Free the Black Looney Tunes!

Yes, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves and Uncle Tom's Bungalow contain racial stereotypes and have long been suppressed. But it's time to lift the censorship and enjoy their joyous art.

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To be sure, in 1943 the NAACP protested Coal Black. But in those days, things like this were almost the only depiction of blacks in mainstream pop culture. Today we are long past that -- or even by the early '80s, when The Cosby Show was heralded as showing whites that not all black people were poor.

There's a reason restaurateur B. Smith is no longer hot news. In our times, Spike Lee movies, Tyler Perry's universe, the first family and even the likes of bread-and-butter TV successes like Sister, Sister and That's So Raven -- the passing nature of those last two only underscores the point -- show us that black depictions in the media have done a lot of overcoming.  Eight minutes of jiving cartoon high jinks can hardly be blamed for defining black people.

Sound familiar? All of it is right out of the rap catalog -- the lingo, the butts, the violence, right down to the gold teeth. If Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are classic, then why aren't the Censored Eleven? These cartoons are pieces of black performance history in their way. Stylized, to be sure. But so is rap. Stereotyped, to be sure. But ... need I go on?

Primly holding these 11 cartoons back in the vaults in 2010 makes black people look, frankly, weak. Why can't we take a joke as, say, Yunte Huang can about Charlie Chan, as recounted in a recent New Yorker? Charlie Chan gets anthologized on DVD sets with all of us admitting that the past is the past (when the Chinese past in America was quite hideous). But we can only get peeks at the Censored Eleven from muddy prints of some of them on YouTube.

It's high time for Warner Home Video to do a DVD with all 11 of these historical curios. They should include sage commentary before each one and preface the whole thing with a nice apologia by someone black. I suggest Whoopi Goldberg, who was brought in for similar purpose in earlier Looney Tunes DVD sets, or Oprah. Or maybe even Dr. Dre.

Yes, there will be a flutter or two of protest from people who can't take a joke even at 70 years' remove. But the sky will not fall in, and the kerfuffle will only increase the profits on a DVD that will sell like hotcakes from minute one. And that will not be because the cartoons are racist -- though they are -- but because they are, in spite of themselves, one part history and one part just plain fierce.

John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University and a contributing editor to The New Republic.

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