George Herriman was a cartoon artist famous for his Krazy Kat comic that ran from 1913 to 1944. Herriman wrote his comics at a time when black people did not have access to news rooms and careers in media. He was born to mixed race Creole parents in New Orleans, but throughout his life passed as white, hiding his parent’s ancestry and often hiding his hair and other features which may have made people question his racial heritage.
In the book Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White author Michael Tisserand explores the known history of Herriman’s family living in New Orleans before and during the Civil War. Herriman’s grandfather, George Herriman Sr., was a free black man living in New Orleans at the time of the Civil War. George Herriman (the grandson) was born in 1880 in New Orleans and his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10, but the impact of the Civil War on his family and his family’s history in New Orleans left a lasting imprint on him that Tisserand traces throughout his career and work.
New Orleans was a place of incredible diversity in the Antebellum South and it was common for white men to have a wife and family and to also have a black mistress (or several) and a separate mixed-race but free family. There were legal marriage-like arrangements between many wealthy white men and their black mistresses. This is the history that George Herriman’s heritage traces back to. Tisserand writes about the racial history of New Orleans and about the complex forces that drove Herriman Sr. to join the Confederate Army in New Orleans as the Civil War broke out. Herriman Sr. enlisted despite, as Tisserand writes, “the aims of the Confederacy were no secrete. Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition – stated Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens in his Cornerstone Speech.”
Herriman Sr., as a free black, man enlisted because it was clear that free black men in the city would be in danger at the outset of the war if they did not find a way to demonstrate that they were not going to violently rebel against the government in New Orleans and across the South. Tisserand continues, “the free designation in free people of color was quickly losing all meaning.”
He adds, “yet, it didn’t take long to realize that even volunteering for the army didn’t ensure respect. Free people of color were treated poorly in the Confederate States Army, with many receiving neither uniforms nor weapons.”
Tisserand includes these details and more about Herriman’s family to help explain why he pursued a strategy of passing and to inform the audience of certain characteristics of his psychology which translated into his art and comics. Herriman lived as a white man, afraid that society would discover his black and Creole family history. Thanks to the color of his skin he was able to escape the world of deliberate hate and discrimination that his father and grandfather had lived in, but the trauma they experienced never truly left his life. The complex and diverse mixture of New Orleans stuck with him, but was something he hid, similarly to the way the South attempted to hide the ideas expressed in Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech through the Lost Cause Narrative after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the lived experience of his father and grandfather during the Confederacy in New Orleans and the response that can be read through Herriman’s life and work demonstrates the complexity and racial challenges that influenced the development of life in New Orleans and across the south.