Cartoonist Shed Light on Racism
Oliver W. Harrington used humor to attack racism.
In 1935, while he was an artist for Harlem’s Amsterdam News, Harrington created "Dark Laughter," a groundbreaking, single–panel cartoon featuring a jolly, soulful character named Bootsie. Much of the cartoon’s humor came from Bootsie’s naiveté on social issues, which Harrington used as a vehicle for his own commentary.
Harrington’s interest in cartooning began in the sixth grade when he dulled the pain of a teacher’s racist remarks by drawing caricatures of her. Later, he decided to become a cartoonist to counter the stereotypes of blacks then prevalent in comic strips. The purpose of art, he believed, was to make the world a better place.
"Dark Laughter" was Harrington’s running commentary on black survival in a racist society. The cartoon was picked up by other black newspapers and developed a nationwide following. Actor Paul Robeson and writer Langston Hughes were two of its fans.
During World War II, Harrington covered the Tuskegee Airmen as a war correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier and drew a comic strip about fighter pilots. After the war, angered by the treatment of black veterans, he joined the NAACP as director of public relations. He moved to Paris in the 1950s to wait out the McCarthy era.
He was working for an East German publisher in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built, trapping him in East Germany. He did not visit the United States again until the 1970s.
"My art must be involved … with the black liberation struggle," he said. "Bootsie has been a part of that struggle. … Satire and humor can often make dents where sawed–off billiard sticks can’t."
Harrington will be featured in the Newseum’s interactive database of more than 600 notable journalists located in the News History gallery. He died in Berlin in 1995 at the age of 83.