The Cartoon: How Black Journalists Saw It

We dimly remember an upper-story window of the Justice Department in Washington some 20 years ago, behind which it was possible to discern a line of gray officials–and wasn’t one of them the attorney general himself, John Mitchell?–staring at the spectacle below, our sea of hippies, revolutionaries, and other unwelcome troublemakers chanting for peace.

It seemed feckless of the lot of them to be looking down that way, snickering–or so we all imagined–with empty derision. Standing on their parapet, the besieged lords of Justice confessed themselves unable to either confront or ignore the army raised against them. They were inside, we were out–and wasn’t it a lovely day in April!

Tuesday of last week we remembered John Mitchell. It was a sunless day in January, and our turn had come to stand at the window and ponder the demonstrators below, bravado briefly obscuring how uncomfortable the experience made us feel. “Disrespect one and you disrespect all” said one picket sign. But don’t you see?–we told ourselves–that’s exactly where the demonstrators had it wrong. The David K. Nelson cartoon in the end-of-the-year issue had ridiculed no one but Dorothy Tillman, who had it coming. How could the marchers chanting down there on Illinois Street expect the Reader to answer for an insult none of them had been paid?

One of the yellow buses carried a huge Gus Savage for Congress poster on its side. Without a doubt, political opportunists were at work here fanning the flames.

And without a doubt, a segment of the public had rallied behind the Reader. The telephone told us that. If many calls were made by blacks trying to explain how deeply the Tillman cartoon had troubled them, others came in from new white friends who’d heard of our troubles on TV and felt a need to urge us to teach those people a lesson.

So there we were, standing strong at the windows. But after the buses departed, several of us thought the situation still needed sorting out. A dismissive shrug was less than those black callers and picketers deserved; if we still felt right in principle, that didn’t mean we’d foreseen the impact of the Tillman cartoon on blacks who came across it. To get our bearings, we decided to call some black journalists we respected. We asked them what their own personal, visceral reaction to the cartoon had been.

“No reaction at all,” said Monroe Anderson, director of community affairs at Channel Two. “I just thought it was standard caricaturization. I didn’t see it as racial at all. It was a public figure being caricatured. Actually, the reaction upset me more than the caricature. Dorothy Tillman has verbally done to countless people what that one drawing did to her. So I was trying to figure why was she upset when the chickens came home to roost?”

But nobody else we talked to had any use for Nelson’s drawing. “Even black people who don’t care particularly for Dorothy Tillman, who don’t particularly approve of Dorothy Tillman’s style,” Vernon Jarrett lectured us, “they still object adamantly to that type of cartoon. Do you know, Dorothy Tillman spoke very innocently to me. ‘I thought the Reader was a liberal paper and they wouldn’t do this to somebody.’ She was a little naive. In this culture white people, including liberals, are groomed to really take lightly what hurts other folks.”

We found Jarrett in the process of writing last Sunday’s column, in which he’d argue–not persuasively, we thought–“I do not believe that the Art Institute or the Reader would permit Nelson an absolute free hand if his subjects were overwhelmingly offensive to the ‘right’ people, meaning the people who rhyme with right.” Jarrett had in mind Nelson’s 1988 painting of Harold Washington in women’s underwear that Tillman and other aldermen took off the wall of the Art Institute (an action Jarrett opposed on civil-libertarian grounds, by the way), as well as the Tillman caricature. He was sure a painting of Marshall Field in girdle and bra could not have been mounted in the same student show. We’re pretty sure it could have been. At any rate, “an absolute free hand” has never been offered by the Reader, for all the license this paper’s contributors enjoy. On the contrary, contributors expect the paper’s editors to save them from themselves when necessary. The Tillman caricature didn’t strike editors here as “overwhelmingly offensive” to anyone, except possibly Dorothy Tillman.

“This looks like one of those old southern pickaninny cartoons,” said Jarrett. “That cartoon reminded every black person who has a little age on him and lived down south of what the southern newspapers used to do to us. See, those types of things used to go in ads selling baking powder, tobacco, what have you. Ads that make you look nonhuman.

“There’s something about that picture that I’m having trouble putting into words that expresses a deep contempt for black people,” Jarrett went on. “It’s a Hambone picture. She’s an old-style pickaninny. As though she was ready to go cheaply on the slave market. I didn’t like it. That was a derogatory cartoon drawn by a white guy who resents black people being anything other than clowns.”

Nelson is suing Dorothy Tillman and two other aldermen for removing his painting of Washington in ’88. This litigation is another reason the Reader shouldn’t have run Nelson’s drawing of Tillman, Jarrett told us. And Salim Muwakkil, a senior editor at In These Times, agrees that it allows Nelson’s drawing to be interpreted as an act of vengeance instead of political satire.

Aside from that, Muwakkil considers the drawing unfortunate. He reminded us of a notorious incident late last year in New York City, when a station wagon driven by a Hasidic Jew hit and killed a black child in Crown Heights. “Suppose someone had done a picture of a Hasidic Jew exaggerating all the classical keys. You look at some of the cartoons in Germany in the late 30s–they always exaggerated certain features. And Jewish people find it offensive. If I was a Jewish person looking at that caricature, I would be offended. It would hurt my sensibility. I think it’s the same way with Tillman. It needlessly offended people in a way that seemed to be gratuitously malicious.”

Were you offended? we asked Muwakkil. No, he said, but plenty of people he knows were. “Even people who are not hair-trigger types, who respect the Reader–a lot of pretty thoughtful people were really insulted.”

Laura Washington is the editor of the Chicago Reporter. Having heard about the cartoon before she saw it, she tried to look at it objectively, she told us, putting herself in the position of the Reader as well as the black person on the street.

“My sense was I found it personally offensive,” Washington said. “It reinforces black stereotypes. It creates a perception of black stereotypes, especially the hair and the nails. Those things are symbolic of someone who is slovenly, someone who is dirty, someone who doesn’t care about her appearance, someone who is not fully human, the kind of stereotype that was common 60 or 70 years ago. I don’t think the author of the cartoon knows if Dorothy Tillman has long toenails, so why would you portray her that way?”

We asked Nelson about the drawing. He explained that he drew Tillman’s caricature from a photograph and deliberately did not exaggerate her facial features. The hair? we wondered.

“The reason I did that was because everybody has always seen Dorothy Tillman with a hat on,” Nelson explained. “What does she look like underneath? I just had to assume she doesn’t have a fabulous–what’s the word?–coif. What am I going to do, give her this incredible hairdo?

And the toenails?

“I don’t know. I just gave her some nasty toenails. There wasn’t much more to it than that. The funny thing is, it’s ridiculous to sit and go through each element of a cartoon. It’s something to get people laughing and throw away. That people have spent more time analyzing it than I spent doing it is kind of ridiculous.”

In fact, said Nelson, “I can sum it all up like this. At first I found it mildly absurd, and now I find the entire thing an absolute bore. I only read articles on it with mild interest and that’s only because my name’s mentioned. Really, that sums it all up–making a crack about a politician and then having it analyzed to death. Anyway, I just find it incredibly, incredibly boring.”

Nelson wondered what we’d thought of his drawing when we first saw it. Were we offended? No, we didn’t think anything of it at all. That’s why it seemed worthwhile to reach a few people who’d reacted differently. We didn’t attempt to argue Jarrett or Muwakkil or Washington out of their convictions. We merely listened to them.

Local Boy Makes Good

Why the American hometown newspaper will never die, no matter what happens in the field of interactive tele-electronic publishing:

From the weekly Glen Ellyn News:

“President Bush, who is gearing up for a run at re-election in 1992, may have helped himself secure the Wheaton vote by naming Samuel Skinner as his new chief of staff.

“Skinner, a member of Wheaton Community High School’s Class of ’56, last week was tabbed to be the president’s right-hand man, replacing John Sununu.

“The 1956 edition of Wecomi, Wheaton High’s yearbook, describes Samuel Knox Skinner as: ‘Always happy, never sad, full of pep, and never bad (?)’ The parenthetical question mark is not explained . . . ”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven D. Arazmus.