A listing of President Barack Obama’s statements about race might start with his campaign speech “A More Perfect Union,” when the self-described son of a “black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas” said that the idea that this nation is greater than its parts is seared into his genetic makeup.
During his presidency itself, there were the elegant “remarks by the president on Trayvon Martin,” when Obama imagined aloud how the slain Martin might have been his son, and the stirring eulogy for the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, slain during the South Carolina church shooting.
Yet history should not neglect a more offhand comment delivered in late 2008 when the then president-elect was chatting with reporters about the family’s search for a family pet. At the time, the Obamas were considering adopting a dog from an animal shelter, although due to Malia Obama’s allergies they eventually accepted a Portuguese Water Dog from Senator Ted Kennedy.
Said Obama: “There are a number of breeds that are hypoallergenic. On the other hand, our preference would be to get a shelter dog, but, obviously, a lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.”
The line stood out. It still does. It is more vernacular than Obama’s usual rhetoric. Before “mutt” came to mean a mixed-breed dog, it was short for “muttonhead,” which, like the older “sheep’s head,” was an insult meaning an unintelligent person. This was how newspaper readers of the comic Mutt and Jeff would have understood the word.
But Obama didn’t mean that he was a muttonhead. He meant he was a mixed-breed. It was for this reason that cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, a champion of animal shelters, celebrated the statement in his Mutts comic strip, having his canine character “Earl” excitedly announce that “The president-elect said he was a ‘mutt’ like me!”
It is difficult to remember it now, but for a brief time, Obama suggested a different way to talk about race. In doing so, Obama was following the lead of another mutt—a mutt-poet, actually—named George Herriman.
Herriman—the cartoonist whose character Krazy Kat influenced cartoon animals from Mickey Mouse to Snoopy to Hobbes—was a mixed-race man from New Orleans. Growing up before the turn of the 20th century in frontier Los Angeles, Herriman and his family self-identified, or “passed,” as white. His parents appear to have chosen this path so that their children might have a good school and a more hopeful future. Yet Herriman’s own feelings about this experience would flood into his cartoon work.
Krazy Kat is the story of a black cat who is under siege by a white mouse named Ignatz, who throws bricks at Krazy—bricks that Krazy considers love letters. A canine sheriff named Officer Pupp harbors his own love for Krazy, and hauls Ignatz to jail for his efforts. All this occurs on a sort of primary American landscape: Monument Valley in northern Arizona and southern Utah, the same parcel of Navajo Nation that served as the site of the cinematic westerns of John Ford.
As the bricks fly, Krazy might change color. So might Ignatz. Gender is also in flux. Krazy is neither male nor female—or perhaps both. Herriman once explained this decision in a comic in which Krazy was given a form to fill out and was asked to specify gender, and Krazy didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
It is a feeling that must be well known to those of mixed race and less than certain gender—which someday we might understand to mean all of us. Obama is our first black president and should be honored as such. But at the same time, we have to recognize that the words we use to shoulder such identities are failing us miserably. “Black” itself is a vestige of the “one drop” rule of racial classification, which carries with it the understanding that a heritage that stretches back to Africa is a pollutant.
Herriman knew this, too. He toyed with allegories of race in comics that had Krazy Kat working in a diner, telling Ignatz the coffee was black if he’ll only look under the milk. In a strip that he published in 1918 on semiotics (it’s worth noting here that Herriman frustrated his readers as often as he amused them), he staged Krazy Kat and Ignatz at a table:
Krazy: Why is “Lenguage,” Ignatz?
Ignatz: “Language” is that we may understand one another.
Krazy: Is that so?
Ignatz: Yes that’s so.
Krazy: Can you unda-stend a Finn or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher, huh?
Krazy: Can a Finn, or a Leplender, or a Oshkosher, unda-stend you?
Krazy: Then I would say, lenguage is that that we may mis-unda-stend each udda.
In the twilight of the Obama administration, it seems everyone—the Finns and the Laplanders, and even the natives of Oshkosh, Wisconsin—are “mis-unda-stending” each other more than ever. One of many sad outcomes of this past campaign season’s appeals to racism has been the re-hardening of our social identities, a retreat into old positions. For a brief time, it seemed as if this country was ready to be led by a President Mutt, overseeing a mixed nation where colors come and go like shadows in a Monument Valley sunset.
But that would have been just Krazy.
Michael Tisserand is the author of The Kingdom of Zydeco, which won the ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor Award for music writing, and the Hurricane Katrina memoir Sugarcane Academy. His latest, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White, is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. He lives in New Orleans.