Obama Cartoon Called ‘Racist’ for Reference to Watermelon-Flavored Toothpaste [Updated]

A different version of the same cartoon features raspberry-flavored toothpaste.

Obama

 

UPDATE, October 1, 11:45 a.m.: The Boston Herald artist who has the Internet in an uproar over his racially-charged cartoon featuring President Barack Obama and a reference to the stereotype that African Americans love watermelon apologized for offending readers, and said he didn’t even consider the negative implications in the drawing.

“It was completely naïve or innocent of any racial suggestion. I wasn’t thinking along those lines at all,” said Jerry Holbert, who has been drawing political cartoons for the newspaper since 1986.

Holbert made the apology during an interview on Boston Herald radio with Joe Battenfeld and Hillary Chabot on Wednesday morning, just hours after snapshots and links to the cartoon went viral.

Holbert told Chabot and Battenfeld that the idea to use “watermelon” instead of “peppermint” or another common toothpaste flavor in the text of the cartoon came after he looked through a cupboard and discovered someone had left “a kids Colgate watermelon flavor” there.

“I, myself, love watermelon, and I thought that would be a great one,” he said.

After images of another version of the cartoon that were featured on a syndicate site called GoComics.com made the rounds online, there was speculation—including from Boston—about whether the Herald chose to change the name of the toothpaste flavor right before the newspaper went to print.

But Holbert clarified Wednesday that it was his intention to include the term “watermelon” in his cartoon, not thinking about the racial connotations, and the switch to “raspberry” was made by outside editors since his cartoons are syndicated.

Holbert told the radio station that on Tuesday night someone wrote to him and asked if they could change the watermelon reference, and he was “confused” by the request. “I changed it to raspberry and sent it back to them,” he said.

Why others noticed the racial implications before publishing, but the Herald didn’t, still remains unclear.

The Herald issued an apology Wednesday as conversations swirled online, gaining national attention, but they failed to address that answer, and merely stated they were sorry for “inadvertently” offending anyone who read the political cartoon.

“I also apologize to anyone I offended, it was not my intention at all,” said Holbert. “I don’t think along the lines of racial jokes, I never do. Naïve, stupid—those kinds of things I understand. But racist, I am definitely not.”

 

EARLIER:

A political cartoon in Wednesday’s Boston Herald is raising eyebrows and has people calling the newspaper “racist.”

The cartoon depicts President Barack Obama brushing his teeth in the bathroom of the White House, as the man recently accused of storming the building and getting past Secret Service security washes himself in the bathtub to the President’s surprise.

In the political drawing, sketched by resident Herald artist Jerry Holbert, the man in the tub is asking Obama if he has tried “watermelon-flavored” toothpaste, tapping into a stereotype that has ties to slavery, and how African Americans were perceived by white people in the 19th and 20th century. As Theodore Johnson wrote in an article for The Huffington Post last year:

With such deep and persistent iconography, it’s no wonder that disparaging imagery of blacks’ obsession with watermelon can still be found in our society long after slavery and the minstrel period. And much like then, it is used to belittle African-American people and their achievements.

Clearly, the Herald’s approach to the cartoon, and choice to revert to a Watermelon-flavored toothpaste, follows that logic, and has people calling out the publication online.

“This cartoon in today’s Boston Herald is racist and offensive. The Herald should apologize,” said Keith Boykin, a contributor with CNBC.

“Can’t understand why Boston has a rep [for being racist],” one person wrote, after retweeting the cartoon.

“Who thought this was a good idea?,” someone else said.

Others were in shock, merely saying, “Jesus,” and “Wow,” while many were not surprised at all that the Herald decided to take this approach to their daily political attack.

But a similar cartoon posted to an archive of Holbert’s work on GoComics.com doesn’t use the watermelon stereotype—in that version, the toothpaste is raspberry-flavored, even though the rest of the cartoon is drawn up exactly the same:

 

Screenshot via GoComics.com

Screenshot via GoComics.com

 

It’s unclear at what point the choice to use “watermelon” was made before the cartoon went to print and appeared in Wednesday’s newspaper. A call to the Herald’s editorial desk was not immediately returned Wednesday morning, and the paper has yet to comment on the strip, which continues to infuriate readers online.

“So my question on this Boston Herald cartoon is this: Who changed it?,” asked Thomas Fant, on Twitter.

H/T Greg Reibman. 


Steve Annear Steve Annear, Digital Writer at Boston Magazine sannear@bostonmagazine.com