One of My Best Friends is Black: Representations of Blackness in 90s Cartoons

One of My Best Friends is Black: Representations of Blackness in 90s Cartoons

The 90s has been lauded as the greatest era of television, especially when it comes to representations of Black folks. Shows like The Cosby Show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, and A Different World offered representations of black life that were relatable. But, while black sitcoms saturated daytime and primetime television, there seemed to be a void of children’s cartoon staring black characters. Black characters peppered the casts of mostly white 90s cartoons, making blackness visible even in animation. For my childhood, the most memorable shows that I still watch on occasion introduced black animated characters who were not merely background cast and sidekicks. In Nickelodeon’s Rugrats and Hey Arnold! and ABC’s Recess, their Black characters were not mere tokens of representation, but full-fledged, well-rounded depictions of animated Blackness.

Rugrats is one of Nickelodeon’s most recognizable cartoons, and arguably their best. The show revolved around the adventures babies Tommy Pickles, Chuckie, Phil, and Lil, and three-year-old Angelica Pickles, the spoiled toddler who often bullied and harassed her cousin and his three friends. In the second season of Rugrats, the show introduced another toddler, three-year-old Susie Carmichael. Susie’s vivacious personality immediately endears her to the babies. Set up as a foil to Angelica, Susie storms onto the scene ready champion the babies, herself, and even Angelica, when she needs one. She matches Angelica’s sass and outspokenness with more kindness, empathy, and caring. Susie’s constant support for the babies help them navigate and avoid pitfalls of their own making and those that Angelica ropes them into. Always willing to share her toys and her knowledge, Susie quickly becomes an important part of the babies and Angelica’s growth. Susie often succeeds in making Angelica see the error of her ways where others fail. Susie is everything Angelica is not, and everything the babies want to be.

Susie is a well-rounded toddler. She is smart as evidenced by her desire to be a doctor, which she immediately puts into action by “doctoring” the babies’ broken toys, and even saving Angelica’s favorite doll despite Angelica’s dismissal of her talents. Susie is also tough. Not one to take Angelica’s bullying, Susie stands up for her by proving Angelica wrong and demanding an apology when necessary. Her talent for singing and dancing shine through in multiple episodes. With all of Susie’s positive and almost extraordinary characterization, the show doesn’t forget to humanize her or let her be a three-year-old. Susie is quick to apologize when she is wrong and unafraid to cry when she has had enough. And through it all Susie relies on her parents and three older siblings. Her mother is a doctor and her father writes for a popular kids show. They shows Susie the same kindness and patience she gives to the babies. In an episode where Susie’s older sister babysits Susie and the other babies, the relationship between Susie and her siblings. A close nit crew, the Carmichael kids always have each others backs. They encourage each other to be brave and encourage each other when things get tough. Susie is everything Black Girl Magic represents, and the representation little black girls needed.

While Rugrats served a fierce representation of Black girlhood, Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! and ABC’s Recessbrings Black boyhood to life in the characters of Gerald and Vince. Both shows follow the lives of a group of fourth grades friends as the navigate life in and out of school. Hey Arnold!is set an urban city and neighborhood life is virtually inseparable from school life. Hey Arnold!’s cast of prepubescent characters run the gambit of ethnicity and race. Recess is set in the suburbs and most of its action takes place at school during the titular recess period. While Hey Arnold! serves inner city realness, Recess takes a lighter touch to show the microcosm the students create that mirrors the adult world around them. The group of friends shirk the system to create an eclectic group that prizes friendship over cliques. Though Hey Arnold! premiered a year before Recess, the shows are very similar. The central friend group in Recessis led by fun-loving troublemaker, T.J. Detweiler and, Arnold Shortman acts as the unofficial leader of the neighborhood kids in Hey Arnold! In both shows, Gerald and Vince are the right-hands and best friends of their respective leaders.

In Hey Arnold!, Gerald Johanssen is the counterbalance to Arnold’s overly optimistic attitude. He often attempts to dissuade Arnold from jumping into situations without seeing were they might fail. While Gerald is more pessimistic than Arnold, he is a better judge of character as seen in the episode “Cool Jerk” when Arnold ignores Gerald’s warning about befriending and older boy who wants to use Arnold. Gerald saves Arnold from potentially life altering consequences of a bad decision to trust the wrong person. Aside from being street-smart, Gerald is the keeper of history for the neighborhood kids. Sid, one of the neighborhood kids, usually introduces the urban legends that Gerald then tells. Like RugratsHey Arnold! makes sure to highlight Gerald’s family as well. The Johanssens are a close knit rambunctious nuclear family of five. Gerald’s mother works as a cashier and his father is a business man. Gerald has a typical relationship with his older brother, Jamie O, and his younger sister Timberly. Sandwiched between his two siblings, Gerald often finds himself at the mercy of Jamie O’s bullying and cleaning up his sister’s messes. In the episode “Gerald Moves Out,” Gerald leaves home but quickly realizes that even though his family annoys him he loves and needs them. Gerald brings style and flavor to Hey Arnold!.

As a more lighthearted look at fourth grade life, Recess centers around the school and its hierarchy. T.J. often finds himself at odds with the established order with his group of friends by his side. Like Gerald, Vince usually tries to talk T.J. out of his ideas only to end up a part of them. When Vince is not fighting against playground hierarchy with T.J. and the Gang, he is most often playing schoolyard sports. Vince’s athletic ability is legendary among the students. Vince never turns down a challenge and always wins, even when he is challenged t o make something edible out of the school’s lunch. Vince’s athletic superiority make him one of the school’s most popular and coolest kids. The only kid considered cooler than Vince is his older brother Chad. However, this is shaken when Vince comes to realize that Chad is actually a nerd in the episode “Big Brother Chad.” Vince worries that he too will become a nerd, but when Chad stands up to a bully on behalf of some younger students, Vince learns that there are different ways to be cool. His adoration of his brother and his friendship with the rest of the Gang proves he is able to look past school hierarchy and accept people as they come.

The similarities between Gerald and Vince are not hard to miss. Aside from both being fourth graders, they each wear jersey’s and are good at sports. They even rock the same hairstyle even though Gerald’s fade stands quite a bit taller than Vince’s. Their popularity makes them leaders as they both serve as class presidents. Smart, athletic, and loyal, Gerald and Vince give visibility to black boyhood just as Susie for black girlhood. Rugrats, Hey Arnold, and Recess were diverse shows that represented animated childhood across age ranges and demographics. 

–– A. Latson



Sister, Sister: Sisterhood & Womanism in the 90s

Womanism: “Also: A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter), and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health.”[1]

Alice Walker     

A close friend told me being a Black woman is like being in a secret club of magic, sisterhood and friendship. Reflecting on Black women’s friendship and sisterhood on television and movies in the 90s, I, similarly see a consistent theme of support, unconditional love and acceptance.  These themes can be aligned to how Alice Walker describes a Black feminist in her definition of Womanism. Walker describes Womanism as young girl as “girlish” or  “womanish” or a black feminist or feminist of color. I find her description of Womanism as a means to provide a specific exploration into the lives of Black womanhood.

 I look specifically to Walker’s second definition because it captures the essence of the 90s Black woman who aims to take on the responsibility to be in charge of herself and to question the world around her. I reference how this can be explored in the hit show Living Single and the hit movie and book Waiting to Exhale. I utilize Walker’s second definition to explore how these women embody the spirit of being a womanist through the ways their characters interact with each other and how they stand alone as independent Black women loving and living in the 90s.

Looking at the lives of Khadijah James, Synclaire James, Regina Hunter and Maxine Shaw, Living Single explores the lives of four independent Black women in New York City. This show captures the “everydayness” of single Black women in New York who validated each other, dealt with love and relationships and enjoying each other’s company.

With each woman having their own characteristics and identities, each woman on the show had an important role in each other’s lives. Khadijah and Regina were childhood friends who supported each other when things got tough. This support and commitment were also fluid in Khadijah and Synclaire’s relationship as cousins who she employed at her own Hip-Hop magazine called “Flava”.

Maxie and Khadijah were college friends from Howard University and Maxie seemed to always be the advocate for strong independent Black women amongst her friends. Their friendship supports Walker’s definition because of the characters emotional flexibility, their commitment to women’s empowerment and their tough bond as friends that were seamlessly interconnected, through the best and worst of times.

Walker does a great job discussing the emotional and spiritual effort that goes into being a Womanist. Walker explains how Womanist appreciates women’s culture, loves women sexually and non-sexually and values a woman’s strength and weaknesses[2]. This is where the women in Terry McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale fit this definition. Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes and Gloria Matthews experienced tough trials of love, life and men. Through their experiences, the women supported each other through it all. There were words of affirmation and emotional support that showed people like Bernadine who was going through a terrible divorce that her friends were by her side.

I see Walker’s womanism as describing the social interactions, spiritual activism and critical thought that Black women do to uplift all people regardless of sexuality or gender. I understand this definition as a way to look at Black women’s liberation and healing of the self. Specifically, acting “womanish” seems to be a central theme in Waiting to Exhale. The four women were searching for answers to love, family and womanhood which is where I found the connection with Walker’s definition. This can be seen in Robin’s way of how she seemed to date the wrong men, but tried to see the best in them because she had love to give. Walker added the importance that a Womanist was not a separatist, but only in the occasion that Black woman in the 90s needs to repair her health. Gloria symbolizes the friend who represented self-care as a hairstylist and made sure her friends were always taking care of themselves, even if she didn’t want to do the big chop on Bernadine.

Furthermore, the importance of Walker’s definition and the analysis of  Black woman’s thoughts and feelings will better aid to the mental and emotional health and well-being where the Black woman can adequately take care of others and themselves in shows like Living Single and Waiting to Exhale. The womanist identity and the importance of Black women’s “everydayness” in the 90s was significant, interesting and relevant to highlighting the ugly and the beautiful of what it means to be a Black woman. These women work on coming into their own and being Black adult women who may not have it all figured out. But with the power of resilience, self-love and love for each other, the magnitude and power of their friendship kept them moving forward. — Adeerya J.


[1]Walker, A. (2006). Womanist. In L. Phillips, The Womanist Reader (p. 19). New York: Routledge.



Octavia Butler: Redefining and Rebuilding Black Identity

Science fiction writer Octavia Butler created new realities. Some of Butler’s realities are populated with aliens, such as the short story “Bloodchild” and the Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). In other cases, there are telepaths, immortals, and a variety characters some may expect to see in science fiction. However, what is most important is that her visions and examinations of the future (and past) portray realities with African-American men and women at the center. She offers nihilistic realities where black people are redefining and rebuilding humanity.

Octavia Butler

Butler published work from 1977 to shortly before her sudden death in 2006. However, she had several major milestones during the 1990s; she published the award-winning Parable Series–Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—and the story and essay collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. In 1995, she was also awarded a $295,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant”; Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive this prestigious fellowship.

Parable Series

The Parable series follows young black female Lauren Olamina. She is 15 at the beginning of the first novel, which follows her journey during the years 2024 through 2027; the sequel takes place in the time period 2032 to 2090. Extreme poverty, violence, and (especially in the sequel) tolerated persecution of many non-Christians is often seen and too often encouraged. Lauren creates a new religion Earthseed, but she repeatedly faces sacrifice, violence, and loss on a long and difficult rode to her faith finding a following. Olamina is a complex character who arguably sacrifices her family and personal happiness (as well as the happiness of her child) led by a greater sense of duty to help build a social, spiritual, physically decaying version of the United States. Olamina is not perfect, she provides black people with a readable complex character making difficult decisions and in a dark and scary society; she is an actor and not acted upon. A young black woman is an agent of power and change.

In an interview following the main text in Parable of the Talents (Grand Central Publishing edition), Butler offers insight into her choice for the title of the novel. She explains, “the parable of talents is one of the harsher parables of the Bible, but then life can be harsh…We will use our talents or we will lose them. We will use our talents to save ourselves or we’ll do what other animal species do sooner or later.”[i] Many of Butler’s realties are dark, violent, and just plain scary; they are warnings of Western society’s and general human failings. She forces the reader to consider and examine different possibilities for saving humanity and (even more deeply) the individual soul. Butler does not ignore or minimize the complexity of the future. She offers a reality that puts black people in the center of negotiating it. —Ebony Gibson

[i] Butler, page 409.