There is no way of knowing if young George Herriman ever accompanied his parents to the historic Café du Monde Coffee Stand, which was established in the New Orleans French Market in 1862, eighteen years before Herriman’s birth. What is certain, however, is that the restaurant’s signature cafe au lait would become one of Herriman’s favorite metaphors for describing the complexities of race and social identity.
Growing up in a mixed-race family in 1880s New Orleans, young Herriman would have experienced the very real consequences of having an identity that shifted legally and culturally over the years. Whether called “Creole,” “Free People of Color,” “Mulatto,” or “Negro,” the Herrimans learned what it was like to see hard-earned rights disappear with each new designation. So perhaps it is no surprise that as a cartoonist, Herriman explored the shifting nature of reality, creating desert backgrounds that changed from panel to panel, and inventing a protagonist who changed color frequently, and gender constantly.
Herriman used many clever visual metaphors to convey these ideas. Krazy Kat’s crooked tail might stand in for hair, which was often considered a tell-tale sign of a person’s ethnicity. A beauty parlor might be visited to lighten complexion, demonstrating how shades of color could imply greater or lesser worth. But it was in strips about coffee that Herriman found one of his most ingenious ways to discuss meaning and identity. In a 1919 “Krazy Kat” comic, Krazy asks why coffee is called cafe au lait when it has milk. “Aint my shoes still shoes when I put my foots in them?” Krazy asks. And in a 1931 strip that might be interpreted as a subtle commentary on racial passing, Ignatz Mouse is serving a customer and asks Krazy, who is working in the kitchen, for a black coffee. Krazy passes it through the window. Scowling at the cup, Ignatz says, “Hey, this isn’t black coffee!” “Sure it is,” replies Krazy. “Look unda the milk.”