Our Gang’s Little Rascals, Racial Stereotypes, and Kids Just Having Fun

Mrs. Allotherpersons loves this video clip, and she insists that I put it on my blog. It’s from the Our Gang/Little Rascals series. I think it’s OK… here it is, take a look and let me add some comments.

As a child, one of my favorite shows was The Little Rascals, also known as Our Gang. As described by Wikipedia,

Our Gang/The Little Rascals… was a series of American comedy short films about the adventures of a group of poor neighborhood children. Created by comedy producer Hal Roach, Our Gang was produced… starting in 1922 as a silent short subject series. Roach changed distributors… in 1927, went to sound in 1929 and continued production until 1938, when he sold the series to MGM. MGM in turn continued producing the comedies until 1944. In the mid-1950s, the 80 Roach-produced shorts with sound were syndicated for television under the title The Little Rascals.

I started watching TV in the early 1960s. The fact that my viewing included Little Rascals shows which were made in the 1930s and 1940s is a testement to the fact that back in the ’60s, there wasn’t a lot of content on network television. (That may be why I never cease to be amazed by the hundreds of TV channels we get today on cable or satellite.)

So I watched The Little Rascals, in all their black and white glory. And I’m not just talking about the film color. The Rascals was unique, in that it featured an integrated cast, and, the black characters were not treated as ridiculous stereotypres.

My favorite character on the show who was a black kid named Stymie. He got a lot of lines, he had good comedic timing, he was a master of facial expressions even as a youngster, and he was something of a leader among his cast of characters. He was funny without being ridiculously silly. (Now Alfalfa-a white character on the show-he was ridiculously silly.)

But The Rascals did sometimes reflect the stereotypes of the day (see the above video), and that’s gotten it in trouble with people who look at the show with today’s sensibilities. As mentioned in Wikipedia,


The Our Gang series is notable for being one of the first times in movie history that blacks and whites were portrayed as equals, though a number of people, including members of the Black community, do not look favorably upon the characters of the black children today.

The four black child actors who held main-character roles in the series were Ernie “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Matthew “Stymie” Beard, and Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas. Ernie Morrison was, in fact, the first black actor signed to a long-term contract in Hollywood history, and was the first major black star in Hollywood history as well.

In their adult years, Ernie Morrison, Matthew Beard and Billie Thomas became some of Our Gang’s staunchest defenders, maintaining that its integrated cast and innocent story lines were far from racist. They explained that the white children’s characters in the series were similarly stereotyped: the “freckled kid,” the “fat kid,” the “pretty blond girl,” and the “mischievous toddler.” “We were just a group of kids who were having fun,” Stymie Beard recalled. Ernie Morrison stated that “when it came to race, Hal Roach was color-blind”.

Other minorities, including Asian Americans (Sing Joy, Allen Tong, and Edward Zoo Hoo) and Italian Americans (Mickey Gubitosi), were also depicted in the series, with varying levels of “stereotyping” – commonplace in the stylized, slapstick comedy tradition in which the Our Gang films are firmly rooted.

My own take on this: I loved the show. The fact is, there were very few other (and probably, no other) TV programs that either featured black kids, or, that featured black and white kids in a mixed setting.

The Little Rascals made it seem natural for black and white children to play together. That’s a legacy for which everyone involved in the show should be proud.
***

According to TVParty.com, the above clip is from the 1933 short The Kid from Borneo. (Not to be confused with the later movie The Wild Man of Borneo.) In it, Dickie, a white kid, mistakenly (but wholeheartedly) believes his uncle is an untamed African jungle man. When he shows a picture of his ‘uncle’ to his best friend Stymie, who is black, the conversation went as follows:

Dickie: “Hey fellas c’mere. Take a look at our uncle. Pop says he’s plenty wild, too.”
Stymie: “He sure do look wild. What makes him so black?”
Dickie: “Mom says he’s the black sheep of the family.”
Stymie: “Them horns make him look more like a goat!”


Dickie and Stymie discuss Uncle George in The Kid from Borneo.

Answers.com notes that The Kid from Borneo was pulled from the Little Rascals TV package “due to its allegedly offensive ‘racist’ content, although it remains a favorite on the home-video market.”

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12 comments

  1. ThatzLife

    This show was racist! Are you blind or stupid. Im looking at one episode called SPOOK SPOOFING! Ok, they called the black kid a spook. That term is an obvious racist put down that whites use to denegrate African Americans.
    They put that term in the title! Furthermore, the entire episode is about the white OUR GANG boys, playing jokes on the little Black kid. (spoofing him).
    This is terrible, but of course….look at how white people today say this wasn’t racist. It portrayed the kids as equals! Give me one intelligent being who can watch that episode and just look at the title and say that the black kid was an equal in that movie!!!!
    How dare you!

  2. Meg

    I am in my mid-30s and do not remember a time when I didn’t watch the Little Rascals. I recently bought the collection and have laughed so hard I could barely breathe. Stymie has been my favorite for years. He was one of the most popular characters and as somebody mentioned not silly like Alfalfa. I can understand why some would watch this and think of it as being racist. But back in the 30′s everything was intended or assumed to be racially motivated like things are today. I just watched “the pinch singer” where kids including Alfalfa dressed in black face. That was done back then and although by today’s standards it’s considered racist (unlike blacks dressing like whites in White Chicks- go figure) it wasn’t meant to be derogatory. Some of my best friends are black and I’ve had this discussion with them. They agree that no harm was intended and they take no offense. I guess it’s all in how you want to view these episodes.

      • Ken Wayne

        I agree Meg, but there are alot of white folks out there that like to play the “race police” in an effort not so much to monitor racism, but to judge others and ordain themselves. Its phoney and selfishly motivated. The interesting thing is, that 99% of the time, these folks live in exclusively lilly-white communities.

  3. Cookiepuss

    In the 30′s and 40′s, exploiting racial stereotypes wasn’t taboo. Perhaps a black kid rubbing Aladdin’s lamp and wishing for a watermelon wouldn’t play in 2011 but it provided cheap laughs back in the day. My 2 1/2 year old loves the Our Gang series…particularly the stymie character. The racist bits shoot over her head. If the produces had a clear agenda to villify any particular group…that group would be rich wasps.

  4. Kevin

    Not one of the best episodes, but a good one, nonetheless.

    Almost anything can be racist or sexist or otherwise “derogatory” – if that is what is being sought after. Stereotypes are not inherently racist, but they are if you want them to be. Certain cultures have tendencies that other certain cultures do not have. Noticing that does not make the observer racist – it makes him or her observant.

    This show is a comedy that plays up stereotypes. I laugh at the mishaps of all of the characters equally.

    Thank you for sharing the clip!

  5. D

    Reading the comments posted about the aforementioned clip are saddening. Any American that is unwilling to accepting that racial sentiments have and continue to play a significant role in American society, shows a blatant disregard for this Nation’s unique but brutal history. Moreover, to assert that any dialogue regarding race is an example of the over-sensitivities of a particular group is in itself insensitive to that group’s heritage.

    In the US, slavery and discriminatory practices have been used with the most effectiveness primarily by those of European descent. The consequences of those actions still affect the country to this day. So a clip from the 1930′s, the height of the Jim Crow era, showing a white child willing to share with another white child but unwilling to share with a black child is a vivid example of the painful discrimination so many still experience.

    At this point, every race must consciously work toward reconciliation and positive collaboration. This will require humility and forgiveness; I am confident we can get there. Peace and Love

    • grandpachet

      Um…D, I’m not sure if you watched the clip at all. Stymie is the one unwilling to share his candy with anybody. “Candy’s hard to come by,” he explains. (And gets a laugh with the nothing line. He could always do that, even during his adult days. What an actor!) There’s no white child sharing or not sharing anything with anyone else.
      Stymie was a favorite of Stan Laurel, who recognized the kid’s incredible ability to get laughs and his natural timing. He not only gave Stymie the trademark hat, you’ll notice a lot of Stan’s “bits” and “schticks” that Stymie picked up – and usually made ‘em funnier.
      You’re free to complain, to think what you wish, and to hate who and what you choose to hate. That’s American. You want to disparage some of the best comedy actors ever on film, just because they acted in lowbrow (not always) slapstick burlesques? That’s your right. But you’ll never change my admiration or love for any of these guys – nor will you take away any of the laughs and blessings they’ve given me over and through the years. When you and I are dead and gone, people will still be laughing at the antics of Farina (an actor who could cry on cue! What director wouldn’t want to hire such a kid?), Stymie (one of America’s best comedy actors), Buckwheat Thomas (Possibly the most beloved of the Gang. If he was nicknamed for his color, does that mean wild alfalfa is freckled and sings off-key?), Spanky, Darla (so cute you need insulin), and Alfalfa (who was stereotyped forever).

      What next? Do we still want to rip Hattie McDaniel’s oscar, her two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and her postage stamp from her cold, dead hands? It’s a shame…she, like the Rascals, broke so many cliches and opened so many doors for the rest of us.

  6. Shannon

    Yesterday, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iphone
    and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a
    youtube sensation. My apple ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is entirely off topic but I had to
    share it with someone!

  7. V.E.G.

    After January 5, 2011, Our Gang is not going to be on television anymore. It is off the air for good.

  8. allan

    It is not okay to think that those movies were funny I get it. but then what about all the GAY characters on TV or movies that get the laugh? Lighten up everyone.

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