Satire is an art form that is, by definition, socially conscious; in satire, human vices, abuses, or frailties are exposed through ridicule, derision, irony or other methods, often with the intent of sparking change for the better. Throughout history, artists—in visual arts, literature, music and the performing arts—have used satire to point out problems in society and stimulate change." (The Library of Congress)
The black satirical artist has had a particular ability to expose ironies and problems that often lurk beneath the surface. Black political cartoonists in the 1940s and 1950s used the art form as a way to raise questions and critique America during the pre and post-World War II eras.
The Amsterdam News and The Chicago Defender were two black publications that provided spaces for black political cartoonists to highlight the inconsistencies in American politics. During WWII black and white Americans were largely in support of the war, believing America was the moral leader in the global fight for freedom and democracy. It was political cartoonists, however, who were able to depict America's social and political hypocrisies during this time. As black soldiers and veterans were discriminated against, we shamed Germans for their perceived racial superiority, and as disgusting racial caste systems existed here in America, we found it easier to speak about freedoms for those oppressed by foreign powers, instead of freedoms for those oppressed by domestic ones.
Oliver Harrington is said to be the greatest political cartoonist of all time. He had an uncanny ability to use his political cartoons to make necessary and relevant points about race in America. Through his most famous series Dark Laughter and its main character, Bootsie, Harrington's political commentary was widely recognized throughout the black press. Dark Laughter became emblematic of the black American experience and made such social impact that Harrington was targeted during the McCarthyism era for his strong anti-racist views, leading him to self-exile in Paris.
Bill Chase and Jan Jackson also used their cartoons to illustrate feelings of frustration with American politics and race.
This image by Chase depicts Uncle Sam standing atop the horrors of American white supremacy while overlooking the war in Europe, highlighting the inherent inconsistencies of American foreign policy, as well as early anti-war sentiments among African Americans.
Jan Jackson's cartoon of two American soldiers running across the Atlantic Ocean to save a European white woman in chains as they turn their back to an American black woman in chains speaks to the selective grieving and racism which were both rampant during the WWII era.
Although black political cartoonists are often overlooked in American history, their ability to articulate the black experience remained steadfast. Arguably, the most commonly recognized political cartoonist of our generation is Aaron McGruder, the creator of The Boondocks, a comic strip turned TV show, that made necessary and honest points about American racial politics. Controversial at times, The Boondocks was a groundbreaking comic strip and a revolutionary television series. The series spoke to the Huey inside each of us, helped us make light of difficult situations and illustrated the contemporary complexities of race in post-Obama America.
This rich history of black political cartoonists left me asking, where is the black political cartoonist voice today? Michael Canva wrote an essay in The Washington Post titled, "Why are there no staff black cartoonists at a time when we need them most?" expressing the vitality of the black political cartoonist voice. Canva points out, "not a single full-time staff political cartoonist on a major American daily newspaper is black, according to the industry’s national professional organization."
Throughout the latest, and most tragic, presidential election we've seen the numerous ways in which the lack of representation in journalism can be detrimental to the integrity of reporting, hence the role of equitable representation in the field of political cartoons should not be overlooked.
As mainstream publications get their acts together, review our list below of political cartoonists you should follow:
Keith Knight is a rapper, social activist, father and educator. He’s also one of the funniest and most highly regarded cartoonists in America, and the creator of three popular comic strips: the Knight Life, (th)ink, and the K Chronicles. Keith Knight is part of a generation of African-American artists who were raised on hip-hop, and infuse their work with urgency, edge, humor, satire, politics and race. His art has appeared in various publications worldwide.
Cory Thomas is an illustrator, graphic designer, and comic artist based in Atlanta. He is the creator of the webcomic “Watch Your Head.” You can view more of his work at www.seethomas.com.
Darrin Bell challenges social, political and cultural assumptions. His award-winning work navigates issues such as civil rights, pop culture, family, science fiction, scriptural wisdom and nihilist philosophy while often casting subjects in roles that are traditionally denied them.
Tim Jackson is a nationally syndicated cartoonist and illustrator. His social commentary cartoons have appeared on the editorial pages of the Capital Outlook, Chicago Defender, Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Herald, Dayton Defender, Northern Kentucky Herald newspapers and the magazine, Urban Life Northwest.
Khalid Albaih is a Sudanese cartoonist living in Doha, Qatar. His stark, politically- charged images rose to prominence during the early stages of the Arab Spring protests. Posting his work in the public domain through social media, Albaih quickly became an artist from the revolution, his work being shared online across Arabia and around the world. His cartoons were made into stencils to be reproduced on walls in Beirut and Cairo. His work is was and is used by revolutionary groups in his native Sudan, and by political activists in Yemen, Tunis, Syria. Albaih has been profiled by both the BBC and theNew York Times.
Chris Kindred is an artist and illustrator from Richmond Virginia. His work grapples with race, sexual assault and gender.
Shanon Wright is an illustrator and cartoonist based out of Virginia. Some of her clients include The Guardian, TIME Magazine, Mother Jones, Bitch Magazine, and Boom Comics. Her work tends to explore social issues like race and gender through a slice-of-life lens.
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