The dark humor and remarkable life of Ollie Harrington on display at OSU

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Ollie Harrington’s sixth-grade teacher Miss McCoy inspired him to become a designer, but not because she recognized his artistic talents. Instead, as Harrington related later in life, McCoy would call Ollie and another black student in front of the class and say, “These two, being black, belong in the trash.”

Young Harrington was powerless to fight his teacher’s vicious racism. There was nothing a black sixth grader could do publicly in a predominantly white school. But he knew how to draw.

Harrington began to make unflattering caricatures of Miss McCoy in his notebooks. “It was actually the impetus for his art, and it led to the work that surrounds us now,” said Kay Clopton, Ohio State Humanities and Social Sciences librarian and co-curator of “Dark Laughter Revisited: The Life & Times of Ollie Harrington, ”On display at OSU’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. (Due to a lack of staff, the Billy is currently closed but will open this weekend Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and next week from Tuesday to Sunday at the same times; the exhibition will run until ‘to May 8.)

The remarkable exhibition highlights the work of an artist whose incisive satire and shameless activism intersected with the Harlem Renaissance, WWII, the Red Fear, the Civil Rights Era and more . And yet, not many people know about Harrington cartoons. “He was completely shut out of the mainstream press because of his race, so he worked as best he could for the black press during the early part of his career,” said co-curator Jenny Robb, associate professor at Ohio State and longtime curator. at Billy. “His work is not very well known, not even within the community of designers. We hope to change that with this exhibition.

Ollie Harrington's

Harrington was born in 1912 in Valhalla, New York, near White Plains. He graduated from high school in the Bronx, then moved to Harlem at the end of the Harlem Renaissance, crossing paths with Langston Hughes, who later wrote: “As a social satirist in the field of race relations, Ollie Harrington is unmatched. ”

In 1940, Harrington graduated from Yale University with a Fine Arts degree. “That’s probably why his editorial caricature is so detailed and lush. He’s actually an artist by training,” Clopton said. “It’s the pristine detail he always puts into his work that fascinates me. ”

In the mid-1930s, Harrington created the “Dark Laughter” series, which he later renamed “Bootsie” after the popular main character. The tape has been broadcast for over 35 years in publications such as the People’s voices (where Harrington was artistic director), the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. Along the way, Harrington aimed for white supremacy without Bootsie ever saying a word.

“Things happen to him, but he’s never the voice. He is only the silent participant, the silent witness. We never have his point of view. We just have perspectives on what people think of him, ”Clopton said.

By giving voice to those around Bootsie, Harrington creates a realistic world of fully realized characters. “He tried to show real people. They were three-dimensional. They weren’t one-dimensional stereotypes. They had flaws, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. It was part of what he was trying to do, which is to show the black community and show people of color what they really are, ”said Robb. “He is from the community, speaking at the community.”

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“It shows that we, as African Americans, are also human beings,” added Clopton. “We are not creatures who feel nothing. We try to enjoy life. We try to live life, and it shows how hard it is to exist in a world that is working against you.

Ollie Harrington. "Officer, which bar in Alabama were you locked in in 1944 when I was in Normandy to protect your civil rights?" From "Bootsie," August 8, 1964. Collection of Dr and Mrs Walter O. Evans.

Often times this caustic world can seem quite dark. In a 1942 panel, a white man stands next to the corpse of a black man dragged behind a car and talks to two German soldiers standing over the body of a woman and a child: “You them Nazis are pretty good, but we Texans don’t do ourselves that bad! In another WWII sign, a black soldier holds up a sign titled “War Goals” with the text below: ” Freedom not only for the people of delighted Europe, but also for the terrorized millions of people of color in the United States ”.

“This exposure starts early and often with big punches,” Clopton said.

In the early 1950s, Harrington moved to Paris and joined the black community of emigrants. “They felt they couldn’t live fully in the United States because of systemic racism and lack of opportunity, and they were treated differently in France,” Robb said.

Additionally, Harrington was told by a friend that the FBI was investigating his links to the Communists and that he would be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “To be fair, he had Communist sympathies,” Robb said, noting that the People’s voices was associated with the communist cause. “He thought socialism would really help the dark cause, but during the Cold War it was a very dangerous thing. … People have lost their livelihoods. They lost their jobs.

It turns out that the FBI was indeed investigating Harrington, and some pages of those heavily redacted files are on display in the exhibit. (Despite his sympathies, Harrington was not a member of the Communist Party.) “It’s not paranoia if they really want to have you,” Clopton said. “That the FBI is investigating you is just the icing on the cake, ‘I don’t really want to be here. ”

The inquiry was also part of a larger attempt to discredit the civil rights movement by forcing a link between communism and the fight for racial equality, Robb said.

Ollie Harrington. "As long as they whipped the brethren, it was called law and order.  But it got so good for them that they started flogging everyone and now they are screaming violence!" From "Bootsie." Collection of Dr and Mrs Walter O. Evans.

In 1961, Harrington moved to Berlin in East Germany and ended up getting stuck behind the Iron Curtain. From there he continued to make cartoons until his death in 1995, publishing in American and East German media, including the magazine Eulenspiegel. His work has commented on international issues like famine in Africa and apartheid in South Africa, often with “images that traditional Americans would have been quite shocking,” Robb said.

His work in the 1960s addressed issues of police brutality against African Americans, as evidenced by a rough sketch that may or may not have been published. In it, two policemen point a gun at a child curled up in a corner. “You could say he threatened us with a knife … if we had a knife,” one officer said to the other.

“It really touched me when we first received them because it looked like something you could have posted today,” Clopton said. “This is the kind of work I want people to watch and do: what you see now has been a problem for a long time. If we want change to happen, we have to do something. We cannot stand idly by. Because when you sit down it keeps coming back. And he wanted to change that.

Other drafts and sketches on display reveal the painstaking efforts Harrington went to to bring his detailed characters to life. This artistry is the most important takeaway for Clopton. Yes, Harrington has been forgotten. Yes, he brought to light some important issues. “But we also have to recognize that this man was a fantastic artist,” she said.

On the wall of the exhibit space, Clopton and Robb included a quote from Harrington in large print: live fully, live a life without barriers, be all we can be and a little of what (like you) we hope to be.

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