Black cartoonists missing from pages

Black cartoonists missing from pages

Richard Prince

Talented kids love to draw. But the narrow field does not welcome new talent.

Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, was in Baltimore last year telling some of America’s top political cartoonists about the “degradation and irresponsibility” he feels mark today’s public discourse on race relations.

But Patrick couldn’t continue without looking at the crowd and making a point closer to home: He noted “the disappointing and puzzling absence of diversity among editorial cartoonists.”

“Think about it,” he told the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists. “Who is setting the news agenda in this country? Who is assigning stories? Who is drawing the cartoons? . . . There are fewer women and African Americans drawing cartoons for daily newspapers than there are women and African Americans in the United States Senate.”

In fact, knowledgeable journalists say they cannot think of any African American working as a daily political cartoonist in the mainstream press. Efforts at newsroom diversity seem not to have reached the drawing tables of the journalists who create the images that dominate editorial pages. And the prospects seem to be getting worse.

“It’s just not a field open to new talent,” said Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News and immediate past president of the cartoonists association. Newspapers are cutting back – and they’re cutting back on local cartoonists.

“We lost eight positions in the last year, out of 150 people” in the organization, she said. “A newspaper that’s retrenching says, ‘I pay my cartoonist $50,000. I can get (syndicated cartoonist Jeff) MacNelly for $10 a week.'”

“This is an ugly business, and it’s gotten a lot uglier and a little meaner,” added John E. Slade, 38, an African American cartoonist who draws one cartoon a month for the New Orleans Tribune, a black publication. “Sell insurance – you’ll do better.”

Eric Harrison, who is published “every couple of weeks” in the Gary Post-Tribune in Indiana, states matter of factly, “I’m the only black [political] cartoonist working for a mainstream paper.” But Harrison is actually a reporter who doesn’t even live in Gary. He is the Atlanta bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. He draws local cartoons for the Gary paper after getting a briefing from editorial page editor Peter Blum on the latest local issues.

Harrison, 40, recalls that “I loved to draw, and I always knew I wanted to be involved in writing. When I was a kid, I did cartoons for the Houston Post and the black community papers. I tried to do them both [writing and cartooning! when I was in college.”

But Harrison, then a tender 19, had no luck when he teamed up with a partner and submitted cartoons to a national syndicate. “I finally realized that I didn’t think I knew enough yet, and I thought I should put my energies in one place, “he said. However, he added, “eventually, I hope to do cartooning full time.”

Rob King loved to draw, too. While at The Courier-Post in Camden, N.J., he started a comic strip called “The Family Business.” But King, 33, said, “I was specifically told at one point that the newspaper industry was not yet ready for somebody of color, an African American, doing editorial cartoons. The needs are greater elsewhere.” The message came from another African American at Gannett’s corporate headquarters, King said.

“No doubt about it, she was right, if you want a job and stability,” King admits grudgingly. “What I don’t buy is that it was time for me to stop dreaming. If I had given up cartooning altogether, I’d be an extremely unhappy person.”

Today King supervises the photo and graphics departments as presentation editor at The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., another Gannett paper, and on the side continues to draw “The Family Business.”

King said he believes the absence of African American cartoonists stems from several factors:

* Disinterest in the issue by publishers. “This is the one page the publisher will lay claim to,” he said.

* Lack of interest by younger people in tackling state or local topics, the bread and butter of a local cartoonist.

* A dearth of other African-American cartoonists as role models.

* A failure by journalism schools.

“I go to a lot of high schools and middle schools and run into a lot of African American kids who love cartoons and say they want to do it,” King said. “I go to these j-schools and there’s nobody there. You see them on the copy desk, writing stories or shooting photos. [Cartooning] hasn’t been made attractive.”

Walt Carr, 63, might be a candidate for the mainstream press. For years he drew gag cartoons for Ebony magazine and the old Negro Digest (later Black World) while he worked as graphics department chief in the federal government. After he retired in December 1989, he began self-syndicating his cartoons, and today has five black newspapers as clients.

“We have so many problems in the black community, I’ll never have to worry about running out of material,” Carr said. But black newspapers don’t always pay on time, and Carr said he had to impose a two-week moratorium on delivering any cartoons until all of them paid up. “Given the difficulties I’ve had getting my money from the black press, I’ll work for anybody,” Carr said.

The people who run editorial pages don’t seem to have any better answers. Rena Pederson, editor of the editorial page at the Dallas Morning News and president of NCEW, encourages members of the National Association of Black Journalists to keep raising the issue.

“Where there’s talent, there’s always a way,” Pederson said. “We need to make sure the door’s open.”

But others say cartoonists need to look to other media. Slade, in Louisiana, said he is trying television with a twist. In his made-for-TV work, he uses TV’s Chroma-key device (used by forecasters reading weather maps) to step into his cartoon and comment on its subject, “making the cartoonist a personality.”

Bill Mitchell, a white cartoonist who went on a fellowship and couldn’t return on satisfactory terms to the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., said he has found bigger success on the Internet.

There, he draws interactive political cartoons. In one drawing about House speaker Newt Gingrich, the viewer clicks on Gingrich’s devil-like tail and gets a catalog of the ethics violations facing the speaker. Click on his tie and you see a David Letterman Top 10 list on Gingrich. Another click calls up a Mother Jones magazine piece about Gingrich asking his first wife for a divorce while she was on her sick bed.

“There’s going to be tons more potential for cartoonists than there ever was in print,” said Mitchell, 37, whose cartoons can be reached on the Excite web site at: http://www.excite.com

“It’s easy to scan the work into a computer. This isn’t rocket science, but what I’m doing, I can’t find anybody else doing.”

Still, traditional newspapers will continue to help set their communities’ agendas. And part of that presence, some maintain, is the local cartoonist who delivers a visual punch over the morning coffee. Without local cartoonists, “you lose the vitality of the profession,” said Wilkinson.

The vitality can come from confronting new challenges.

“Perspective is not all training,” Patrick said. “It’s experience. It’s the countless ways, small and large, that life forces you to confront and find value in something unfamiliar.”

And without diversity, you lose a chance to broaden perspective, Patrick told the cartoonists.

NCEW member Richard Prince, co-chair of the Media Monitoring Committee of National Association of Black Journalists, is publications editor at Cities In Schools Inc., in Alexandria, Va. A version of this article appeared in the December issue of the Journal of the National Association of Black Journalists.

COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers

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