Update: I’m not sure when this was added, but Herald editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen tells Romenesko that she vetted the cartoon: “Herald editorial page editor Rachelle Cohen tells me neither she nor artist Jerry Holbert saw anything wrong with the cartoon. ‘Jerry doesn’t have a racist bone in his body,’ she says. He chose watermelon because he had just seen that flavor of toothpaste in his house, says Cohen.” So now we have the cartoonist and his editor both claiming that they didn’t see any racist intent in the watermelon reference. At best, this speaks to a lack of diversity in the newsroom.
To their credit, the folks at the Boston Herald clearly and quickly understood that they had a problem on their hands Wednesday after publishing an editorial cartoon by Jerry Holbert that was racist in its effect, if not in Holbert’s intent. The cartoon depicted an intruder in a White House bathroom asking President Obama if he had “tried the new watermelon-flavored toothpaste.”
Holbert went on the newspaper’s online radio station to apologize, and said he understood he compounded his error when he failed to notify the Herald that his syndicate had told him to alter the cartoon so as to eliminate the racial inference. And today, the paper publishes a straightforward apology. On the editorial page, Holbert apologizes again.
But now it’s time for the Herald to close the circle. Even if Holbert didn’t understand why African-Americans are offended by stereotypes of black people as placid, happy watermelon-eaters, are we to believe that editorial cartoons somehow leap onto the pages of the Herald with no intervention on the part of editors?
Here is an excerpt from a well-sourced article at Wikipedia:
While the exact origins of this stereotype remain unclear, an association of African Americans and watermelon goes back to the time of slavery in the United States. Defenders of slavery used the fruit to paint African Americans as a simple-minded people who were happy when provided watermelon and a little rest. The stereotype was perpetuated in minstrel shows often depicting African Americans as ignorant and workshy, given to song and dance and inordinately fond of watermelon.
I agree with my WGBH colleague Emily Rooney of “Greater Boston,” who said last night (above) that she believes Holbert when he says he had no racial intent — but that someone at the Herald should have caught it before publication. The Herald should tell us who approved the cartoon and why.
In case you missed it, here is how the story unfolded on Wednesday.