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“Mom why are they all black?” My oldest daughter said with a confused and concerned tone. “Not brown like us but just all black, and no faces?”

The 1941 version of Dumbo in its day was an animation masterpiece. A feature length film with talking animals. Today we can see it for all its flaws. From questionable lyrics, to racist crows. Dumbo comes with a lot of baggage.

via Disney

My daughter’s question started a discussion about animation, technology and even our country’s racist history. It’s not new to her. It’s a topic we’ve talked about many many times. Whether during homeschool, during our tour through the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. or while reading various books. We talked about how there wasn’t much diversity in movies in the 1940s, and when people who looked like us were in movies they weren’t always depicted nicely.

I get some people who ask me how we as a “Disney family” either 1. Can watch these old movies with racist undertones or 2. How I discuss them with my kids.

The post I had planned to write today was a review of the new live action Dumbo. But screw it. Let’s get a little dirty. This is important and something I’d love to chat with you about.

Mother daughter Disney Bound. Dressed as Mama Jumbo and Timothy the Mouth and a baby girl as Dumbo.
Photo by HeyTeamKelly

Wait, Dumbo is racist?

So first off, if you wandered in here and are thinking “Dumbo is racist? What?!” And are feeling a little sheepish right now, don’t. It’s ok, you’re reading this and taking the time to learn and that’s what’s important. What we are willing to do now. Not forever being ridiculed for our ignorance of the past.

Also, honestly, growing up I was clueless too. Not that Dumbo was on our most-played list or anything. But I was either bored with it, confused by it, or more in awe of seeing babies come from storks than anything else as a kid.

Questionable Lyrics

As an adult I was more clued into the racist undertones but since this movie wasn’t on our regular rotation it was more thanks to articles. For instance I didn’t know what in the world the men were saying as they build the circus tent. Even today I went back and watched it before writing this and I still can barely make it out. I replayed it several times, kept getting distracted by cute baby Dumbo working alongside his mama, so I finally searched to find the disturbing lyrics.

via Disney

Unsure what I’m talking about? When the Casey Jr. train stops chugging along and the animals begin to file out of the “Song of the Roustabouts” has a scene with dark faceless, and featureless men. They look more like boxy robots than real people. And lyrics such as “Grab that rope, you hairy ape!” Lyrics which were wisely not included in the 2019 live action version directed by Tim Burton.

Racist Crows

Later in the movie there’s a flock of crows that find Dumbo and Timothy asleep in the tree.

Also, call me dim, but though I immediately caught the vocal version of blackface (assuming the crows were drawn and voiced by white actors), I did miss that the lead crow is named “Jim Crow” (I don’t believe it was ever said in the movie, I’ve re-watched the scene a few times and haven’t caught it. It’s not in the movie credits but it is listed on iMDb that’s his name.

Image of racist crows Dumbo film listening to Dumbo's sob story.
via Disney

Jim Crow laws were laws that enforced racial segregation in the South. They began after the Civil War and continued through the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. They were finally abolished with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law outlawed discrimination in any type of public accommodation (source).

So Dumbo was released in 1941. Before the Civil Rights Movement began, arguably at the height of the Jim Crow laws. And they decided to name the leader of a jive-dancing, slang-throwing, jazz-singing group of birds Jim Crow and he’s voiced by a white guy. See how this can be seen as problematic?

I personally never saw the birds to be of low intelligence or lazy, as some critics will point out. But they were clearly written in the movie to depict a stereotype of black people at the time, and the main bird’s name is Jim Crow.

If you don’t have the movie and can’t see what I’m talking about for yourself, you may not get a chance. The scene will be cut from the Disney+ version of the film.

racism crows Dumbo help him fly. Clip from the movie.
via Disney

As a child I didn’t see the birds as depicting black people, because the black people in my life didn’t look or act that way. As an adult, I can see where the scene went wrong. But as a viewer, I’m glad that Disney decided to remove it from the streaming services. Kids around the world don’t need to see that without context on how or why it was wrong. As a mother, I’m glad we still have the original version because it’s a really really good lesson.

How can you watch this?

I watched it with Lil’ J for the first time when she was three. We had a nightly routine of twisting her hair and watching a new Disney movie together in my bed. When Dumbo came up the queue she watched the mama elephant with her strange-looking baby. The one quote I remember from her while we watched that first time was during the pink elephants song, when Dumbo and Timothy accidentally get drunk of champagne and start hallucinating. That’s when she said “Mom, this is freaking me out.”

I tried so hard to contain my laughter. I’d never heard her say anything like that before. But it sparked a great conversation about alcohol.

Now, about five years later we re-watched this version after seeing the live-action movie to compare the two. And she noticed the faceless men building the circus tent, and that really bothered her.

I was finally noticing the crows that everyone has been upset about. But my kids didn’t. Big T was asleep by that time (it was a late movie night), and Lil’ J didn’t say anything about it, so I put a pin in that conversation for now.

Let me break down first 1. Why I allow my kids to watch these movies with racist undertones and 2. How we discuss them.

Why I let my kids watch Dumbo

The original Dumbo premiered in 1941. Back then the world was in the middle of WWII. The attack on Pearl Harbor happened at the end of that year. Black people were migrating north where they had the right to vote because in the South we still couldn’t. And even still, some states passed literacy laws to keep people from being eligible to vote. Schools were segregated. Towns were segregated. Interracial marriage was illegal. Things weren’t so nice for us. (source)

When you compare how things were for us then to now, we are sitting pretty. I had the opportunity to attend an integrated public school in Georgia. Go to a public college and private University. Earn scholarships. Work as a television reporter and anchor in 3 cities over a decade. And now I own my own business, working my own hours while raising my three kids and living in our dream house I put half down on. Yes, I have a husband and he helped but I’m just going to own this for a minute ok? I did that. A black woman. Praise the Lord I’m alive today and able to do that.

Mother daughter Disney Bound. Dressed as Mama Jumbo and a baby girl as Dumbo.

I am not going to forget what so many people before us had to do to get us to where we are now. I am also not going to ignore or erase the past or act like it didn’t happen. We can learn from this. Besides, the crows were the only characters that wound up being nice to Dumbo after hearing his story, and I think that is another lesson in and of itself.

Listen, if 2019 Dumbo was a duplicate of the past with all of the underage drinking and blackface I woulda snatched my kids and walked up out of that theater.

But we’ve had 78 years to learn, grow and evolve. And we can look back at mistakes and call them just that. A history lesson if you will. But I’m not throwing Dumbo, Peter Pan, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, Pocahontas and… I’m sure I’m forgetting others in my fireplace to burn. But I don’t personally get myself too wound up about it because I’m giving my children context. And we can learn a lot with that.

As Aramide A. Tinubu well in an essay on NBC Think, we can learn from our past.

Unpacking how, why and when these projects were made would provide context for newcomers and those who haven’t seen these films in decades. It would offer an opportunity for growth, conversation and healing. But, by sweeping these issues under the rug, Disney suggests they would rather shut the door on their past atrocities than take the time and space to learn, grow and evolve from them. Sometimes doing what’s best for the generations that follow us means we must get uncomfortable, and expose our past faults and failures to them for us all to evolve.

Aramide A. Tinubu

Now I’m not going to ridicule Disney for taking that part out of it’s streaming service. Without context for those who need it, it could do more harm that good. But let’s hope there’s room for that later on.

How we discuss racism in Dumbo and other Disney movies

This time my daughter’s question started a discussion about animation, technology and even racism.

Normally when we see a live action movie we watch the original first. But this time we went ahead and watch the 2019 version before the 1941 version. I figured one would help give the other more context and open up move discussion that way.

I always ask what they thought of the movie, favorite parts, least favorite parts. And we talk about how the two versions are the same and different. Lil’ J’s direct comment about the men building the tent sparked conversation for us. I ask her what she thought of them, why she thinks they don’t have faces, and why she thinks their skin looks like that. Then I try to do more asking than talking.

I ask if they know how long ago the movie was made (and give the answer if they don’t). Ask if they know what was going on in the world during that time, and how people acted towards one another. Ask if they think artists or writers working on movies may have thought differently or the same as everyone else. And we talk about now. I ask how things are now, what they notice is different. How they think artist now may draw the movie if they could re-do it.

Had she not brought that up I may have asked her what she thought about the crows. Since she didn’t think anything of it, and I wouldn’t expect her to, so I let it go this time. But I do want to There are so many layers to that that would require me to point out things like “white voiceover actor” “the bird’s name is actually Jim… Jim Crow”, “They were created to try to act like black people” all things that aren’t obvious to her right now. So I didn’t feel the need to discuss it this time, but I’m sure it’ll be a conversation we’ll have some day. And I’ll be ready.

Now I have an honest question for you. Did you ever see these scenes in the movie Dumbo as racist?

Mother daughter Disney Bound. Dressed as Mama Jumbo and Timothy the Mouth and a baby girl as Dumbo.

Ok so this got long. Instead of tacking the review of the live action remake to the bottom of this post I’m going to share that on Friday. Along with the glaring difference that stuck out about the two films, and if we think buying the new movie is worth it.


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Tara says:

Thanks so much for sharing your perspective on this. You should totally own all of your awesome! I didn’t make any connections to racism or black people when I saw Dumbo as a kid, I just remember thinking it was a weird movie. Once I rewatched those scenes as an adult, after starting to hear people talking about how racist the movie was, I felt kinda dumb for not noticing it. I’m glad they’re taking some of those parts out for the streaming service, I definitely agree that those scenes are probably best viewed with an adult available to offer context and answer questions.

Jennifer says:

I felt a little bad that I didn’t notice it at first too. But I think it’s ok because we are human and always learning and becoming better.

Maria says:

Great article. IMDB is edited by the public. If the crow is actually named Jim it should be an authentic source that can be verified. I was curious and upon a basic web search this has been repeated but with no real source, very common on the internet. I wonder, if the name Jim is not said in the movie or in the credits then whom and how has the name been attached to the crow. The racist elements of the movie was definitely a sign of that time and something accepted to weave into a mass market movie / art of the time, which is interesting in itself. Those artists working on the film and executives thought this was appropriate.

Jennifer says:

Thanks for the note! I will keep digging for the name too. It’s funny how something can be said over and over and over and it becomes “true” even if it’s not. I sat and listened to the movie over and over and the song to see if they ever said “hey Jim” but I didn’t hear it. So now that does make me wonder how one would give a name to a bird that doesn’t technically have a name. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast has been given a random name of “Prince Adam” but Disney has never stated that as his name, so it kinda reminds me of that. And isn’t it interesting how they thought that appropriate? Actually you know something else I’ve been thinking that if something like this was made now, by Disney but maybe with a group of black creators and animators, I don’t think it would be perceived as bad. So time and place has a lot to do with the perception.

Sharon says:

Yes. I did see the racist undertones in Dumbo, even as a kid. I think I was hypersensitive to that because I was growing up during the most recent Civil Rights movement. My parents are Southerners and grew up in the Jim Crow south. My dad coached and taught at HBCUs. This was during the time that major universities shunned Balikpapan students. My dad pointed out that the black crows copied the Zoot Suitors — young black men who liked dressing in oversized suits. Everyone at the time would have gotten the connection.

Jennifer says:

You know Sharon, I’m glad you mentioned that! I’m going to call my grandmother today and ask her if she watched this when it came out and see what she thought. It would be interesting to hear her thoughts.

Sharon says:

Oops. That was supposed to say “Black people”.

Oh wow, I didn’t think of Dumbo as racist but I can completely see the racist undertones in it now! I haven’t seen it for ages. I remember watching it as a child. I’ve seen it again as an adult but not for several years, I don’t think. Thanks for sharing, and as you say it’s important to learn from these things. I haven’t seen the new version yet but would like to.

Zania

Maria says:

Makes me wonder, from a historical point of view was there anyone in the arts and entertainment industry that was opposed to these images and language of racism? Where they in a position to make a difference or object to putting out this kind of stuff? Was the movement against this not big enough at the time? Lots of questions since I didn’t live in that time.

Hildie says:

Really, the only thing that I remember about Dumbo was that pink elephant scene too. But I adored “when I see an elephant fly”. Like it was one of my top ten favorite Disney songs. I knew that it was sung by crows and that they sounded like they were black.. But you’re telling me they were really white? That is super crazy. I missed all the racial undertones of most everything because I was a typical clueless white person!

Ash says:

As a white kid in 1990s, I thought the pink elephant scene + crows were the best parts of the film. The pink elephants were surreal, and the crows were confident and entertaining. The crows were the most upbeat part of the film. The fact that they were voiced by white actors instead of black actors is a shame, as they could have used black actors to fill black roles. But as for their portrayal as a whole, they just come off as caricatures to me. Do all black people act like that? Of course not. But I know that even today, when I watch videos of black people on YouTube being entertainers, many of them do act and speak this way. It’s just for entertainment purposes, and that’s what a film is—-entertainment.

I never thought about the black circus workers before. Were none of them white? Several thoughts on that: (1) We can probably safely assume that these circus workers are poor working class people of the time, doing the hard labor. If all of these men were portrayed as black, isn’t that inaccurate to all the white working class men who also took these kinds of jobs at the time? I’m not saying “reverse racism” or anything, I’m just pointing out that this is probably historically inaccurate, and I think that also detracts from the film a bit. Then also (2) These are background characters. Is it important to draw details, such as faces, on background characters? I recall the scene with the clowns in the circus tent; they were only shadows. I doubt the crowd during the circus scene at the end had any faces drawn on them. Maybe for budgeting purposes at the time, it was easier to say “These characters have darker skin, and it’s night time. We can get away with shading in everything and not wasting time on details here.” I’d like to see an interview on the reasoning for drawing things the way they did, as I’m sure they were under multiple pressures that non-animators couldn’t fathom that might have outweighed drawing faces/details on some characters. (3) Keep in mind also that this is a movie with animals as its main characters; most, if not all, of the “speaker role” humans in the film aren’t drawn with any sort of care to making them empathetic. Almost all of the humans in this film are awful; the clowns are drawn in shadow or with their makeup on, and the boys that tease dumbo are brats. Now that I think about it, as type this, the black characters—-non speaking humans and the upbeat crows—-are the least despicable characters in the film. (4) Again, as a movie focused on animal characters, the animators of the 1940s likely didn’t care to draw humans. Humans are hard to draw, especially faces and hands; maybe from an animation standpoint, they were taking shortcuts on human features wherever a human was not integral to the scene. Many animations at the time seemed to do this—-think Tom and Jerry…they didn’t even give Tom’s owner a torso, much less a face! Maybe this was just common practice in animation studios at the time.

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Hi! I’m Jennifer Borget

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I'm a part-time journalist, full-time wife and mother striving to make the world a better place and inspiring others to do the same. This is the space where I share my journey in making the most of every day.

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