Think of trailblazing black TV shows, and The Cosby Show immediately comes to mind. But before the Cliff Huxtable, there was Fat Albert, Bill Cosby’s beloved animated creation that became famous for his catchphrase, “Hey, hey, hey!” Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids began airing in 1972, around the same time that other cartoons and animated shows finally began featuring black characters that weren’t all embodiments of negative stereotypes. “It wasn’t until the early 1970’s that Saturday Morning television cartoons started to feature image affirming Black characters with a modern look and positive story lines that delivered culturally relevant messages,” writes Pamela Thomas, aka Sista ToFunky, on the website of her online Museum of UnCut Funk.
The museum, which I discovered thanks to a recent NPR story, is a treasure trove of African-American pop cultural artifacts and ephemera, from Blaxploitation movie posters to black comic books. Perhaps the most extensive is the black animation collection, which includes extensive explanatory texts, YouTube links, and original production cels and drawings. Thomas, who has a degree in black history from City College and is a former art dealer, focuses not just on shows with all-black casts, like Fat Albert and The Jackson 5ive cartoon, but on black characters that popped up in other shows, like Josie and the Pusscats’ Valerie Brown, whom she dubs the “first positive Black female character in a Saturday morning cartoon series”; and the “first Black male superhero character in a Saturday morning cartoon,” Schoolhouse Rock’s Verb (“I can question like: What is it? / Verb, you’re so demanding,” the song goes).
The Museum of UnCut Funk is an internet rabbit hole that you can (and should) easily get lost in for hours. It has no physical home yet, but I can only hope it will one day. In the meantime, Thomas has organized a physical exhibition, Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution, focused on black characters in Saturday morning cartoons. It opens at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in February, and will travel to Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History and Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum afterwards.