Thursday, December 13, 2018

VETTE’S VEGAS VOICE: Black Betty Boop

February 14, 2018 by  
Filed under Highlights

Yvette Williams

BY YVETTE WILLIAMS

We celebrate Black History Month in February, and I’m reminded of the passion my mother, Betty, had for an iconic cartoon character that shared her name.

There were always Betty Boop coffee cups, floor mats, towels and pictures. But one ceramic plate stood out. She was the only Black Betty Boop, and the only item I kept from my mother’s collection after she passed away. It was only recently that I understood its relevance to Black culture.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, given the hijacking of products and intellectual property of Black people historically in the United States — but did you know that Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer in Harlem? The inspiration has been traced back to Esther Jones —who performed regularly at the Cotton Club during the 1920s, and was known as “Baby Esther” for her famous signature phrase “Boop Oop A Doop” and iconic sexy, jazzy style.

Baby Esther

After watching one of her performances, white actress Helen Kane stole Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style. When Betty Boop was introduced in 1930 by cartoonist Max Fleischer, Kane promptly sued him and Paramount Publix Corporation for using her image. The caricature of the Jazz Age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation — but Kane lost her case after film evidence showed Baby Esther performing in a nightclub, proving that the style, in fact, predated Kane’s notoriety.

Like so many in the African American community, Baby Esther’s innovation did little to bring her mainstream fame, and she died in relative obscurity. However, Baby Esther lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop — and on the ceramic plate now sitting in my curio cabinet.

Yvette Williams is a community advocate and Chair/Founder of the Clark County Black Caucus, a non-partisan community organization driven 100% by volunteer members registered to vote. Follow her blog at www.YvetteBWilliams.com and on twitter @YvetteBWilliams or contact her at ClarkCountyBlackCaucus@gmail.com for more information.

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