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Musical Mose, Feb. 23, 1902

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I am fascinated by Musical Mose, an obscure humor comic strip by George Herriman, better known for his critically-acclaimed series Krazy Kat. Published as Herriman’s first continuing series for New York World in 1902, Mose is a traveling black musician whose recitals go awry when he attempts to impersonate a performer of a different ethnicity. In “No Use These Days, To Try To Break Into Those Exclusive Professions” from March 9, Mose is pummeled by a group of Italian men for posing as an organ grinder (see below), while in another episode, he plays an Irish fiddle beautifully, but is assailed by the Tipperary Guards for singing “The Wearing of the Green.”

The series lasted for only three or four strips and I’m grateful that Allan Holtz at the Stripper’s Guide blog has made these scans available online.

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Click to see larger image.

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I have been looking for new ways to talk with my students about racial caricature in early American comic strips that don’t treat the urge to take offense, or to refuse it, as the only mode of critical inquiry that matters. I wonder if Musical Mose might offer the opportunity to ask different kinds of questions about how cartoonists used blackface minstrel traditions as visual and verbal shorthand for African Americans.

Mose ignores his wife’s advice to “confine yo’ sef to de cullud church festibals” and despite the rolling eyes and oversized lips of a face as black as burnt cork, he takes advantage of his musical talent to slip into new social identities as if they are stage costumes. We might even go so far as to call him a working-class trickster figure; he hardly has time to enjoy a single moment of success before his status is questioned – “how blissful,” he murmurs as he plays the street organ – and yet, the consequences don’t seem to be taxing enough to keep him from trying again and again.

Whether motivated by bliss or financial need, each of Mose’s attempts spur a reconsideration of the fixed racial hierarchies that are central to late-19th and early 20th-century caricature in comics (as Jared Gardner points out in his terrific analysis of Frederick Opper’s Happy Hooligan). I am convinced that the cultural deceits that Herriman wants to convey extend far beyond the title character’s slapstick musical impersonations — would it be going too far to suggest that this 1902 comic challenges the narrow confines of racial and ethnic caricature more generally?

The masks that Mose wears are made all the more intriguing by the cartoonist’s own mixed racial heritage, as Jeet Heer explains in his discussion of Herriman and race from the Toronto Star in 2005. In reference to a cartoon I have not yet been able to find (but would love to see), Heer writes:

“I wish mah color would fade,” Mose says at one point. Was Herriman mocking Mose or his own life?

And in a 2008 column for the Times Union, journalist Alexander Stern makes a similar comparison:

Like Herriman, Mose knows the perils of trying to pass, yet he risks discovery.  And why?  In the name of art.

Questions such as these not only seem to cast Mose as Herriman’s version of an early Bert Williams, but also set the comic strip apart from its serial counterparts, including Richard Outcault’s Pore Lil Mose (1900-1902) and William Marriner’s Sambo and His Funny Noises (1905-1914). What do you think? How does Musical Mose complicate your understanding of racial caricature?

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About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

4 responses »

  1. These are really fascinating, Qiana! With Mose, Herriman seems to be toying with these stock figures in the same way Charles Chesnutt in his conjure tales deconstructs the stock figures and tropes in Joel Chandler Harris’s work. It’s like an absurd parade of caricatures.

    But I also find Mose’s attempts to play his music in these different worlds tremendously moving!

    I’ve been thinking about the use of stereotypes in early comics, too, as I work on this chapter on C.C. Beck. He was very blunt about “stereotypes” being essential to his style. In Tom Heintjes’s excellent compilation of Beck interview’s at Hogan’s Alley, Beck explains,

    “To keep readers from having their attention drawn away from the stories, I deliberately used characters, settings and props that would be instantly recognized by everyone everywhere
    . . .in other words, stereotypes.”

    Like Gary Groth in an excellent TCJ interview from 1985, however, Heintjes includes a discussion of Steamboat. Beck responds, “He was always a cartoon character, not intended to be realistic at all, but he was taken seriously by some, sadly enough.” But Beck’s comments and the Mose cartoons have me wondering–how do we “recognize” or identify these images if they are “not intended to be realistic at all”? Isn’t that a contradiction? I’m still trying to work out these issues. Thanks for giving me more to think about, Qiana!

    • Brian, I thought about Chesnutt too. We are definitely on the same page!

      I can’t wait to hear more about what you are going to do with Steamboat and this strange space between “instantly recognized” and “not intended to be realistic.” Maybe we should start a list of all the explanations that cartoonists use to justify these representations. It would sound something like an afterschool special. Everybody was doing it! I didn’t think it would hurt!

  2. Yet another wonderfully complex post, Qiana! These Herriman strips (which I’ve not seen before), and your astute comments, put me in mind of border crossings and several forms of passing/not passing: Mose, on the one hand, suffers silencing and physical pain for treading into ethnic white musical territory, but on the other hand, makes it very clear that he has the skill to pick up new forms and instruments such that he feels “bliss,” while threatened others must acknowledge–begrudgingly or not–that he has successfully mastered these forms (he plays loike a real Irish man;” “…he taka way da job from us”). The tension there around who gets to do (play) what is palpable, and becomes, for me, an interesting visual/verbal (or musical, really) juxtaposition. Visually, the blackface character is stopped cold at the border (“you no ginny”) but musically, this itinerant player can move freely, and convincingly, across all musical “borders,” rendering them illusory.

    • Adrielle, I’m glad you find this strip as interesting as I do! And the idea of border crossings is certainly appropriate. (I really like, as you point out, the fact that Herriman has the listeners begrudgingly acknowledge his talent!) You can do so much with the music here – it’s intangible and evocative enough that the ability to play could arguably amount to the ability to express one’s shared humanity or spirit…

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