Last week the Boston Herald published, then apologized for, a cartoon depicting President Obama in the bathroom brushing his teeth. Behind him, cartoonist Jerry Holbert drew the infamous White House intruder Omar Gonzalez in the bathtub. Holbert's fictional Gonzales character asked the President, "Have you tried the new watermelon flavored toothpaste?"
There was swift and widespread condemnation of Holbert's cartoon. Gov. Deval Patrick said it was "stupid." The Boston chapter of the NAACP said the cartoon "reopened the wounds of race in Boston." Holbert himself apologized for the work, and the Boston Herald agreed to meet with the NAACP to discuss racial sensitivity.
Boston Public Radio cohost Margery Eagan asked if there were a way to make lemonade out of the proverbial lemons of public discontent.
"I think we can make some lemon vodka. I'm not sure about lemonade," the Rev. Emmett G. Price III joked. "This is an old scenario that's played out. I think it was absolutely insensitive for the cartoon to run. (...) A syndicated editor had tried to pull the string on this, said 'this is not going to run in our newspaper, you need to change it to a different type of fruit,' and the Boston Herald decided to go on and run it" anyway, Price said. "It was inappropriate."
The Rev. Irene Monroe agreed with Price, and added that the cartoon might have been an attempt at sensationalism. "The Herald is like a tabloid newspaper, but in the sort of rubric of [papers like] National Enquirer, it tends to show the most negative of everything." Monroe added, "It's not the go-to paper that African-Americans in Boston would pick up."
Monroe pointed out that the Boston Herald is far from the first publication to print racially-charged cartoons. The Pennsylvania news outlet Lancaster New Era took heat for comparing cramped quarters on commercial planes to slave ships. "We're dogged with this sort of negative iconography," Monroe said.
Boston Public Radio cohost Jim Braude asked whether the NAACP's statement about the cartoon — that it "reopened the wounds of race" in the city — effectively addressed the problem. Price thought so. "I'm proud of [president] Mike Curry and the Boston chapter of the NAACP for being the watchdog and calling them to task on it. I think the Herald could benefit from some sensitivity training," Price said. He added, "I'm not sure it's going to solve anything." Price said he thought Jerry Holbert was sincere in his apology about the cartoon.
Monroe wasn't convinced the cartoon reopened old racial wounds "because we make the assumption they were closed" to begin with. About Holbert, Monroe said, "He really probably did find this to be funny, and that's the real problem. Why is that so funny to him?"
>> To hear the entire conversation with Revs. Irene Monroe and Emmett G. Price III, click the audio link at the top of the page.