Friday, April 23, 2010

For the love of Valerie Brown

I grew up in a super progressive family, in a diverse and accepting neighborhood, in a big, seen-it-all-don’t-care city. In some ways, looking back, my 1970s childhood was kind of idyllic and almost somewhat insulated and protected. I was a mixed race kid who knew at an early age that I would have to identify as a black person because of the color of my skin. But I truly didn’t have to deal with prejudice or race “issues” until I was out of high school.

However, it wasn’t hard to realize at an early age that there weren’t many (any) folks that looked like me on television in the 70s, especially in cartoons. And I can't say that I wasn't affected by the very white-washed television of that era. Was it healthy that I was obsessed with Jamie Summers (The Bionic Woman) and Charlie's Angels? Did it matter that these childhood icons were white? That’s why I was so obsessed with Valerie from Josie & The Pussycats when I was a kid. Valerie is notable as the first African-American cartoon character on a regular animated television series.
Valerie had brown skin like me, and cartoon version of my hair. And she was really pretty (for a cartoon). And she didn’t have a cliché “blackccent”, nor was she “sassy”. And she was the smartest Pussycat – she was almost always the one that saved the day and came up with the solution to whatever problem the Pussycats had that week on tour. She was a mechanical and scientific genius, often having to fix the Pussycat tour bus or figure out a way to make some antidote to a poison that Alexander had accidentally ingested or something.
And while Josie was the group leader, Valerie was the lead singer (and in the comics, the songwriter) and a kickass bass and tambourine player.
I LOVED Valerie. I wanted to be Valerie. She gave me confidence. I even asked for a bass and tambourine one Christmas. Guess which instrument I didn’t get.
"Josie and the pussycats,
Long tails, and ears for hats
Guitars an' sharps 'n' flats
Neat, sweet, a groovy song
You're invited, come along
Hurry, hurry
See ya all in Persia
Or maybe France
We could be India
Or perchance
Be with us in Bangkok
Makes no difference
We're involved with this or that. Everywhere the action's at..."

I started thinking about Valerie today because I was reading about how Archie Comics (yes they're still around!), is introducing their first openly gay character later this year, and how this is coming in a year that has already seen some groundbreaking moves. Because in a recent Archie comic issue good time boy Archie himself shares a kiss with one miss Valerie Brown. And on the cover and everything! You go on with your bad self Valerie! I don't really approve of your choice redhead, but at least it's not Jughead.

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