Black Readers & White Comics
BY Jeet Heer Apr 7, 2011

The ambiguity of Rachel. Rachel, the maid in Gasoline Alley, is a much more complicated character than she might first seem. On the one hand, King was clearly drawing from the longstanding “Mammy” stereotype in creating her, but she also emerges as a very strong independent character in her own right. As a white American born in 1883, King shared in the widespread racism of the era: he used the n-word on at least one occasion in his correspondence and in a comic strip. He often portrayed blacks with a bemused condescension. But he also had better instincts, rooted I think in his genuine humanism and naturalism, which led him to pay close attention to the African-Americans he came in contact with. In an autobiographical essay, King traced Rachel’s character to a lady he had known when he was an art student in Chicago. “The fact that while going to art school I got a job running an elevator furnished me Rachel for the strip,” King wrote. “Ten cents for a can of beer on Saturday night insured me a generous chicken dinner on Sunday and gave me entry to the kitchen where Rachel presided, big, black and jovial.” I think this comment by King captures the odd mixture in his attitude which combines genuine affection with a slightly patronizing air (“big, black, and jovial”).