Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Obscurity of the Day: The Duke of Dahomey
Above you see the entire four episode run of The Duke of Dahomey, one of E.W. Kemble's last strips penned for the Hearst funnies section. The series ran from October 1 to 22 1911*.
Kemble was mostly known for his depictions of black characters, going back to the 1880s when he gained fame for the illustrations to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. By 1911 he still seemed content to rest his laurels on unfortunate stereotypes, a decision that has necessarily left a truly incredible illustrator in the dustbin of history.
Dahomey was an African kingdom that finally fell under the authority of France in the 1890s after centuries of independence. The white world saw the Dahomeans as rather ridiculous characters, because after all how could native Africans possibly form a kingdom, society and economy without the benefit of white overseers? Kemble's series, then, bases its supposed humor on black characters acting as if they are high-society sorts, with the duke as a ringmaster to the proceedings. Even Kemble seems to realize that he's running on fumes here, as his signature physical comedy is oddly muted in these strips.
Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans.
* Source: Collection of Cole Johnson
My take on Kemble's characters is they all behave like children at play, impersonating,the best they can the way adults behave, especially in status seeking. Obviously the "Duke" is no such thing, but as a specific ethnic character, you wouldn't choose Dresden or Dublin. I guess "Dahomey" was the most prominent African place name Kemble could think of begining with "D," though Dahomey, in or out of Portuguese and French colonization, famously had a royal court.
See more Kemble stuff at my onetime blog site above. Thanks.