The 1940’s was an era riddled with prejudice and civil strife being the decade before the onset of the civil rights movement. Separate but equal was still an absolutely acceptable practice. People with disabilities, people of color, immigrants and the poor were considered less human. Such injustices were considered ordinary and acceptable by society. The views and practices of the time were so standard that children’s films failed to censor any controversial issues.
One such issue is that of racism. watching Disney’s 1941 film Dumbo, it is as plain as night and day that racism saturated society. All of the human characters are Caucasian, most of the anthropomorphized animals seem to be derivative of white society and the characters that are obviously not white are represented in such a stereotypical manner.
The only black characters in Dumbo are the black birds. The birds, obviously based on urban black culture of the time, are represented as not very well to do, wearing patched clothing, and intellectually inferior. The biggest sign that the birds are inspired by the black culture of the 40’s is in their speech. The birds use slang and ebonics, calling each other “brotha”, speaking with southern accents, and generally using mutilated grammar, traits usually stereotypical of the black community in the 40’s. It is a bit ironic that these characters that society holds such prejudice against, turn out to be some of the most integral characters to the story and success of Dumbo. The birds are ultimately the ones who teach dumbo how to fly and thus lend a hand to his success and happiness. It is ironic that the characters that were inspired by the “lesser race” play such a positive part in the story. Did the writers include this contradictory representation on purpose? Were they avant-garde civil rights activists?