package that character is wrapped in.

If I couldn't do that, I just wouldn't write it. I find plenty of stories without having to deal with real-life racism on top of it. I see plenty of stories on TV and in movies that are just implicitly post-racial and I don't see anything wrong with that. Just write your way around the racial confrontations; let your main characters be non-discriminatory.

Personally, I hate "dealing with racism" in fiction, it always comes off as phony to me. There is no easy solution, other than simple time and exposure and mixing will eventually fade it all away, hopefully. You can have people of many races in your fiction, and just exercise your right as an author to put racism aside and talk about other things.

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So I can't find a lot about Arizona and African American attitudes during your time, but I found some unique histories.

During the Civil War, a portions of the New Mexico territory (including present day NM and AZ) petitioned the Confederacy to join but this was mostly because mail service was cut during the period and the region felt that the CSA could better deliver. A few small battles occured in the state, including a three way battle between the Union, Confederacy, and Native Americans, but the territory was held by the Union after the dust had settled.

From there, AZ (now it's own territory, split in part to limit it's ability to join the Confederacy again) was basically your standard Western setting. Contrary to just about every Western movie you've ever seen that wasn't made by Mel Brooks, African Americans represented something between 15% to 25% of employed Cowboys in the U.S. Many were drawn to the profession as the west wasn't nearly as discriminatory as the rest of the United States, and the hazardous nature of the work further lowered that as loyalty, individualism, and honor were valued, skin color be damned.

This may explain Arizona's high African American population relative to it's location in the U.S. in 1900 it was the western most territory of the United States with an African American Population above 1% of the population, and by 2010 that demographic changed to about 4%. During this time period, on they Coastal West and Nevada would see larger growth of populations by percent than Arizona, which was some of the highest in in that period. It's important to understand, that 1900s was the start of what is known as the Great Migrations in African American History. The first Great Migration lasted from ~1910 to 1930 and saw the movement of 1.3 million African Americans from the former Confederate States to just about anywhere that wasn't the South. The depression brought this movement to an end but by 1940 it was back in force and another 5 million moved to anywhere that wasn't the South.

The 1930s would also see the beginning of a rise to fame for an important African American leader Eddie Anderson. In 1937, Anderson was hired by Jack Benny to play a one time role of an African American Train Porter who would get the better of Benny in their interactions. The jokes were so loved, that five weeks later, Anderson was brought back on to play a waiter and would get the better of Benny. Anderson would receive one more one time role on the Jack Benny Program before the fan demand was such that Benny would hire Anderson full time to play the character of Jack Benny's valet and good friend, Rochester van Jones. He was the first African American Actor to be a regular actor on a nationally broadcast program.

The popularity of the character was a hit with audiences and was the most popular character on the Jack Benny Program, next to Benny himself. In one early incident, Anderson was seconds late to a train taking to production crew on tour, but was able to get an LAPD motorcycle escort out ran the train to the next stop, where he boarded. By 1940 (three years after Anderson's debut), Anderson was invited to visit Harvard University by the Students, only to be intercepted at the airport by rival MIT students, pretending to be the Harvard Students... when the Harvard Students discovered prank, they literally rioted against the MIT students.

Much of Rochester's early character was very much racial stereotyped early on, but Benny always made it clear the both Anderson's character and Anderson himself was an honest and valued friend of his. Twice, while touring in the South, when hotel owners refused to give Anderson a room, Benny would threaten to to take his business elsewhere. In the one instance that Anderson was rejected after the threat was issue, Benny followed through... as did all 44 cast and crew. Anderson was one of the highest earning actors in the industry at the time, earning a Salary of $100,000 (for a comparison, the stars of the competitor program Amos and Andy were given a collective salary of $100,000, which they split three ways with the show's announcer). Following the War, and the news of the full extent of the Holocaust, Benny worked to remove most of the racist elements of the character's humor. The last vestiges of racial humor were Rochester's alcoholism and gambling and laziness in work, which by this point in the show, were attributes of Rochester because that was just who Rochester was as a person, than attributes of Rochester because he was Black... in fact, most of the humor surrounding the character's laziness was his ability to trick Benny's character into doing the work (The humor of Rochester being underpaid for his job was also not a racial componant... one of running gags was that Benny was a cheap man, to the point that one of the funniest jokes in the entire show's run on the shows run occurred a mugger gives him the choice of "Your money or your life?". Benny pauses and the mugger repeats the threat, only for Benny to quip right back "I'm thinking it over!").

Suffice to say, given that murders happen but not on screen and you are expecting the audience to be mature enough to know that racism was a thing in the 30s, perhaps treat it the same way. Don't overtly show racism... but have the characters who would act like racists say things that are definately racist, but not overtly. Consider the Bankers and how they talked to Tiana in Disney's Princess and the Frog (the movie was set in the 1920s in New Orleans.) or the seen from the Teen Titans where Cyborg discusses with Starfire how he's very much aware that it hurts when people can judge you based on what they see on the outside and he understands how upset she is over having to work with a racist alien, and Starfire immediately concludes that Cyborg is talking about how people judge him because he is part machine. It's pretty clear that he was hinting at the fact that he's African American, but decides not to correct the record and just teach the lesson. If you actually want to be more overt, look up Disney's short cartoon John Henry, which explicitly stated John was born into slavery, but wouldn't let that keep him down, and most of the (White) rail workers accepted John in the post-civil war setting.

I could easily see this character as being a very unique example of an African American Cowboy who learned from his father or grandfather (depending on age), a man who valued his freedom from slavery. I'd also give him a sort of whit and a strong individualism streak that makes him well aware of the state of racial politics in the era, but also allows him to always get the better of anyone who thinks they are better than he is. Anyone who underestimates this guy will do so at their own peril.

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