Commentary
Pride and Prejudice
The Proud Family's Penny provides a lesson in flash-card history
Terrence Briggs · July 24, 2003 | It took us a few decades, but for the first time since the Fat Albert/Harlem Globetrotters twosome of the 1970s, Saturday morning TV is home for two shows with predominantly black casts. Sure, it took place after the countless series with predominantly anthropomorphic animal and robot casts, but The Proud Family and Static Shock have made their way to free TV, just in time to miss the 20th century.

The timing couldn't be better. Free TV animation is in a pedagogical mood right now, so it's only fair that our resident African-Americans educate the rest of us on what it means to be black. It doesn't seem right for Doug's green beings to educate American children about ethnic consciousness. Trust me, this is an improvement from the good ol' days, where your average Saturday morning series would have to create noble blacks to serve as spiritual sidekicks, or pull token blacks out of the model sheet mothballs.

It's unfair to harp on the negative, though. The animation community opened up to such awareness late last year, when the Annies were announced. James E. West II and T. Smith 's script for The Proud Family's "I Had a Dream" episode received a nomination for Writing in an Animated Television Production.

After the Annies were handed out, the first script that came to my mind was Static Shock's "Static in Africa," one of the most psychologically assured scripts in a series that has many strong human stories. As a character study that uses ethnicity as texture and humor as a stitch, Static Shock has The Proud Family's pretension beat. Compare Proud Family's "I Had a Dream" to Static's "Static in Africa" for yourself, and you'll see a marked difference in how stronger storytelling spins for a far more effective yarn.

Both episodes begin with factoid overload, as characters spew tidbits of flash card information at viewers that are hopefully taking notes. "I Had a Dream" has the show's teen lead, Penny, congregating with her three friends (one of whom is white, Zoe) dressed indistinctly as four black historical figures. The characters give one-line, flash card introductions of their alter-egos: Angela Davis, Bessie Coleman, Shirley Chisolm, and Madame C.J. Walker.

The Proud Family
Brookwell-McNamara Entertainment and Jambalaya Studio, 2001

Static Shock
Warner Bros. Animation, 2000

Shop for Proud Family DVDs and more:
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Amazon.com

Shop for Static Shock DVDs and more:
Amazon.ca
Amazon.com
"Static in Africa" features the older teen lead, Virgil, and his older sister and father as they arrive in Ghana. The elated father, along with the local trotro driver, point out the travelogue highlights of the West African nation, such as the W.E.B. DuBois Center, where the civil rights leader is buried.

"That's right!" sister Sharon recalls. "He was a proponent of Pan-Africanism."

"Didn't we get a shot for that?" Virgil replies.

There are similar throwaway lines sprinkled throughout the episode. Such quips are writer Dwayne McDuffie's efforts to keep the proceedings light, to the extent that they are necessary to someone overlooking the episode's educational content. Make no mistake, however, that as soon as the anthropomorphic feline mercenary and wall-crawling vigilante show up, the show is back on its superheroic track.

"I Had a Dream," however, is far from through. Transported by tornado to the 1950s, she finds her two non-white friends acting strangely out of character. Her exclamation of "Yo' outfit is off the heezy, fo' sheezy!" is met with a puzzled look, as are "dis" and "black."

On her way to class, she catches Zoe with a group of white friends, who giggle at the "colored" girl trying to initiate a conversation. Penny is puzzled at being called "colored", and is equally puzzled by her other friends' admonishments to stay away from the white girls. Comforting words from her African-American history teacher (relegated to being school janitor in this universe) urge her to history class: "If you don't know your past, you'll have no future." The white history teacher, Mr. Webb (who was the janitor in the real world), scoffs at Penny's acknowledgment of black history. "There's no such thing as black history, or Negro history, for that matter."

Penny then addresses the class with one-line, flash card presentations of Garrett Morgan, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, Lonnie G. Johnson, and Colin Powell. The presentation is met with laughter by the entire class, including Mr. Webb. "A colored Secretary of State!"

So what's the bridge to the 21st century? Zoe's pet bird is sick. Time to visit Penny's mother, the vet.

"A colored veterinarian?" asks Zoe.

"An African-American veterinarian," reminds Penny. Besides, the bird doesn't see black or white.

The bird is healed, and Zoe and Penny become friends in this segregated world. Penny portends that one day, people will get used to integration "for the most part. Although the SATs will still be culturally biased in your favor, but it'll be better than it is now."

Back in class, a true Hollywood moment: Penny and Zoe sit together in class, in defiance of the teacher, and the rest of the class joins in (even Zoe's resistant white friend, after a dollop of peer pressure). The students proceed into a Chuck Berry-esque song:

Sittin' in class studyin' history
We noticed Penny's sittin' by Zoe.
Separated by black and white
We realize now that that's not right.
Mr. Andrews said, "Get up!" and we said, "No!"
Just ain't nowhere that we can't go

Penny manages to silence an irate crowd outside the school, and proceeds to evoke Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Her voice actress might as well be reading from a textbook, but she brings down the house, all the same.

The real bring-down here is the sloppy empowerment fantasy this dream has become. Not only has Penny served as the voice of reason for this nightmare world, she has single-handedly turned it upside down, her way, in a matter of two school days. After centuries of ethnophobia, all those irate white folks needed was a passionless speech from a middle-schooler.
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