From the archives: African-American Crows


Contributed by Trotman.

dumbo.jpgI’d like to point out something I’ve noticed about older cartoons: Crows are almost unanimously represented as African-American, and vice versa.

The best example I can think of is Walt Disney’s Dumbo. In the film, Dumbo and his little mouse friend wake up after a night of drunken revelry in a tree, and can’t figure out how they got there. After climbing out, (if I remember correctly) the mouse hypothesizes that Dumbo used his huge ears and flew into the branches. This concept is suddenly and loudly cat-called by a gang of crows on a fence. These crows speak in an urbanized dialect, are dressed everywhere from snazzily to shabbily, and loud. In an especially poor showing of sensitivity, I believe the leader was named “Jim.” As in Jim Crow. (For those of you that were educated by the public school system, “Jim Crow” is the nickname given to segregationist laws ratified in the Southern states after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction.)

The crows are the typical late-vaudevillian stereotype of blacks: raucous, like-minded, and quick to gang up on isolated non-blacks. The crows have a good laugh at Dumbo, reiterating over and over how stupid the very idea of a flying elephants is and making jokes at Dumbo’s expense (“An elephant, fly? I dunno ’bout that… but I seen a dragon fly!” “I seen a horse fly!” “Well, I seen a house fly.”) And naturally, because they’re “black,” they sing a song and do a little dancing. But then, I must say, Disney surprises me.

The crows suddenly seem to warm to the little elephant, and are actually instrumental in his mastery of flight. This would make them seem to be protagonists in a film heavily populated with antagonists. Very odd. Because of that, I have surmised that the “Black Crows” of Dumbo are in no way malicious portrayals, but are simply presented for their comedic value, and augment the film with plot development and a few cheap laughs. Besides, the time period in which this film was created is not renowned for it’s accuracy in racial representation.

Far less tactful is the use of “Black Crows” in the Ralph Bakshi film Fritz the Cat, based on the cartoons of Robert Crumb. Here, the crows are are regarded with a mix of contempt, fascination and mystique. They are shown as stiff competition for pretty young women, frustrating a horny Fritz, and alternately shown as quick lay for the cat, no less in a scrap yard. Not exactly complementary. Then again, Fritz later initiates an orgy in a bathtub with a number of women, none of which are crows. (There is something lacking in general in the treatment of women in Bakshi films, but that’s a whole different rant.)

I believe the crows in this movie are not shown the way they are for racist reasons, though. One has to remember that Robert Crumb wrote the original “Fritz.” Everyone is portrayed rather badly in his cartoons, and that would naturally translate into the movie.

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23 Responses to From the archives: African-American Crows

  1. robcat2075 says:

    I’ll just take issue with the notion that the crows in Dumbo are a “cheap” gag. Nothing in Disney full-animation was “cheap”. It was all strenuously and time-consumingly thought out, planned, second guessed, pencil tested and executed at great cost.

    Insensitive? Possibly. Ethnically trite? Perhaps. But “cheap” just didn’t enter into it.

  2. Bill Benzon says:

    Of course the crows in “Dumbo” are black. And everyone recognized it at the time. The lead crow was voiced by the same man who recorded “When You Wish Upon a Star” for “Pinocchio.” He was white. But the other crows were voiced by black men, members of a vocal group. For more:

  3. Rosko says:

    “For those of you that were educated by the public school system, “Jim Crow” is the nickname given to segregationist laws ratified in the Southern states after the Civil War and during the Reconstruction.)”

    Fuck off, I went to a public school and know full well what Jim Crow laws are. Perhaps Disney’s not the bigot here…

  4. GrowlyGus says:

    Wow, touchy touchy. Never seen people get so offended by the word ‘cheap’ and the insinuation that public schooling is of a lower quality. This generation sure is breeding thin skin…

  5. Mag says:

    Regardless of whether or not the crows were displayed as “malicious” characters, it’s still a pretty offensive move typical of the early Disney films. Though the crows in Dumbo were not seeking to harm the elephant, they were portrayed as uneducated blacks who did little else besides sing, dance, and poke fun at animals with big ears. Earlier in the movie, during the “Song of the Roustabouts,” we see a greater group of black people working to build the circus tent. In the final verse of the song, their singing is interjected by an obviously white voice saying, “Grab that rope, you hairy ape!” So, according to Disney, that’s what black people do: work for no pay, and sing.

    Yeah, not malicious at all.

    I would say the crows in Fritz the Cat at least give a more dynamic portrayal of “malicious” blacks. Though it is a cheap lay in the middle of a dumpster and they’re all smoking reefer or drinking or being incited to riot, I’d rather see that than the “Happy Nigger” picture. I would also like to address the double-standard offered in Fritz the Cat. While Fritz, seemingly white, is a sexual deviant with an obvious drug problem who can’t seem to stay the hell out of trouble, he is judged out of his racial context. The crows are not so lucky.

  6. Nikii says:

    You can’t wiiin, chile. I think of those crows every time I watch “The Wiz”. Of course, the entire cast of The Wiz is black, so no comments on the crows there. But I can’t help but notice the similarity in their personalities when compared to the crows in Dumbo.

  7. Kristem says:

    i wish that you would use a real name, and have and automatic citer so i could use this in my research paper

  8. Sandra Dee says:

    The crows in this movie are CRAZY offensive. For comedic value or not, I’m glad that as a black kid growing up in the 1960s, my parent’s didn’t allow me to see any of these films. Aside from the obvious racism, the fact that ALL of the mothers in Disney films are dead or missing for some horrible reason says a lot about Walt’s mother/women issues. As an adult, I can appreciate the beauty of the animation, but as a child I surely might have internalized some of those negative stereotypes. I’m forever grateful to my Mom and Dad for shielding me from racist propaganda disguised as entertainment for as long as they possibly could.


    […]From the archives: African-American Crows « The Journal of Cartoon Overanalyzations[…]…

  10. Holi Scraps says:

    May I simply just say what a relief to find a person that truly understands what they’re discussing on the web. You definitely understand how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I was surprised you are not more popular since you definitely have the gift.

    • Austin Heath [music] says:

      More people need to understand that racism and stereotypes are okay as long as they’re “funny”, and especially in children’s movies? Did you say that out loud to yourself and think “This is a good opinion to share”?

  11. Sara says:

    I went to a public school. I know what Jim Crow laws are. Jerk.

  12. Austin Heath [music] says:

    Portraying a stereotype in a “protagonist” position doesn’t make the racism magically disappear. Intentions versus consequences. “Their comedic value”? As in “their racist perpetuation of stereotypes”? That’s why we all find them racist, and if the crows in the movie saved the world from certain death, we’d still call it racist because the stereotypes are dominantly there.

  13. friskitty says:

    As a white girl growing up in Nashville, my favorite characters were the crows. I wonder what THAT says about me :/

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  21. […] as some of most racist characters in cartoon history. This also happened in the Ralph Bakshi film Fritz the Cat, in which there was a scene where African American-esque crows rioted with pig-portrayed cops. […]

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