Critical Humor in Ad Reinhardt’s Races of Mankind Cartoons

During World War II, Ad Reinhardt’s cartoons for the Races of Mankind pamphlet engaged what Gunnar Myrdal later called the “American Dilemma,” the failure of white Americans to recognize the contradiction between their ideals of democracy and their practices of racial and religious discrimination. Written by the anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, the pamphlet was banned from use in the U.S. Army and at U.S.O. clubs. Members of Congress objected to the text’s insistence that all races are mentally equal and targeted Reinhardt’s cartoons, arguing that these “grotesque and frivolous” images were inappropriate for a scientific treatise and that his drawing of Adam and Eve with navels was proof of the pamphlet’s communistic intent!1 Such denunciations became a sustained news event which increased demand for the pamphlet; over a million copies were published, and it served as a fundamental text in efforts to combat prejudice through the next decade.

figure 1. Ad Reinhardt, cover, Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, The Races of Mankind (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1943). Courtesy Ad Reinhardt Foundation.
figure 2. Ad Reinhardt, “An American brought up in China will speak Chinese,” The Races of Mankind. Courtesy Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

Although Benedict and Weltfish did not challenge the concept of biological races, they marshaled anthropological facts to stress the commonality of the three so-called primary races. The anthropologists’ initial sketches for the cartoons indicate that they intended Reinhardt to minimize the significance given to physical differences and to dismantle associations of race with intelligence, language, culture, and religion. Reinhardt exploited the graphic language of cartoons to engage and expand their argument, often by creating incongruous situations which evoke perceptual uncertainty. In the cartoon on the pamphlet’s cover (figure 1), seven figures with different skin tones stand arrayed in various costumes, but the perception of such differences is contradicted by identical body shapes, poses, and facial profiles. Countering this group, the figure on the right returns their gaze while scratching his head; looking closer, we see that he also appears in the group, though in a different pair of shoes, which undermines facile judgments of similarity and difference. This character performs several roles in the pamphlet -- as an interrogative actor, a diegetic agent, or a source of curiosity concerning how to look at people. In this way, Reinhardt asks viewers to adopt a flexible, inquisitive attitude toward reconsidering their racial assumptions. For instance, he doubles the white male figure in this scenario (figure 2) to destabilize the perception of similarity: what the questioner hears confounds his expectations based on what he sees.

In this cartoon (figure 3), Reinhardt presents a cartographic pun in which a sinusoidal map of the Earth also serves as a family dinner table. This map/table device troubles the world picture advanced by American isolationists of the time and taps into the pamphlet’s “One World” rhetoric, which argued that in the “Air Age” the world was shrinking into one global neighborhood. The white male figure is shown in a position of authority, seated at the head of the table, while standing figures in various costumes offer different kinds of food. However, white Americans’ sense of superiority is quickly deflated as the European gifts to the American diet, crabapples and hazel nuts, are represented as inconsequential in relation to those of other peoples. Such a diet, Weltfish later explained, would be “pretty slim” without the contributions of all Americans.

Altering his tactics in this cartoon (figure 4), Reinhardt demonstrates how missing elements can generate meaning. Here, the artist playfully imagines a row of contestants on the Quiz Kids game show, a popular radio program whose appeal rested upon listening to children’s precocious answers to unexpected questions. The central figure, Susie Brown, looks toward the viewer while sitting between a befuddled boy and another puzzled contestant shown scratching his head. This boy looks at another girl, who concentrates by gnawing on a pencil with an undrawn mouth. Other figures lack this facial feature, while Susie, shown smiling, is able to respond.

figure 3. Ad Reinhardt, "Our food comes from many peoples," The Races of Mankind. Courtesy Ad Reinhardt Foundation.
figure 4. Ad Reinhardt, “Susie Brown knows all the answers,” The Races of Mankind. Courtesy Ad Reinhardt Foundation.

Weltfish recognized the potential of Reinhardt’s critical form of humor to undermine prejudice without recourse to derision or stereotypes. She and Violet Edwards, educational director for the pamphlet’s publisher, designed a filmstrip to be shown (accompanied by the pamphlet) to school classes, assemblies, and adult groups. We Are All Brothers (1944; rev. ed., 1946) presented the lesson of brotherhood by combining eight partially-colored versions of Reinhardt’s cartoons with new images in a “picture story” format to foster group discussion. The filmstrip was a flexible medium, as one could move back and forth through the sequence of images and spend more time on a particular frame depending on the flow of discussion. We Are All Brothers also included a quiz which asked viewers to apply everyday habits of assessing race to a sequence of photographic portraits. Weltfish designed the quiz to induce a sense of cognitive failure; people, she claimed, cannot be sorted into simple racial pigeonholes.2 To emphasize this point, the quiz concluded with the cover cartoon (figure 1), now captioned “What do we mean by race?” The authors recommended that teachers complement the pamphlet and filmstrip with group activities, such as having people look at their own blood samples under a microscope, count their ribs, and dismantle stereotypes by noting how the varied features of their classmates do not easily coalesce into racial types. Participants were also encouraged to discuss their own encounters of prejudice and make connections to their everyday lives.3 In this way, Weltfish and Edwards hoped, We Are All Brothers would link the perceptual and cognitive lessons of Reinhardt’s cartoons to such experiential activities, and thereby create a learning situation for moving beyond mere lip service to tolerance or platitudes of a “brotherhood of man.”



NOTES

1. “Thinks Pamphlet Unfit,” PM (April 28, 1944): 6.

2. Gene Weltfish and Dina M. Bleich, “We Are All Brothers,” See and Hear 1, no. 6 (1946): 30.

3. Gene Weltfish and Violet Edwards, We Are All Brothers (New York: Public Affairs Committee, 1946), 3.

 

Contributor

Marianne Kinkel

MARIANNE KINKEL is Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Washington State University. Her book, Races of Mankind: The Sculptures of Malvina Hoffman (2011), discusses how Reinhardt engaged cartography in the Races of Mankind cartoons.

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