Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist
By Nancy Goldstein
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008, 240 pages, $35.00, hardcover,
Reviewed by Meisha Rosenberg
Despite the recent successes of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2004) and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006), cartoonists who are women or people of color receive scant attention in our culture. The canon-establishing exhibition, “Masters of American Comics,” which traveled in 2006, highlighted Krazy Kat creator George Herriman, who is widely believed to have been Creole; but it included no women, even though there are plenty of them—just consult Trina Robbins’s The Great Women Cartoonists (2001). Nancy Goldstein’s Jackie Ormes is one of the few full-length books devoted to a cartoonist who is not a white male (others include Robbins’s Nell Brinkley and the New Woman in the Early 20th Century (2001); Shelley Armitage’s Kewpies and Beyond: The World of Rose O’Neill (1994); and Thomas Inge’s Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington : From the Walter O. Evans Collection of African-American Art.)
Fans tantalized by Robbins’s mention of Ormes in The Great Women Cartoonists will be thrilled to find high quality reproductions of 125 of her comics and cartoons, in both black and white, and color, for the first time since their initial run. While this doesn’t constitute Ormes’ entire output (she created about five hundred Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger cartoons alone), it’s a healthy sample. The book, engagingly written, is a resource of the best kind.
Ormes drew strong, sexy, black women characters like Torchy Brown, who appeared in the 1937 strip Torchy Brown from Dixie to Harlem and in Torchy in Heartbeats, which ran from 1950 to 1954. Her heroines challenged every stereotype that came their way, from clichés about race and women to McCarthy era anticommunist rhetoric. Readers just discovering Ormes will be delighted by her sensuous, detailed drawing style that incorporates elements of Art Deco. No less than the poet Langston Hughes wrote this praise for Ormes: “If I were marooned on a desert island,...I would miss...Jackie Ormes’s cute drawings.” As if her artistry wasn’t enough, Ormes was also a pioneering businesswoman, designing the first upscale doll for black girls, based on her character Patty-Jo. Ormes envisioned her doll as a replacement for Mammy and Sambo ragdolls.
If there is one criticism of the book, it is that it could use more of Ormes’s own voice; but she is no longer alive, and Goldstein was unable to locate her letters—a task for future scholars. Still, Goldstein’s research is comprehensive: she interviewed Ormes’ sister, Delores Towles; she found (and reproduces here) memorabilia such as Ormes’ business card at the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago; and she exhumed Ormes’ high school yearbook from Monongahela, Pennsylvania, where Ormes grew up. Ormes’ world was an enclave of talented black artists and activists, and businesspeople such as her husband, Earl Ormes, who among other things, managed the DuSable Hotel, which served the African American community of Bronzeville, Chicago’s version of Harlem. Her friends included jazz musicians Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Lena Horne, and a photograph shows Ormes with jazz master Duke Ellington in the mid-1950s. She organized glamorous benefits and served on boards for groups such as the Chicago Urban League, the Clarence Darrow community center, and the South Side Community Art Center. She achieved her renown at a time when the employment available to most black women was, as Goldstein notes, domestic service.
Ormes drew for major black newspapers of her time: the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, which published Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, her longest-running work, from 1945 to 1956. In the cartoons, Patty-Jo, one of the best-dressed little girls to appear in any cartoon, expounds on injustices while her big sister, Ginger, tries on clothes or pretends to be shocked. Ginger, in the style of “mute” cartoon figures of the time, never speaks, instead acting as a “straight” foil. In some ways, Patty-Jo is similar to her contemporaries Nancy or Little Lulu, but her political acumen is entirely her own. Some of the eighty Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger cartoons reproduced here are gags about Ginger’s dates and the postwar “man shortage,” but many show Patty-Jo’s outrage at, among other things, the House Un-American Activities Committee, segregation, discriminatory teaching practices, and unfair poll taxes. In one 1955 cartoon about the famous Emmet Till case, in which a young black boy was murdered for supposedly whistling at a white woman, Patty-Jo says, “I don’t want to seem touchy on the subject, but that new little white tea-kettle whistled at me!”—reversing the situation to show young blacks as the real victims.
To today’s readers, Ormes’s cartoons seem remarkably radical. In one revelatory episode of the color strip Torchy Brown in Heartbeats, Torchy helps a black doctor expose environmental pollution perpetrated on a black community. In another, Torchy fends off a potential rapist on board a freighter ship. This was bold, even protofeminist stuff for 1952. In the chapter “Newspapers, Comic Strips, Cartoons,” Goldstein shows that Ormes’s enlightened imagination didn’t arise in a vacuum; she found solidarity in the progressive black press, where male peers such as Defender cartoonist Chester Commodore seem to have accepted her. Explaining the role of the black press, Goldstein writes:
Shouldering the burden of “standing for something” in a world largely invested in preserving the status quo, black newspapers often adopted a tone of advocacy and even militancy. If, for instance, the mainstream press reported gains for US troops in Europe during World War II, the black press focused attention on racial discrimination in the military; when the dailies mentioned Thurgood Marshall in the general news, the black press spotlighted his achievements as NAACP leader.
Because of her connection to progressive groups, Ormes was investigated by the FBI, which produced an impressive 287-page file on her (Jackie Robinson’s was only 131 pages). She was never found to be guilty of anything.
FBI surveillance might have seemed like a small nuisance after what Ormes had already suffered: She and her husband, Earl Ormes, had one child, Jacqueline, who died tragically at age three of a brain tumor. Goldstein explains,
According to her sister Delores, Ormes was determined not to bear more children or to go through heartache like that again. She was always to keep her sorrow to herself, never speaking about Jacqueline, except once to tell Delores, “I will never lose my empty arms.”
Nine years later, when Ormes began drawing Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger, some in her family worried about her creation of a precocious little girl who never grew older, but the work seems to have been good for her.
Born Zelda Jackson in 1911, the daughter of an entrepreneurial father and a homemaker, Ormes began her career as a journalist, itself an unusual vocation for a young woman at that time. Goldstein reports that when Ormes was still a teenager, Chuck Washington, the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the largest black papers, with a national distribution, gave Ormes her first assignment: covering a boxing match. Washington himself, with Ormes’s mother’s approval, escorted Ormes to the event. The boxing ring, Ormes recalled, “wasn’t a ring at all. It was square—square as all git out. The sportswriters were sitting around the edges. They were getting splattered. With sweat. It was nasty, and I was enjoying it!” Goldstein comments, “Her nice-girl persona had begun to blossom into a more complex sensibility, and by the time she graduated from high school in 1930, Jackie was ready for the wider world.” She moved to Pittsburgh and began covering crime, court cases, and boxing. Marrying Earl Clark Ormes was a wise move. He was an ambitious banker seven years older than Ormes, and their marriage lasted 45 years.
Torchy, Candy (a short-lived cartoon about “a subversive housemaid who took amusing verbal jabs at wartime black marketers, hoarders, and hypocrites”), and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger inhabit the same beautifully decorated, upwardly mobile world Ormes did. “Torchy Togs,” a cutout doll that accompanied many Torchy strips, gave Ormes a chance to celebrate all the gorgeous gowns, embroideries, and bathing suits (such as a risqué green bikini made out of leaves) she could dream up. (Other comics for women then, such as Flyin’ Jenny by Gladys Parker, also featured cutout dolls) In fact, many of Ginger’s poses are cheesecake: in one cartoon her legs rest on a television set, revealing one garter. Partly, Goldstein writes, Ormes was providing pinups for black men in the wake of World War II. But when you consider the images that predominated in historical white depictions of blacks—Amos and Andy and other buffoons, desexualized mammys, and “natives”—it makes sense that Ormes, acutely aware of prejudice, would envision a fully embodied, voluptuous, adult female. Goldstein points out, “Though Ginger would pose in elaborate clothes, she never was scolded for spending money, as women were in some other cartoons of the day.”
Ormes’ cartoons are a potent mix of feminine grace and sexuality, and political agitation. “Perhaps the most significant cultural contribution of Ormes’s various cartoons was her characters’ unequivocal pride” writes Goldstein. Her heroines heralded other powerful figures such as Wonder Woman, Brenda Starr “girl reporter” (created by the female cartoonist Dale Messick), and today’s Anumari, a lissome black character who ascends to the ancient Egyptian throne while fighting male prejudice in Sand Storm (by Rashida Lewis, an African American woman cartoonist and member of the Ormes Society, which promotes the work of women artists of color). Torchy and Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger leave a legacy of black female empowerment that leaps off the page, challenging stereotypes that are still, unfortunately, in operation today. Jackie Ormes invites today’s cartoonists of color to claim a great heritage. More than that, the way Ormes combined creative work, connections to family and friends, and community activism make her a role model anyone would be proud to follow.
Meisha Rosenberg is a freelance writer and independent scholar who lives in Troy, New York. She taught a course on graphic novels at the College of Saint Rose and has published in the International Journal of Comic Art, Salon, Bitch and elsewhere.