By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Grant Woolard, a senior at the University of Virginia, says he cannot remember exactly what inspired him to draw a cartoon for the student newspaper about Ethiopia's famine. But the biology major said yesterday that he wanted to raise awareness about a serious issue using what he saw as a bit of humor, as is the wont of any ambitious cartoonist.
Here is what Woolard, who is white, drew for the Sept. 4 comics page of the Cavalier Daily: nine darkened figures with bald, enlarged heads, dressed only in loincloths, fighting each other over a tree branch, pillow, chair, boot and stool. The caption for the melee: "Ethiopian Food Fight."
The cartoon set off a debate on the Charlottesville campus and triggered protests by students and others angry at what they considered racial insensitivity.
Woolard was forced to resign from the paper.
"I was not trying to trivialize famine," the 22-year-old said. "When you have a food fight, you fight with food. This cartoon brings you to the realization that there's a famine . . . and in general, people give very little thought to starving people in other countries. But I will admit that I really lacked the foresight in anticipating the reaction. I should have thought that they were going to think I was portraying Africans as savage and misshapen."
His drawing has also triggered questions about political cartoons and reader reactions to those that deal with issues such as race or religion.
The episode was like other controversies that have cropped up at college papers across the country.
In January, the Daily Princetonian heard allegations of bias when it published an article in a joke issue that parodied an Asian American student who had filed a civil rights complaint against Princeton University after being rejected for admission. The article, in broken English, complained about the university's rejection of "the super smart Asian."
At U-Va., debate continues about whether the paper's managing board of editors -- who approved publication of the cartoon -- should step down as well.
Herb Ladley, editor in chief of the Cavalier Daily, said that some of Woolard's previous cartoons were also controversial. Ladley cited one that depicted the Virgin Mary and indicated that she had a sexually transmitted disease -- a cartoon that was discussed on the Fox TV show "The O'Reilly Factor."
Ladley declined to discuss personnel decisions but said he had approved the cartoon for publication. "This one came in late at night, after 12:30, and my initial reaction was, 'This is offensive.' But we print a lot of offensive things. The instant the public raised a question about it, we realized it was a mistake."
The day after the cartoon was published, campus minority groups, led by a chapter of the NAACP, marched to the Cavalier Daily's newsroom in the basement of the student activity center and demanded that Woolard be fired, said Brandon Kelley, the chapter's president.
"One of our members, she is actually Ethiopian, so this hit home to her," he said.
High-level university officials -- including the U-Va. vice president and chief student affairs officer, the interim dean of students and the dean of African American affairs -- condemned the cartoon in an open campus letter, saying that more than 60 people had contacted a university Web site to report bias.
About a third of this year's freshmen at U-Va. identify themselves as minorities or international students in what school officials describe as their most diverse class ever.
Deborah McDowell, interim director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute, which oversees the university's African American studies program, said she learned about the cartoon when two students came to see her during her office hours.
"I thought it was highly offensive," she said of the cartoon. "It draws on a variety of stereotypes about African people presumed to be barbaric or outside the realm of civilization. . . . I don't know what the point was. That's part of the problem. Humor is always risky. When one takes a risk about something so sensitive . . . one has to take their lumps."
Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor for the New Yorker, which specializes in drawings that mock human foibles, looked at Woolard's cartoon after a reporter e-mailed it to him.
He said that it is important for cartoonists to confront serious topics but that they should be careful when depicting a race or ethnicity that has been caricatured in demeaning ways.
"The New Yorker magazine would not have published it," Mankoff said. "It doesn't sound on the face of it that his intention was to offend, but there is liability there by not being aware of these issues. We live in a very polarized society in which there are long-running grievances."
So how does an artist make a funny cartoon about Ethiopian famine? "You might make fun of people and models who aspire to this emaciated look and show their fatuousness," Mankoff said. "It's a more sophisticated approach."
Woolard said he wants to continue cartooning, even if it means he has to start his own Web site or publication.
He already has his next subject: global warming.