On the heels of my earlier exploration into post-post racial humor done right comes this fortuitous example of comedy done wrong.
A description of a recent NY Post political cartoon from HuffPo:
A cartoon likening the author of the stimulus bill, perhaps President Barack Obama, with a rabid chimpanzee graced the pages of the New York Post on Wednesday.
The drawing, from famed cartoonist Sean Delonas, is rife with violent imagery and racial undertones. In it, two befuddled-looking police officers holding guns look over the dead and bleeding chimpanzee that attacked a woman in Stamford, Connecticut.
“They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill,” reads the caption….
Around the web, the sound of buzz…
- Commentary from Jack & Jill Politics: “…just remember that black folks as monkeys is one of the oldest and most vile images used throughout our history.”
- The Unapologetic Mexican calls the paper out for pretending tone deafness about race.
- Ta-Nehisi Coates is, like, meh but believes it is a “bad” cartoon and joke.
- The Black Snob notes that this cartoon was “drawn by a guy who apparently didn’t get the memo that any doodle of a great ape, chimpanzee, gorilla or monkey within 100 yards of Barack Obama is bound to raise some serious eyebrows.”
- More comments at Racism Review and an open thread over at Racialicious.
- A comment about the back and forth on this cartoon from Nat Turner’s Revenge: “It’s not as silly as a barrel of apes. It belies something ugly, long-standing. It’s just donned a new mask and other people refuse to see what’s behind it despite the storm gale blowing it off.”
Rev. Al Sharpton via his National Action Network:
Being that the stimulus bill has been the first legislative victory of President Barack Obama (the first African American president) and has become synonymous with him it is not a reach to wonder whether the Post cartoonist was inferring that a monkey wrote it? Given that the New York Post cartoonist has come under heavy fire in the past for racially tinged cartoons including the infamous cartoons depicting 2001 mayoral candidate Freddy Ferrer and me in very unflattering ways (that ultimately was used as a campaign tactic to inflame racial prejudices), one cannot ignore that history when looking at this morning’s cartoon.
Meanwhile in a statement from the paper as reported by the Associated Press, the blame for the entire brouhaha is placed elsewhere:
“The cartoon is a clear parody of a current news event, to wit the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in Connecticut. It broadly mocks Washington’s efforts to revive the economy. Again, Al Sharpton reveals himself as nothing more than a publicity opportunist.”
Why the cartoon does not work: Of course political cartoons are not necessarily meant to be ha-ha funny. A Wikipedia entry describes editorial cartoons as using “visual metaphors and caricatures to explain complicated political situations, and thus sum up a current event with a humorous or emotional picture.“ In this case, however, not only is the cartoon not very ha-ha funny, but it fails to explain much at all–complicated or not. In fact, the more I try to tease apart the visual metaphor supposedly being attempted, the more the “explanation” falls apart.
How are the stimulus package and the killing of the rampaging chimpanzee in Connecticut related, either literally or figuratively? There may be links, but if the cartoonist or the newspaper’s editors or anyone else must explain these links, then the cartoon fails as an editorial statement for this reason: It does not stand alone.
Instead, many, many people made their own connections upon seeing this image. In my case, the Travis the chimpanzee case was not the first thing that came to my mind when I saw it. Two White police officers, a dead animal, their drawn and smoking weapons…my first thought was “police shooting of an unarmed suspect.” Then the text about the stimulus package–I wondered if there was something in its provisions I had missed that was not generous enough to law enforcement or something. I was just baffled.
Who might find it especially funny: Or, especially enlightening or insightful as an editorial statement. Honestly, I am not sure. I suppose there are those who feel that the stimulus package is a mauling, rogue, out-of-control mess. I suppose there is a philosophy that the economy should be left to its own devices and not be tinkered with, much like wild animals should be left alone and not be made into pets. (But then in the latter case, the monkey should have been labeled as our tanking economy or something, surely not as the writer[s] of the bill…)
Who might have problems with it: Without a label on the monkey, it is an understandable conclusion for people to reach that the “someone” who wrote the bill refers not generically to the US government or to any other specific person, but to the President himself. Thus someone who is aware of and troubled by the long-standing racist imagery equating Blacks with non-human beasts would find this Obama-as-monkey (and dead monkey at police hands at that) image troubling. Monkeys and apes have been a particular favorite visual stand-in for Black people. This imagery is not the past, but is very much still with us and potentially has very real consequences.
A research study as reported last year in Science Daily:
Crude historical depictions of African Americans as ape-like may have disappeared from mainstream U.S. culture, but research presented in a new paper by psychologists at Stanford, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Berkeley reveals that many Americans subconsciously associate blacks with apes.
In addition, the findings show that society is more likely to condone violence against black criminal suspects as a result of its broader inability to accept African Americans as fully human, according to the researchers.
So my final analysis: I am not laughing, nor am I enlightened. The cartoon is not merely off-base, it is out of line. I do not, however, think that the cartoonist or the newspaper should apologize for it.
My disdain for non-heartfelt and non-apology apologies is a topic best explored another day.