Betty Boop is a character many of us grew up with, either in animated form or through lots of merchandise. But the cartoon sensation has a more interesting back story than you might imagine:
Though Helen Kane is typically credited as the inspiration for Betty Boop, Paramount Studios proved that she actually didn’t originate the character or its iconic “boop-oop-a-doop” catchphrase. A Harlem club singer named Esther Jones, a.k.a. Baby Esther, came up with that line and was the inspiration behind the cartoon.
Another way to tell this story? Esther Jones was a black woman who lost something she created to a lighter-complexioned star. She certainly wasn’t the first person of color whose work was “borrowed”: The appropriation of black culture—the theft—is a long tradition in American history.
No one made Esther Jones aware of the fact that her image and signature tagline were being reapplied to a cartoon character, and she certainly never earned a dime off of Betty Boop (although today she is sometimes referred to as Boop’s black grandmother). There is no “borrowing” about what was lifted from Jones’s act or her visage: Someone straight up stole her persona.
Perhaps it seems petty to quibble over the origins of a cartoon. But the Betty Boop incident is just another version of Elvis Presley stealing and profiting off inspiration from black artists; it’s the same thing as Robin Thicke lifting Marvin Gaye beats to write “Blurred Lines”; and it is just like Henrietta Lack’s cells being distributed all over the world without her (or her family’s) consent.
Borrowing means you get what was taken back. Sharing means you’re credited for your part in something. Esther Jones was robbed.
Image c/o James VanDerZee, Allure: Betty Boop.