Chester Commodore

INT: Growing up, how were black people drawn in the white papers?
CC: Black were people were drawn, ah, from -- in white papers as, ahm, eight-ball type. They were solid blacks, blacks were. When they made a black figure, they didn't put in the highlights, you know, like up at the top and all. It was just a solid black with, ah, white lips, big white lips, and a big nose and, ah, little, tiny eyes with little dots in 'em for pupils. And that's the way that white press did black people. And, ahm, it was, ah, insulting as -- and they were all bald-headed. They were never with hair on their head. Sometimes if it was a woman, she had a solid black face and little nappy hair or braids most cases. So, ah, I didn't like that. I didn't like that at all, and I'm sure that most African Americans didn't like it, although they weren't called that at that time. They were called "negroes" and, ah ...

INT: When did you first see the black papers with the black artists?
CC: Ar-- around about, I would say, '25, '26. Black artists didn't do that. They didn't follow that type. They, ah, used what they call banday(?). It was a dotted thing where it made it look at a, ah, oh, they were shaded, but not solid black. Then later, ahm, like Leslie Rodgers, he never made, ah, Bungleton Green solid black. He -- he used a few just quick sketch lines, suggesting, but that was it.

INT: Did you get inspiration from Leslie Rodgers?
CC: Leslie Rodgers was my kind of cartoonist at that time, and I liked the way he did his figures. He, ah, ah -- he could -- he didn't make 'em trampy-lookin'. They still had respect. Now I liked that! (Laughs) And so I used to copy him and as a matter of fact, I think that was what made me, ah, almost imitate him, because he was that good with it. And I liked that. And later, ahm, I wanted to do a comic strip. I remember goin' in to talk to Mr. Abbott about that. I'm goin' to grammar school yet, or elementary, as they call it today.

INT: Tell me about going to see Mr. Abbott.
CC: I finally found out where The Chicago Defender was. At that time it was at, ah -- I knew how to get to 35th and Indiana and I went down and I was accepted into his office, ah, ah, immediately. I mean I had my little strips. I've forgotten just exactly what it was about, but I was getting my gag lines from a joke book. But, anyway, he looked at 'em and eased back in his chair and he let me talk. And (Laughs), ah, then he said, "Have you finished school yet?" And I told him, "No, but I wanna draw." And he said, "Well, you go back to school and then come back and see me." And (Laughs) I -- I just -- from then on, I thought, "I'm gonna get a job and do what I wanna do. I don't want to go to school no more." That's what I thought. But I went back to school and much later, well, he had passed on.

INT: What did Mr. Abbott look like and what kind of person was he?
CC: Mr. Abbott was surly, you know, and he had a look of interest, "Explain what you're doin'." And he would explain to me that I should go back, "Learn all you can learn." And, ah, I took it to heart. I really did. And from then on, I, ah, just drew that much more. But he was a -- just majestic-like. (Laughs) And I liked that. Lots of power.

INT: How did Mr. Abbott impress you?
CC: Mr. Abbott impressed me because he sat back and he was interested in what I had to say. And he just sat back big in that big chair he had, and, ah, occasionally he would do like that, you know, but, ahm, "Why do you want this?" And I said, "Because I like to draw." That was my only answer (Laughs) to him. And I liked that. And he just impressed me because he had that, ah, power. It looked like that to me. And he was just -- it was funny how I held his interest. I mean here, he's my elder, (Laughs) and he's listenin' to what I have to say. And then he explains to me, "You've got to have that education. And you go back to school, then come back and see me." And immediately I got into the books again. (Laughs)

INT: But eventually you did get a job at the Defender.
CC: That -- oh, that -- yes, I did. But that was due to a printers' strike.

INT: Do you remember the first time you saw cartoons that were drawn by black artists and the difference between those and the white artists'?
CC: Yes, I did. I remember when they had, ah, ahm -- I was lookin' through -- well, Elmer Sims Campbell and I thought to myself, "I can draw like that, too." And, ahm, I did some very crude work at first, but I kept workin'. Each of these things taught me a new technique, 'cause I wasn't dealing with, ah, ah, watercolors or tryin' to make the characters more realistic. So -- but, ahm, studyin' his drawings, ahm ... there was another artist that I copied a lot, too, Henry Brown.

INT: Why are cartoonists important?
CC: I -- I think that they're very important because even with all our hardships, the downgraded jobs that they gave us at that time, ah, diggin' ditches, porter work, polishin' brass and -- and, ah, shinin' shoes, anything to make a honest dollar, I think that any problems that they had they always seemed to find some joy in it or there's laughter. There was humor. That's why, ah, ah, characters like, ah, say, ah, Steppinfetchit. You see white depicted him as shufflin' along, but they weren't that way really. And they knew how to -- they were smart enough to ...

INT: Why did you like Bootsie?
CC: Bootsie was -- was a black cartoon that gave black life as we knew it at that time, because, ah, you had the hard times and then when it was all gone by, you could laugh about these things, such as maybe make a few extra dollars, know you're behind the room rent, and you'd sit up thinkin' constantly how you're gonna dodge the landlord 'cause you don't have his rent 'cause you had to have a little good time (Laughs) in life. And, ah, I can relate to that very well. (Laughs)

INT: Cartoons can say things with humor that you couldn't get away with saying straight?
CC: In the black press, doing, ahm, ah, black cartoons, ah, you can do this very well ...

INT: Tell me about the woman that helped Mr. Abbott.
CC: I knew the woman that helped Mr. Abbott construct the paper, let him use her kitchen, and, ah, he sat there like a big drawing board, the kitchen table with clippin's and a jar of paste and clip-out, paste-up, and then she also was called the first news -- well, you'd have to say "person" today. (Laughs) But, ah, she sold papers, too. And it was quite a thing on Sunday mornin' to hear the paper boys with their little carts, some had wagons, those who were fortunate, otherwise they had a cart, and, ah, ah, they would sing out, "Chicago Defender Paper!" And this, people looked forward to on Saturday and Sunday mornin'. And many of 'em, "Hey, over there! Come over here. I'll take one." And it was -- they had -- it was music, you know, which blacks do in everything. They got a rhythm. And it's great. And that sold papers. All different blocks you could hear kind of a song. They all created their own song when they were singin' sellin' these papers. Ah, ah, they sang, "Chicago Defender Papers" and all of a sudden a window would go up, (Imitates Sounds) and "I'll take one!" And, ah, it -- just you looked forward to that first thing Saturday morning.

INT: What did the Defender mean to black people?
CC: The Defender was a recording or recordkeeper of black people. You knew when they were born. You knew when they were married. You knew when they passed away. The white -- the white press didn't carry that. And you wanted to know what was goin' on in your home state. You're livin' in Chicago, Illinois. You want to know what's happenin' in Tennessee, Memphis, St. Louis, all the different points, wherever you migrated from. And, ah, you weren't gonna get that in a white press, but you were gonna get it and still get it in Chicago Defender.

INT: What happened when you approached the white papers for work?
CC: Ahm, I approached the white papers with my drawings and original ideas and, ahm, their excuse was, "These are fine." And, ah, the other part of it was, "But our budget won't, ah, afford you." And later in life I even experienced the answer of, ah, that, ah, "You had too much experience and we can't pay you at that salary." So you just fold up your things and close out, because you're fully aware that you're not going to be in their office.

INT: Did you ever get a job at a white paper?
CC: I never had a job with a white paper. No. That was far-out. That was out of the question. (Laughs)

INT: What was it like working at The Chicago Defender?
CC: When I first went to The Chicago Defender in August the 1st, 1948, when I first went there, I didn't know that I was bein' thrown in with some of the greatest. And there was no arrogance about them. They, ah, talked loosely among each other in the -- in the office about different political things or theatrical things or economics, all much heavier than what I was thinkin' about! (Laughs)

INT: What did that mean for the reader?
CC: For the black reader of the black press, many, ah, want to know things about different conditions in different cities because they want to go possibly to live there. And also it's surprising the interest the black people had in politics, but they were barred from it up until the voters' rights, but, ah, before that time, this is where they gathered a lotta information from like DuBois. Well, in that office there was, ahm, ah, Dr. Meds T.P. Lochard, who could speak different languages on top of that.

INT: Did cartoons have a role in advocacy for black people?
CC: Cartoons didn't have too much of a role in the first, ah, black newspapers because they were more like leaflets and, ah, even back in the 1700s on up. But the later cartoons came in because editorial cartoons could be like art work, very accurate art work, not, ah, just pen sketches like. And, ah, they were very self-explanatory and blacks were interested in seein' these things. And you could see 'em sit for hours lookin' at that and goin' off into different directions in their mind, but yet centerin' in what they were drivin' at.

INT: How were the cartoons self-explanatory?
CC: The black cartoons, say, for like a lynch mob and things like that, you could see the pain. That was all expressed in it. Ah, those kind of things made this story go around and around and (Laughs) around because it went right to the point. And most of the illustrators --the cartoons were more like illustrations rather than silly-lookin', ah, characters. They showed the pain or they showed the agony and this will attract anyone and you're thinkin', "I hope this don't ever happen to me."

INT: In the history of black cartoonists, what made Ollie Harrington so special?
CC: Ollie Harrington was a very special cartoonist to all black people because they could all relate to any situation he came up with. He was excellent on that. He studied all of us and he's the best, in my estimation, of black cartoonists. He was the best.

INT: Talk about the cartoon of Mr. Abbott.
CC: I drew the picture of Mr. Abbott at the table organizing and editing ...

INT: How did your work change during the Civil Rights era?
CC: Bungleton Green changed durin' the Civil Right's era real quick and sharp because after Martin Luther King's assassination, that was shockin' in itself, and it made me join with the crowd and, ah, Bungleton came up with a -- a 21-incher with a little -- them little hats they were wearin' then and a dashiki on and getting down with the brother. (Laughs) And I -- from then on, I had fun 'cause I was as free as the sayin' that Martin Luther King had, "Free At Last". I could come in sharp.

INT: Do you remember the Amos 'N Andy comics?
CC: Oh, do I. Hey, yes.

INT: Talk to me about that.
CC: Amos 'N Andy cartoons in the white press were a cartoon that depicted blacks as they wanted you to be even today -- shiftless, careless, and -- poor businessmen. And, ah, the big fat one, ahm, was the boss and always messin' up and that was not us at all. Blacks protested and Amos 'N Andy had a short life as a cartoon strip. And even the TV show later didn't make the hit they thought it would.

INT: Talk about the importance of cartoons to the black press and black people back in the '20s, '30s, and '40s.
CC: Black cartoons to black people and the black press were very important because they went right to the point. Ah, they were understanding and they gave a thing that wasn't dressed up. It was a direct punch because all blacks somehow or other they could relate to this because you had hard dealin's on goin' into business or anything like that, but the cartoon seemed to express or have the key to how you can go there.

INT: Why was humor so important to get these points across?
CC: Humor was put into black cartoons because, oh, I -- I sometimes even say to different ones, I could go to hell and have a good time 'cause even though it's hard, this -- the other bright side, and I think this is what black cartoons expressed for the black papers. We have that touch and ...

INT: What touch?
CC: The touch of goin' in regardless how difficult the task is. When it's over, you smile at it. "I did that." (Laughs)
CC: White papers depicted black people. And that's just in a rough way and, ahm, with their little eyes and, ah, big lips. They had to have that. And sometimes just a little piece of hair. And these were called eight-ball ...
CC: You want to put the ears in. They also were black and they would just suggest what was, ah, in there, where the ear line was. And, ahm, up here it would come like so, come around and all of this and Al Jolson type and most -- they thought because, ah, minstrels were all black and white people, that, ah, that this is the way all blacks looked. So they had a very dark view of us, I'll put it like that. (Laughs) And in the wind-up, the, ahm, the black would come off lookin' like so.
CC: The eight-ball type is more done in this order. So we'll work on this for a few minutes here and this is the type that we protested and just detest because it made you look -- everbody had to be Al Jolson type with the blackface. So I gave it a start.

INT: Who would do those kinds of things?
CC: The white press would do these kind of things of what they call eight-ball. And, ah, all blacks were in this order. And it's very degrading and all black people aren't sol-- solid black either, like he -- none of 'em are solid black, I'll put it like that.

INT: What would you do?
CC: I would draw mine in a order like, ah, so. I would come in and get, ahm, a outline and shape it up more natural, like it should be, and lighten it. No more eight-ball type. That wasn't the way we look, never looked that way either. And, ahm ...

INT: How would you put some expression into it?
CC: I would put, ah, expression in it by thinnin' the lips and, ah, usin' a -- a smile that we all have, and do use in the correct way. We're not buffoons, as they liked to call us. They wanna make us look like we're somethin' from another world, and we're just as human as white race.

INT: Why was it important back then for you to draw black people this way?
CC: Ah, we were signalling to -- I think back in those days when black cartoonists were signalling to the black -- to the white press, rather, that, ah, this is the correct way it should be done and we shaded with very few lines ...
CC: Well, this is the eight-ball type. Back in the early '20s and all the way up into the '30s almost, ah, that the white press depicted us as, ahm, little white eyes and a big nose, sometime a little shadow, but, ahm, mostly what was called "mush-mouthed lips", which would be more like that. Ahm, and, ah, up here for highlight was a window type shine. And the eight-ball type was just all solid, ahm, black. And it was done more on this order.