On one of my first trips to New Orleans back in the twentieth century I was in a cab in the French Quarter when we passed several strikingly beautiful young women. “You never can be sure about them,” the cabdriver said. “They pass as white, but mamma could be black as the ace of spades.” I was stunned by the statement, by the idea that racism could be so ingrained that this cabbie was capable of suspecting anyone he saw of being black. Michael Tisserand examines the phenomenon through the looking glass in his new book, Krazy, a biography of the great cartoonist George Herriman, the creator of the iconic Krazy Kat comic strip.
Herriman was the great-grandson of riverboat captain Stephen Herriman, a slave owner and possibly even a bounty hunter, and free woman of color Justine Olivier. His New Orleans birth certificate identified him as black (col.), but his parents moved to Los Angeles and decided to pass as white.
Herriman lived his entire life under the threat of losing everything if the simple fact of his black heritage was revealed. As Tisserand succinctly explains, “George Joseph Herriman was a black man born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles. For their own reasons, the Herrimans had obscured their identity and ‘passed’ for white. This made it possible for George Herriman to socialize easily with whites, to attend the family’s chosen school, to work on the staff of Joseph Pulitzer’s and William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, to marry his white wife, and to purchase property in the Hollywood Hills bound by a racial covenant that prohibited ownership to blacks.”
Tisserand is a thoroughgoing researcher and a great storyteller. He delivers Herriman’s tale with a detective’s precision, rarely intruding on the narrative as he leaves the reader to ask the obvious questions and hang on the razor’s edge of suspense about how much Herriman knew about his own past, and how he reacted to his predicament. His colleagues joked about his “kinky” hair, nicknaming him “The Greek,” prompting Herriman to wear hats.
“None of us knew what he was,” wrote Herriman’s colleague Tad Dorgan. “So we called him the Greek.”
Though he made jokes at the expense of blacks in his comics, and even performed in blackface, Herriman was politically aligned with the black cause when it came to major issues like white rage against the boxer Jack Johnson.
Herriman was already considered one of the world’s greatest cartoonists when Krazy Kat finally appears roughly halfway through the book, and Tisserand guides us through the ever-morphing landscape of race and sexuality that characterizes the strip.
Krazy is an important read for its exploration of American race relations, the golden age of the newspaper business, and especially the history of comic strips. If you don’t know Krazy Kat but you like R. Crumb, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz or Ren and Stimpy, Krazy will be a revelation.