I’d never written an encyclopedia article before last week. My 2,000 word entry for The Encyclopedia of Black Comics was enthusiastically accepted. It’s a good feeling, getting a job done; Sheena Howard was extremely kind and looking over her credentials, I’m very happy to be a small part of her big thing.
Here’s the thing about a biographical article, though. You leave a lot out.
You don’t speculate. You report but don’t observe. And you don’t draw many, if any, conclusions. You research the facts of a person’s life, organize them, write them– conclusions and lessons learned are the readers’ jobs. You don’t sing a man’s praises.
You don’t judge.
And yet, here I am.
By George Herriman – Image from GreatCaricatures.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10471525
When I picked George Herriman I didn’t think it was a difficult article. As the creator of Krazy Kat, Herriman’s famous enough that I figured resources would be abundant. I was ignorant enough going in that I didn’t even realize that Herriman was black. I didn’t string together the facts of his time, place, and race at all until I started reading. I put in my requests for library books, looked in encyclopedias, did preliminary research online. A picture began to emerge– blurry, strange, contradictory and unconvincing.
Herriman and Mothman– separated at birth?
Herriman was born in New Orleans; his parents were French-speaking “Creoles of color.” On his birth certificate he is “colored.” When he was 13, his family moved to Los Angeles, and census records show that the Herriman family was white from that point forward.
The great, ugly fact my brain had failed to process is simple and terrible. Race had huge legal consequences in the late 19th and early 20th century. Regardless of his skin color, Herriman was a black man on paper, and as crappy as racism still is today it has nothing on the legally required racism of past America. In a time before instant access to information, the light-skinned Herrimans were escaping the prison of a corrupt and racist system. Hooray?
On the one hand, they were literally claiming their basic human rights. On the other, they were (figuratively) abandoning millions of people caught in the same corrupt and dehumanizing system. Not that they could have helped anyone by staying in New Orleans, but… there’s a moral trade off in joining a corrupt privileged class. An endorsement of the system implicit in joining the system’s “good” side.
I’d be a huge asshole if I blamed them. Not just for the obvious reasons of white privilege. When my wife was researching my family tree, she found a similar situation. A second husband– to my knowledge not a blood relative, but certainly family– had moved two counties over in the 1880s and stopped being an “Indian.” He was white on paper from then on.
Sadly and tellingly, I was disappointed to realize that I had an American Indian relative but no native blood in me. For a brief moment I mourned the loss of my 1/16th Cherokee identity– a status that imparts minority cred to those of us with rosy cheeks and blue-eyed daughters, but still preserves us from any associated hardship. Oh how lucky I would be, to be able to trot that out when it was convenient while still cashing all of my white privilege checks at the Race Bank.
My point is I grinned when I saw how step-great-great grandpappy Tandy had slipped the noose that race had put around his neck. I didn’t see any of the unintended consequences of his actions. Looking at Herriman’s life made me realize their reality.
Because the smartest part of me is my wife, she’s the one who asked if Herriman’s wife knew about his secret. After much hemming and hawing, I was forced to admit she probably did not. He met her after his move to LA, and I can only imagine the conversations the young adolescent George’s parents had with their children prior to and during their move. “No one can know,” must have been the refrain. They could be prosecuted, persecuted, lynched. George’s wife, Mabel, was Caucasian and– as much as they obviously loved each other– he could have lost her if the truth had come out.
I don’t think this secret grew like a cancer at the heart of their marriage. All the evidence points to George and Mabel being quiet people; all the pictures look like pictures of a family filled with love. Still, I can’t imagine keeping something fundamental to my identity from my spouse the way George Herriman did.
If his racial identity was fundamental to his identity.
The documentary OJ Simpson: Made in America talks about how O.J. essentially left his black identity behind, starting in college if not before. He didn’t date black women, he marketed himself to white audiences, he didn’t even have any pictures of black people in his house– until, you know, his defense team told him to get some. Not surprisingly, I think Herriman was a much better guy than O.J. “the convicted felon” Simpson. Still, once Herriman reached early adolescence it was his job to deny his racial background. As he got older, and incredibly successful– he owned a mansion, met Frank Capra, was admired by Woodrow Wilson, lived next door to John Huston– Herriman’s secret identity must have only been a threat to him and his children. He had much more to lose than his parents ever did. Race was the strange fact that could discredit him, destroy him, take everything away. Obviously, I can’t imagine what that was like; obviously, I’m trying.
There’s a loss there. Not just that Herriman consciously severed ties to his heritage so he could vanish into white society. His children almost certainly never knew about the family secret– you can’t reveal a secret you don’t know. On his death certificate his daughter Mabel (yes, the daughter was named for the mother) wrote that her father’s father was from Paris and his mother from Alsace-Lorraine. When Herriman’s friend Tad Dorgan wrote a playful article about Herriman, he wrote “we didn’t know what he was, so I named him the Greek, and he still goes by that name.” I’m talking about a loss of honesty, a loss of intimacy throughout Herriman’s life.
Herriman came to New York in 1900 and his career as a cartoonist really started in 1901. Everything before that is peppered with anecdotes– how George lost his job as a baker because he baked a mouse into a loaf of bread or ate too many cream puffs, how George came to New York on a freight train, hurt himself when he fell off a trellis painting signs, worked as a carnival barker on Coney Island. These unverifiable stories filter inconsistently into Herriman’s various online biographies and origin myths. I think of them as misdirections– they all sound like things Herriman’s comics characters would do. This is speculation at its rankest, but it feels like Herriman was obfuscating his origins, spinning stories about himself in place of revealing any facts about his past and family.
George Herriman was a gentleman in every sense of the word that matters, a quiet, funny, kind soul. A fully realized artist and probably the most influential comics creator ever to work in newspapers. He created an incredible 24 comic strips throughout his lifetime, often running concurrently; Krazy Kat ran for 31 years. He also illustrated magazine covers, painted gorgeous watercolors, collaborated on a ballet, wrote film reviews, illustrated books of poetry. He’s still my hero at the end of the day. Without him, I doubt Peanuts would have existed; I doubt Will Eisner would have invented graphic novels. I have nothing but admiration for George Herriman.
Nothing but admiration and questions and sympathy for his secrets and his lies.