Barbara Brandon-Croft is refreshingly humble and good-naturedly humorous. To be in her presence is to be enveloped in a subtle radiance, not the scorching heat of the attention seeker, but the soft warmth of her kind heart. Her hands dance to the euphony of her voice, punctuating her points of speech as expressively as they have illustrated her work as the first African American woman to create a nationally syndicated comic strip in the mainstream press. We meet at her favorite "urban oasis," Greenacre Park, a secluded pocket park anchored by a 25-foot waterfall in midtown Manhattan, to chat. She speaks about the halcyon days of her Long Island upbringing, continuing the legacy of her pioneering black cartoonist father, Brumsic Brandon, Jr. and the incubator of talent that is her Queens home with her musician husband, Monte Croft and their son Chase, a burgeoning rapper/producer and NYU freshman. And with characteristic humility, she parenthetically adds a few tidbits on the renewed interest in her work.
To tell Barbara's story is also to tell her father's. Native Washingtonian Brumsic Brandon, Jr. excelled in art classes at DC’s Armstrong High School, as did a young Duke Ellington with the same dedicated teacher, Mr. Dodson decades earlier. While studying studio art at New York University, he was drafted into the US Army. He attained the rank of Sergeant while serving two years in post-WWII occupied Germany, before returning to the nation’s capital, marrying his love, Rita and beginning a family: daughter Linda, then son Brumsic III. The Brandons would relocate to Brooklyn, New York, where baby Barbara was born. During her infancy, the young family built a home on Rushmore Street in New Cassel, Long Island near Westbury. “It was a segregated Long Island— that was the only place they’d let us live, by the railroad tracks,” she chuckles. “I can remember my mom telling the story of when we first moved into the house, the people across the street were like who are those gypsies moving in over there? My mom’s this very fair black woman and people were like, 'what’s this black man doing with this white woman, and these kids? What the hell is all this?!' But they all became the closest of friends. It was nice to see these men, working on their lawns and just talking— they did it on the regular. It was a wonderful neighborhood where the kids would play outside together and had to come inside when the streetlights went on. Hot peas-n-butter, come and get your supper; Red Light/Green Light; Double Dutch; all that kind of stuff,” she laughs. She and Leslie, her "friend from the beginning of time," played hard and got dirty. "We were tomboys, two peas in a pod, and wanted to play football with the boys." They would not be relegated to cheerleaders on the sidelines of the fun. "I had a great childhood in a black neighborhood," she says with her cheery smile.
Brumsic père supported the family with his work at a motion picture animation studio in New York City, Bray Studios. "My dad was an animator there until 1970," Barbara says. "I didn’t even know what that was, but we always had paper and pens available.” Nevertheless, he submitted editorial cartoons to several papers and in 1963, self-published "Some of My Best Friends," a 24-page book of social commentary cartoons on "the plight of the Negro" which garnered the praise of Langston Hughes. Rita Brandon was a stay-at-home mom until each of her children reached school age; she then went on to shape countless young, Long Island minds as a first-grade teacher, her creative, youngest child helping her set up her classroom. But Mrs. Brandon was home, and dinner prepared by 5 pm. "Oh yes, I had to be home at 5 o’clock...always," Barbara remembers. Rather than the separate corners to which many modern families retreat, "Dinner was at five, and you had to be there. I don’t care what else was going on," she says. And it was served in a dining room lined with Mr. Brandon's sardonic illustrations of the seven deadly sins.
Barbara's lifelong love for Muhammad Ali has its roots on Rushmore Street: "I remember Mr. Conway across the street was a boxer – they called him "Connie"– and Cassius Clay came by. We were peeking through the curtain at them sparring." There was never a doubt as to what the Brandons were watching on television whenever his boxing matches were broadcast. When Clay shed his "slave name" for Muhammad Ali, the Brandons listened. They subscribed to Muhammad Speaks, "probably the only ones on our block" to do so, Barbara laughs. Emerson Brandon, her father's brother changed his name to Waliakbar Muhammad. "Now that was something! He wasn't Uncle Emerson anymore."
From Mr. Brandon's trenchant observations of black life in 1960's America, he conceived of a board game akin to Monopoly— "CULLUD: (a phonetic corruption of "colored") The Game That Tells It Like It Is." He created instructions for gameplay and purchased wittily selected miniatures for use as Monopoly-styled game pieces: a beer stein, wine bottle, switchblade, etc. "It was really brilliant," Barbara says. "this parlor game with the idea that you can't win." To reproduce the game for sale, he enlisted the family: "We were all an assembly line, putting it together," she remembers. It was distributed exclusively through Freedomways magazine, where he was a contributor, for $3.95 each. Jet magazine mentioned it in their December 28, 1967, issue as "in time for the holidays."
The rioting in the aftermath of the 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made its way to New Cassel, and Barbara remembers having a nine-year-old's sense of being part of something meaningful. She and her ace, Leslie, took cover in the basement. "We were on the ground – making something out of nothing – but when it was over, the auto parts [shop] on the corner had burned down, and there was a bullet hole on the side of our house. In some crazy way, we were proud that we were part of this national uproar," she says.
The same year, her father debuted Luther (so named for MLK) in the Long Island-based newspaper, Newsday. Set in the fictitious, inner-city Alabaster Avenue Elementary school, the comic strip wryly chronicled the experiences of black third-grader Luther, his schoolmates, and teacher Miss Backlash, underscoring themes of social justice. With the acquisition of Newsday in 1970, the Times Mirror company, through its Los Angeles Times Syndicate, placed "Luther" among the first comic strips created by black cartoonists and centering the lives of African-Americans to gain mainstream national syndication. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals launched in 1965 and Ted Shearer’s Quincy followed in 1970. In a 2001 interview, Mr. Brandon said, “My objective, in my comic strip, was to bring to light not only the long-ignored black perspective but the many various philosophical postures found therein.”
Barbara recalls her introduction to the work of a cartoonist when her dad tested his kids for artistic aptitude. “He gave us all a drawing test, I think I was in junior high by then, and I was a little better at it," she says humbly. "So I was chosen to help him do Luther — putting on the Zip-a-Tone and filling in silhouettes, and I got paid for it.” When most of her peers received an allowance for household chores, Barbara was compensated for her artistic ability, unwittingly auguring her future.
She enjoyed drawing most but dabbled in painting. "Leslie and I would have art shows in her basement —paintings— and charge people. It was such rich, supportive community." Leslie's maternal great aunts were Fredi Washington (actress) and her younger sister Isabel Washington Powell (former Cotton Club performer and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s first wife) and her aunt was a painter, so the girls had access to the materials they needed to create. And Barbara had her dad's affirmation. "I’ll see these old neighbors of mine, and they’ll say 'I used to see you and you’d say, Come over, and give us a nickel, we put on a show!' We put on shows all the time."
Barbara played clarinet at school, and because Leslie took guitar lessons, she picked up the instrument, her first, disappointingly, a toy. "I went from a plastic toy to a sho'nuff instrument! My grandmother in DC gave me a Martin guitar. I still have it. Leslie taught me 'Stairway to Heaven;' I showed Monte that I could play and he said 'you have the right key and everything.'"
In March 1970, jazz vocalist Joya Sherrill (formerly of the Duke Ellington Orchestra) became the first African American woman to host a kids television program in New York City. Broadcast on Sunday mornings on WPIX Channel 11, Time for Joya! appealed to a multicultural audience. To illustrate the stories Ms. Sherrill would tell, WPIX commissioned Mr. Brandon to contribute drawings. After an appearance on the show for the children to see the person behind the artwork, he, with his natural rapport, was made a member of the cast, known as "Mr. BB" (see him draw). Together Barbara's parents crafted a puppet called "Seymour the Bookworm" to be voiced and manipulated by Mr. Brandon on the show. Mr. BB and Seymour became beloved characters still remembered fondly by those who grew up in New York during the seventies. "Everybody loved my Dad, he was just that kind of guy," Barbara says. But at the time, she was embarrassed by it. "Oh, your Dad’s on TV?!" She feigns a grimace, "Oh geez."
She didn't mind, however, when it got her a seat in the audience of the Ellis Haizlip-hosted show, Soul. "I remember the Delfonics were on one time that my dad was on (broadcast January 30, 1969) Soul was a good show — we saw Ronnie Dyson another time — my dad was on two or three times. He got out there; he was on Gil Noble, (Like it Is) too!"
In Junior High when Barbara had to choose a course of study, she chose what was called "talent art," she says. "It was early on that I felt proud that I had a little something." Though she never really read the "funnies," she did enjoy MAD Magazine. In high school, she was active on several teams in school: swim, tennis and basketball. Barbara a shorty on the court? "Yes, we were the worst, we would lose all the time," she laughs, "but it was fun." Unlike their high-achieving sister, Linda who went on to Brown University and Columbia Law School, Barbara and her brother, "Brum," though no slackers, were less concerned about grades. "I was definitely a B student, not like my sister, she was A track all the way."
When it came time for college, Barbara chose Syracuse University's College of Visual and Performing Arts. "I thought I’ll be a fashion illustrator; I’ll be a this, I’ll be a that. I’ll do fine art, but I didn't like painting. I took classes in what I liked: I liked sociology. I took speech because I hate talking in front of people. Oh, I'll swim, they have a pool. Lifeguard, maybe. I worked at an art gallery and helped curate. I stumbled into everything. I was all over the place."
At once adventurous and retiring, Barbara can experience anxiety around attending events (she has an aversion to crowds) but have a blast while there. "Syracuse pulled me out in terms of socializing. We would listen to P-Funk, at Syracuse we were party folks, man." She remembers her excitement over the landing of the "Mothership" during the Parliament-Funkadelic P-Funk Earth Tour: "I was there when it came down. It’s crazy to tell — but I’d get so excited at concerts that I’d throw up. It doesn't take much; I have a nervous stomach. I throw up all the time," she laughs. I ask if she can handle seeing the Mothership now preserved for posterity at the National Museum of African American History and Culture In DC. She replies with self-deprecating humor, "I'll probably go in there and dry heave."
After her return downstate, Barbara snagged a fashion reporter and illustrator post with Retail News Bureau in 1981, but when she learned of a forthcoming new magazine for black women, poised to be the next Essence, she sought an interview. Literary legend and editor in chief, Marie Brown offered Barbara the opportunity to create a comic strip for the magazine, Elan, which she delightedly did. But before Barbara's work was published, the magazine folded and she kept it moving...to Essence. Although they weren't looking for a cartoonist, they were looking for a fashion and beauty writer to fill in for someone on maternity leave and Barbara, with her fashion reporting experience fit the bill. She'd work at the top magazine for black women in the country from 1983-1989 when she became a full-time cartoonist. Prompted by her dad, she'd submitted her comic strip to the Detroit Free Press for consideration. They debuted her weekly comic strip, Where I'm Coming From in May, 1989, making her the first African-American female cartoonist since Jackie Ormes inked Torchy Brown in "Dixie to Harlem" in 1937 in the Pittsburgh Courier and later another bastion of the "Negro press," the Chicago Defender. Having witnessed the benefits of syndication through her father, Barbara diligently pursued several syndicates. In 1991, she gained the distinction of being the first black woman to create a nationally syndicated comic strip in the mainstream press when Universal Press Syndicate (home to Cathy, Doonesbury, Garfield, The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and later, The Boondocks) signed her.
Barbara and her friends, her "girls" in real life inspired "the girls" on the page, the nine characters in Where I'm Coming From. Giving authentic voice to black women — noticeably underrepresented in the cartoon world — she zeroed in on the characters faces, adding only hands for gesture and expression. She intentionally kept focus above the neck, tired of women being objectified by their body parts, forcing the viewer to look them in the eye to see them, hear them speak their minds. The strip was in syndication until 2005, and she published two books based on the characters. "I'm proud of it," she says. "I am, there’s no getting around it. And I’m proud that it was in Canada, it was in South Africa, it was in Jamaica, it was in the Gleaner it was in Drum. I’m proud I’ve made a mark in history, and it doesn’t matter whatever else happens, that’s indelible. I could do nothing else and still be able to say that." She laughs, adding "One of the seven deadly sins, Pride, be careful!"
She cherishes her friendships. "I’ve been close with Leslie since we were toddlers. Others since kindergarten, middle school and high school; then there are my Syracuse friends; friends from my Essence days, the list goes on. I appreciate my friends so. And I have good friends from all stages of my life. I didn’t have a successful run as a cartoonist writing about women who are best friends for nothing."
"Getting married was not high on my 'to-do list,' Barbara says. She was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn during a culturally significant time; she'd hit her stride as a cartoonist and she'd published her first Where I'm Coming From book. Life was sweet. Then she met Monte Croft, an insanely talented musician impressed by her collection of 45s and smitten with her. She, on the other hand, fancied someone else. But Monte persisted, he'd show up at her regular Tuesday night hang, Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. It was a slow burn, she says, "but I did think he was kinda cute. We grew closer and closer. My connection to Monte felt right and real. We tied the knot in 1997." Each has borne witness to their parents' lasting marriages. "The idea of staying married was part of both of our experiences so when you make that decision, you do whatever it takes, and sometimes it takes a lot. We just genuinely love each other and are supportive of each other, but we're very different." She jokingly calls her husband a "Kardashian" for his many selfies; her social media approach is a bit more modest. She's slowly learning to toot her own horn, but she readily shares the good word on her hubby and son.
Chase Ian Croft will be twenty years old this year, and his mama is still in awe that he's here. "We thought we’d try for a family, but didn’t plan to go through hoops. Even with me being close to 40, with a history of endometriosis, and just one ovary, extra medical help to have children was not an option we considered. The following year I was pregnant. Our son is simply amazing. He teaches me more about life and myself than I could ever teach him." What surprised her most about motherhood was "how it takes over. How it alters you ENTIRELY. There’s not anything that’s the same after, anything! It’s huge. I swear I didn’t change my earrings for the first five years of his life. That’s another thing to think about, and I don’t need to think about another thing. I’m too busy thinking 'bout my baby; I ain't got time for nothing else.” She loves her son's dry humor, says "He's been funny forever, he once asked 'Why do we have the smallest house in Queens?' He was three!" She cracks up. "What does he know about Queens?"
Today Chase, as Archduke Redcat, reps hard for his home borough. "He's got flow," she giggles. As for his first semester of college at NYU? Straight A's. Barbara and Monte couldn't be prouder.
"Monte, Chase and me. It's a good solid feeling." Family is everything. Monte praises his father-in-law to the rafters, his creativity, wit, and commitment to craft. Barbara says, "I see a lot of my Dad in Monte. The idea of working all the time, Dad couldn’t stop. It was very frustrating for him to get Parkinson’s and not be able to draw. Poor thing, just changing the channel with the remote control was a struggle, but he gave it a good fight. I know he wanted to stay for my mom." Despite the cruel ravages of Parkinson’s disease, Brumsic Brandon, Jr. lived to enjoy 64 years of marriage to his beloved Rita and make it to November 27, 2014, the 54th birthday of their youngest child. He joined the ancestors the next day. He is deeply missed.
Little did Barbara know, back in 1967 when she and her family helped her father package his satirical, no-win board game, "CULLUD" that she'd one day mount an exhibition of the same name displaying her father's works alongside her own. Now chair of the Brumsic Brandon, Jr. Art Trust, Barbara has, with the help of "incredible" curator Tara Nakashima Donahue, exhibited twice at New York's Medialia Gallery. First, in 2016, "CULLUD": Brumsic Brandon Jr. & Barbara Brandon-Croft In An Exhibition Of Social Commentary Cartoons, Comic Strips And More, Spanning 1963-2008 and in 2017, Soul: Cartoons in Context. Barbara is currently Research Director at Parents magazine, where she's worked for over a decade. "Doing these shows sparked something in me," she says. She's doing the panel circuit for such shows as Women in Comics Con, NY Comic Con, and the Schomburg Center. An appearance on local New York show Here and Now, made her "sit a little taller in my seat." She's featured in the recently released Encyclopedia of Black Comics, and quoted in both the New York Times and the Washington Post within the past week. She's actively cataloging her father's archive and is itching to create new work again.
As for her accomplishments, Barbara is certain of what she is most proud: "That my dad, and I make the only nationally syndicated father/daughter cartoonists black or white. What I love is that it wasn’t as if I took over his comic strip (like some father/son cartoonists have done). We made our distinction as black cartoonists in the mainstream press independently — via different syndicates and creating separate comic strips. That’s pretty cool when you think about it."
Prefacing her favorites list, Barbara quotes her dad: "I ask you what time it is, and you tell me how to make a watch. That said, my list is kind of long-winded..."
1. Water. "I love being near water. I love the sound of it. I love the sight it. I will go to the beach in the early hours of a Sunday and bring a chair. I’ll sit just at the shore’s edge and take in the sounds and sprays of the waves. I don’t need to stay more than an hour…and hour and a half tops (the sun is too intense and I have an aversion to crowds), but it gives me such a sense of peace. I love water in many iterations. There’s a waterfall– albeit handmade– on 51st Street between 2nd and Third Avenues. It’s a small space next to a synagogue where there are chairs and tables and, although it can be packed at times, I like even walking by it. Those 10 paces it takes to pass it, are enough to calm me and set me right. I actually picked my dentist (and I hate the dentist) because his office was near the waterfall."
2. Chocolate. "I am a lifelong chocoholic. I have to have chocolate EVERY day. My poor son has this self same affiliction. I dare to say that the fact that I dropped a warm chunk of a Mrs. Field chocolate chip cookie on his face while I breast feed him during his first hours of life may have laid the ground work. (Sorry Chase!) There is an actual rule in my house that no one is to eat the last chocolate chip cookie — well, I need to be left with TWO chocolate chip cookies. I need it, particularly in the mornings, to keep things on an even keel. And I keep Hershey’s Kisses on my desk at work (which I share) and I keep a hidden stash of Junior Mints in my desk drawer (which I don’t share). While others cannot do without coffee, I can’t make it without chocolate."
3. Meat. "I should be ashamed, but I love it. A steak, a hamburger (even a hot dog), OH! And lamb chops… I adore them all. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday not just because I was born on Thanksgiving (in 1958), but it’s a chance to cook an entire turkey! As much as I love read meat, I know (thank you, Weight Watchers) that portions are everything — and the leaner the meat the less egregious. So I like to roll with a filet mignon…a sirloin burger…ok hotdogs are hotdogs, I just need mine to be Hebrew National. I allow myself one hamburger a month, three hot dogs a year (Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day) and I’ve been known to have a (non filet mignon) steak salad at The Press Box (near my job) for lunch on a given pay day."
4. Severe weather. "We have a tin awning over our back porch and you’d be hard pressed to keep me inside when there’s a thunderstorm. I just love sitting on the porch and closing my eyes and hearing the rain hit the roof. Yep, water. I absolutely love blizzards! Monte hates them, but whenever there is a chance of flurries, a squall, sleet, hail, a blizzard I am unabashedly beaming!"
5. Caribbean vacations. "I suppose this hooks back to water, too, but my favorite place to vacation is anywhere that shares a coast with the Caribbean Sea. There was a time when I, along with three girlfriends, made it a point to make such a trip each year. We decided to go to islands starting with the letter B. We had great times in Belize, Bonaire, then Bimini! I think we ran out of cash after that plus it got increasingly difficult with life obligations. But growing up we went as a family to Bermuda, Jamaica, and Paradise Island. And Essence got me to one island or another once a year as well."
6. Absolut® Citron martini. "My preferred cocktail, straight up, with a twist, very dry."
7. Cartooning. "Even though I never thought I’d become (or had even aspired to be) a nationally syndicated cartoonist — let alone the first black woman to make it in this field in the mainstream press — I’d been training for this profession all my life. Digging around in old boxes I’ve found comic strips I'd written and drawn from the time I was in elementary school. Crazy, but even having a dad who was a cartoonist in the house and all the supplies anyone would need I still didn’t realize cartooning would wind up being my 'claim to fame.'”
8. Fashion. "Cliché, I know, but I’ve always had a passion of fashion. One of my first thoughts when trying to chose a major at Syracuse University School of Visual and Performing Arts was fashion illustration. I dabbled in design, creating outfits from sheets and even curtains. When I left Syracuse, my first real job was at Retail News Bureau in NYC. Next stop was fashion and beauty writer at Essence. I freelanced for years working behind the scenes of the fashion shows before there even was a “Seventh on Sixth” — both women's and men’s collections. I started out as a dresser and later became one of the stage managers (I called us model herders). I’ve always loved clothes. I love when Monte asks me for my input — yes, I wait to be asked. When I do dress him I take great pride in it. Oh yeah, I was even the fashion features editor for WWD for a short time (I resigned once my cartoon gained national syndication)"
9. Children. "I love them. They make we smile with their honest emotions and openness. Chase teases me about it. 'You even smile when you see a kid crying!' I do. I’ve never met a toddler I didn’t like and babies are just plain delicious."
10. Music. "I love music. How convenient for me to have fallen for a musician? Monte practices all the time. I have music around me constantly. I have to admit, the vibes are my favorite to listen to in the house. It doesn’t matter what mood I’m in, I always feel good hearing him play vibes. In the car,I listen to SIRIUS XM in the car constantly. I mostly keep it on Soul Town and The Groove and can probably sing (not well) any song recorded from 1963 to 1989 in those genres. When Chase is riding with me he puts on his head phones as soon as I get started." As the youngest of three, she was influenced by her sister's Motown fanaticism, her brother's penchant for Buddy Miles and her jazz-loving parents. Hers was a childhood filled with music: live at New Cassel Park and numerous concerts at Westbury Music Fair from Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Jackson Five, The Temptations, and The Four Tops to Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald to Dionne Warwick, Main Ingredient and Blue Magic. But, she says, "The best concert I ever attended was the last Prince concert I saw (and I’ve been to many) at Madison Square Garden. Monte got me a ticket ON THE FLOOR for my birthday. I was blown away! Prince was beyond compare." And she wears his glyph as a pendant in remembrance.