Adventures in Feministory: Jackie Ormes, the quietly political cartoonist
Born in a small town in Pennsylvania in 1911, Ormes was always drawn to the big city. She and her husband, to whom she was married for forty-five years, moved to Pittsburgh in the 1930s where she got her first comics gig.
Ormes’ first cartoon was "Torchy Brown: Dixie to Harlem," debuted in the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the most widely read and distributed black newspapers of the time. Torchy Brown, a southern girl, migrates North to the big city. Ormes said, “I had never been to Dixie, but I worked in a newspaper office, and I read everything that was in the paper. It was a whole lot about struggles. Segregation,” and while the strip was light-hearted, it touched on many issues of the Great Migration, where southern blacks relocated to the north to escape Jim Crow. In one strip, Torchy boards a North-bound train but pauses at a sign where one arrow labelled "Colored" points one way and another labelled "White" points another. “I”ll jus’ pretend I can’t read very well…” Torchy says, and grabs a seat in the the white section, where she passes by teaming up with an Italian-American.
But overall the strip was light-hearted. In a later strip, Torchy, now in the big city, cheers wildly for Joe Lewis at a boxing match. “De champ!” she’s exclaimed in the last panel, as she’s knocked out everyone around her with her fanaticism.
When Ormes and her husband moved to Chicago in 1938, Ormes took a few classes at the Chicago Institute of Arts but also became involved with the South Side Community Arts building, later serving on its board. This center was important in the Chicago Renaissaince of the 1930s and 50s, where Chicago's black South Side had a flourishing in the arts.
According to her sister, Jackie walked into the office of Chicago's Defender, the other leading black newspaper of the time, with her portfolio and was hired on the spot as a writer and reporter. Whether or not it was this simple, it's definitely worth noting, as Ormes's middle class position meant she didn't have to, and wasn't expected to, enter the workforce, let alone the male-dominated newspaper industry. She started out reporting on community affairs and people in the public eye. Ormes’s progressive politics were evident in the stories she covered, from mixed-race wartime fund raising events, praising Eleanor Roosevelt, and championing the end of racism in America (the civil rights movement was still in its nascent stage.) Her politics would also subtly emerge in her comic strips.
Before I get any further, I'll share how I learned so much about Jackie Ormes and Torchy Brown. I read Jackie Ormes: The First African American Women Cartoonist, which has its own website! This book is and Goldstein has really plus thoughtful and thorough research on the historical and sociopolitical context of Ormes's life, from the racial climate of Salem, Ohio to the black pin-up inspiration for Torchy Brown.
Her first comic for the Defender was the single-panelled “Candy” which ran alongside editorials by Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other black intellectuals of the day. Candy was a pretty but sharp-tongued maid in an upscale home, who loved trying on her employer’s clothes and always complained about her menial tasks, like rolling cigarettes. Although always light-hearted, the comic’s placement on the editorial page subverted its punchlines with social commentary on black-white labor relations and consumerism.
"Candy" only last four months, but was reencarnated into Ormes' longer running and more well-known strip, Patty Jo 'n' Ginger, where Candy's character was converted into the beautiful but silent twentysomething Ginger. The sass though, belonged all to her little sister, Patty Jo. Always the progressive (The FBI had a file on her), Ormes worked in pretty biting political commentary into her work.
In one strip, Patty Jo and Ginger walk past a movie theater and Patty-Jo muses “It would be intersetin’ to discover WHICH committee decide it was un-American to be COLORED!” as the House of Un-American Activities Committee had started to investigate leaders of the civil rights movement in order to discredit them. In another cartoon Patty Jo clutches a bag of marbles, pointing a policeman towards a young boy running away. “O…him? He hasn’t got any marbles. Somebody told him they outlawed ‘commies’ so he gave em all to me an ran like crazy!” as besides the political connotations, a "commie" was a type of shooting marble.
“It would be intersetin’ to discover WHICH committee decide it was un-American to be COLORED!”
In another strip, Patty Jo storms home in her shamrock sweater, exclaiming "You betcha I'm mad...that smart alec Micky O'Shannan starts snickerin' at li'l ol' brown me wearin' St. Patrick trimmins' an' I hadda use my African an' Indian warfare to defend my Irish!"
These are only three of the many ways Ormes slipped in commentary through the pint-sized Patty Jo, and only a few of her politically-charged themes. In addition to the Red Scare and race relations, Ormes also focused on overseas military involvement and environmental racism. On Patty Jo, Goldstein wrote, “That girl child expressed wisdom, exposed folly, and could say what was on many people’s midnds and get away with it.” Had Ormes been simply making political cartoons, the FBI probably would have found reason to do more than keep a file. In addition, “Many gags focused on Patty-Jo ribbing Ginger about her appearance and clothing…which could be read as light humor, but at the same time they gave Ormes the opportunity to make observations about significant topics like class, consumerism, and racial uplift."
A doll-lover, Ormes created a Patty Jo doll, credited as the first black doll based on a character. From Goldstein's book:
Jackie Ormes said, “No more rag Susies or Sambos. Just KIDS!” At long last, here was an African American doll with all the play features children desired: playable hair, and the finest and most extensive wardrobe on the market, with all manner of dresses, formals, shoes, hats, nightgowns, robes, skating and cowgirl costumes, and spring and winter coat sets, to name a few.
Torchy was reencarnated in 1950 when the Defender added a comics section. "Torchy Heartbeats" (at the top of the page) was a weekly serial comic featuring action and romance, à la Brenda Starr. Ormes again managed to work in themes that other comic strips wouldn't dream of, such as Torchy escaping rape and fighting for environmental justice, and was one of the first srips to feature ongoing stories on social issues. And as was common at the time, they came with paper dolls, "Torchy Togs," which showed off Ormes' knack for fashion.
There's a dearth of information on Ormes and her work for several reasons. Archived newspapers often don't include the comics section. African-American texts in particular are neglected by hegemonic academic sources and archives (not to mention that neither the Defender or Courier have Wikipedia pages, as I learned writing this), let alone white comics historians. Plus, Ormes's work was thought of as petty and feminine, her comics dealing with flippant issues like clothing and dating, even though they actually contained some pretty radical political messages. Ormes's status as one of the few black women newspaper cartoonists ever, as well as her influence on the history of the African-American doll should be more well-known and celebrated.
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