To the editors:
I cannot decide whether Michael Miner’s “Hot Type” of January 17 discussing David K. Nelson’s now notorious Dorothy Tillman cartoon [December 20] displays extraordinary subtlety or says much more than he himself realizes. He notes that ” . . . when we first saw [the cartoon]. . . . we didn’t think anything of it at all.” I think this last phrase illustrates the fundamental problem at issue in the debate over Mr. Nelson’s cartoon.
I should first say that my original response, different than that of many others, was a sort of intellectual disgust, based primarily on the cartoon’s complete lack of merit. I could not understand why anyone felt that it deserved to be published. What important point was made? What truth was uncovered? it seemed to do nothing more than attack Ms. Tillman, and to do so in a particularly childish manner. In short, as Salim Muwakkil stated, it “seemed to be gratuitously malicious.”
Thus, unless my perceptions, and those of many others, are utterly mistaken, I cannot help but think that no one involved in this sorry episode gave the matter any thought at all. Leaving aside the question of Mr. Nelson’s suit against Ms. Tillman, how is it that the editors of the Reader, given that Mr. Nelson has previously outraged many people, both within and without the black community, could be in any way surprised that, given a similar set of circumstances, the same thing might happen again?
People who speak out against negative portrayals of blacks, women, and other disenfranchised groups are often condemned today as “politically correct” and accused of attempting to stifle discourse, infringe free speech, and commit all types of intellectual violence in order to provide a sanitized view of the world, and I have no doubt that such has been claimed in this case. However, I believe this to be a misrepresentation, often willful, of this point of view. The point is not that there should be no negative portrayals of blacks, women, etc, but that those who present negative images should be aware of the fact that they are doing so. Unfortunately, given the pervasiveness of negative images in our society, it is far too common for people to continue their presentation. It does not even require malice, merely a bit of laziness and lack of thought.
Perhaps there was no malice or prejudice involved in Mr. Nelson’s portrayal of Ms. Tillman. Perhaps there was none on the part of the Reader. Nonetheless, I think Mr. Nelson is slightly disingenuous in claiming that “. . . it’s ridiculous to sit and go through each element of a cartoon. . . . That people have spent more time analyzing [the cartoon] than I spent doing it is kind of ridiculous.” Surely he realizes that his art does not arise in a vacuum, but is influenced by his personal and artistic background.
Even if we give the most charitable interpretation to the motives of all parties involved, doesn’t it say something–about society as a whole as well as about Mr. Nelson–that his drawing, which he just tossed off and which no one at the Reader thought much about, “looks,” in the words of Vernon Jarrett, “like one of those old southern pickaninny cartoons”?
That, I believe, is something worth thinking about.
Gregory M. Byshenk