Political cartoonist speaks out
A blond fellow in a blue suit charged with illegal drug possession stands next to the prosecuting attorney, who holds in his arms six bags of cocaine. They look up at the judge, who rules: “18 months in a medium-security facility.”
A young Black fellow in a City Jail uniform, the same prosecutor by his side, this time holding just one packet of “crack,” stands before the same judge on the same charges. The judge rules: “5 years in the state penitentiary.”
That’s the lead drawing in Just Us! — a book of political cartoons titled with a play on the word “justice,” reflecting how it is experienced by American Blacks.
The artist is Walter Carr, a 42-year-resident of Columbia, who recently celebrated his 89th birthday. Published in 2019, Just Us! includes 180 of Carr’s 1,700-some cartoons, mostly political, created over the years.
Carr continues to “speak out” about the life and times of Black Americans through his art, currently providing a weekly cartoon syndicated to six Black-orientated newspapers, among them the Washington Informer and the New Pittsburgh Courier.
This year, Carr is preparing a second book of previously drawn cartoons depicting how he has seen the nation’s race relations over the many years of his life.
His daily visit to the drawing board “is how I process current events, vent, let off steam,” Carr told the Washington Post.
The Post published a Carr cartoon last year that demonstrated his dismay with the state of the union. The top of the drawing read, “Country’s headed in the wrong direction.” Below, a group of blindfolded white supporters of former President Donald Trump are on the march with MAGA caps and “stop the steal” signs.
Two mask-wearing young guys, one white, the other Black, are looking on. The Black fellow says: “They won’t wear masks, but a blindfold seems to fit them fine.”
“The strength of the visuals and the concept behind it are most important in editorializing by cartoon,” Carr told the Baltimore Sun. “You really hit a home run if you can do it by visuals alone,” he said. “I try to minimize words, and that’s not easy to do.”
Cartoons about weighty issues
Carr could surely be considered a pioneer of published cartoons of Black matters. He graduated with an art degree in 1955 from Morgan State, Baltimore’s historically Black university.
In 1960, he took a job as an illustrator for the Social Security Administration’s Visual Graphics Section. He worked at the federal agency until 1989, retiring as a section chief.
During that time, he also freelanced with “gag” cartoons, rather than political ones, which appeared in such publications as the late Ebony magazine and Negro Digest, as well as Playboy.
He got into full-time political cartooning in 1993, when he started publishing in numerous Black news outlets.
“I’ve been a freelance cartoonist for over six decades now,” he told the Beacon. “I switched from gag cartoons to editorial cartoons in ‘93.
“I’ve never been obsessed with fame or fortune, I’ve flown under the radar for years, feeling most comfortable with the Black press.”
Among Carr’s recent regular targets, as depicted in Just Us!, has been former President Donald Trump, “a cartoonist’s dream,” Carr said, who presents “a smorgasbord of ideas.”
Carr also targeted the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), whose “fat cats” or officials, he said, “for years have been pimping off” college athletes, many of them Black. Some coaches and administrators make millions of dollars off amateur athletes, who earn nothing.
In Just Us! a hunched-over black basketball player has several NCAA coaches and colleagues sitting on his back above the sign “Slaving Away for the NCAA.” (A recent Supreme Court decision has paved the way for amateur athletes to also profit in the future.)
History of political cartoons
Some historic perspective: Political cartooning, which included lampooning and caricature, took off in England in the late 1700s, around the time of the French Revolution.
London artist James Gillray, known as the father of the political cartoon, aimed his satirical pieces against, among others, England’s King George III, depicting him as a pretentious buffoon; leaders of the French revolution, ridiculing their most ambitious claims; and even a Frenchman named Napoleon Bonaparte.
The art of the editorial cartoon further developed with the establishment in 1841 of Punch, the great British satirical publication.
Then came Thomas Nast in mid-to-late 19th-century America, whose popular political drawings lampooned and commented on everything from the Civil War to Reconstruction, and from police corruption to Boss Tweed’s nefarious political machine in New York.
Drawn political commentary continued on into modern times as one of the form’s greatest proponents, David Herbert Block, known as Herblock, picked up pen, pencil and crayon for the Washington Post.
Herblock won four Pulitzer Prizes for chronicling the nation’s political history — from the stock market crash of 1929, to World War II, the McCarthyism of the 1950s, the Watergate fallout of the 1970s, through the “new millennium” of 2000 — pictorially commenting on 12 Presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton.
Cartoons about politics, religion and other matters, have also had tragic consequences, most notably on Jan. 7, 2015, when two French Muslim brothers forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with rifles and other weapons, they killed 12 people at the newspaper and injured 11 others.
The killers identified themselves as belonging to the terrorist group al-Qaeda, which took responsibility for the attack for what they perceived as insulting cartoons about Islam.
Several commentators have sadly noted that as newspapers face hard times and stop publishing, political cartoons are disappearing. Washington Post columnist Mitch Daniels noted in 2019 that while 2,000 political cartoonists were employed a century ago, there were only about 40 staff cartoonists employed that year.
“A case can be made that public opinion has, over time, been more often shaped by these artists than by the words of their polemicist colleagues on the nation’s editorial pages. A salient political point made with humor can pack more punch than the same idea draped in invective,” Daniels wrote.
Reasons to keep drawing
So does the four-score-and-nine-year-old Walter Carr feel the time has come to lock up his drawing board? No way.
“Maryland police departments reported 40 hate crimes last year, about twice as many as they reported in 2019. More than one-third were targeted at African Americans,” he said.
“Even as an aging Black man, as a human being and an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) ambassador, I feel I have a responsibility to always speak out about racism. Visual commentary is my most effective tool.”
He added: “A lot of people are waking up to the realities of racism in America in ways that I have never seen before. All I want to do is to help them not go back to sleep.”