A couple of weeks ago, I went to a local bar to play Quizzo with a friend. One of the questions referred to an actor whose name none of us could remember. My friend said, “I know his face! Just not his name.”
We joked, “Draw him.”
But my friend, who is white, said, “I feel like when I draw black people it looks racist.”
Artist Ron Wimberly had someone tell him that he’d thought Wimberly’s art was racist, before meeting him and realizing that Wimberly is black.
Wimberly noted that perhaps it’s just that black features don’t look strange or exaggerated to him.
An unnerving number of North America’s political cartoonists are bizarrely obsessed with President Obama’s lips.
You read that right. Barack has the mouth that soared to the top of many cartoonists’ fixations. Just what in the name of Jimmy Carter caricatures is going on here?
If you don’t believe me, scan dozens of current political cartoons. For every Steve Benson or Mike Luckovich who is zeroing in on a swell, spot-on Obama, there seems to be a cartoonist who invokes “caricature” in the most grotesque sense of the word. Obama’s lips have been rendered in such unnatural tints, and at such dimensions, that somewhere, even R. Crumb would blush.
And of course, this physical area of caricature — unlike, say, Obama’s ears — comes freighted with a legacy of ugly racism and cruel, blackface-era mockery.
Daryl Cagle writes:
I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently on drawing Obama; people want to know about racial stereotypes and whether cartoonists are being pressured to draw him a certain way. When I was working as an illustrator I was often given clear guidelines on how I was supposed to draw African-Americans: with small noses and thin lips. I was instructed to make any crowds of cartoon characters racially diverse, but only diverse in color, not in facial features.
It’s an interesting, and tough question. After seeing the Obama Spider-Man comic, and observing that the Obama in the pages looked almost nothing like the actual president, I wondered what gave. This is 2009, we have our first African-American president, are we still dealing with the “all black people look the same” mentality? Or was the artist worried about playing into racist stereotypes and ended up with a generic dark-skinned character (hell, even the skin tone was wrong).
A while back, there was a controversy about the New Yorker’s cover, depicting Obama and his wife in stereotyped ways. I weighed in back on my own blog, and there were thoughtful comments on both sides. But I wonder if the debate over the propriety of that image has contributed to the thoughts of cartoonists depicting Obama now.
Cagle’s point, that he was taught to draw African-Americans with Caucasian features, dovetails nicely into this post, from Girls Read Comics, and this one, from Seeking Avalon, on Vixen being portrayed as, well, white. And then I think of my friend’s comment, and Wimberly’s comment, and…
I don’t have easy answers here. I don’t think any of the artists mentioned above or linked in any of these places meant to be racist. I also think that sometimes, whether you like it or not, racism creeps in. This shouldn’t be taken as a sign that white people shouldn’t be drawing people of color, or that caricaturing the President of the United States is off-limits now because said President is black.
This is only the first month of Obama’s presidency; I have no doubt that this won’t be the last time we have this conversation. I guess about the only thing I can hope for is that we can discuss it like adults, and move forward from here.