On the eve of James Baldwin’s words taking Hollywood’s center stage this past weekend, a controversial cartoon depicting Baldwin was pulled by a Southern California newspaper.
On Friday evening, the San Diego Union-Tribune announced that it was removing a work by Steve Breen, the paper’s longtime editorial cartoonist, from its website.
Jeff Light, the paper’s publisher and editor in chief, also apologized for the cartoon, which in his words “drew an ironic parallel between two august figures — James Baldwin and Toni Morrison — and Jussie Smollett,” the “Empire” actor accused of staging a hate crime last month and lying to Chicago police about it.
The cartoon, published Friday, depicted successive portraits of Baldwin, Morrison and Smollett beneath the caption, “Famous African-American Storytellers.”
“I consider the cartoon offensive and not in line with our values as a company,” Light wrote. Matthew T. Hall, the paper’s editorial and opinion director, also apologized for the cartoon.
“I ultimately agree with the decision to pull the cartoon because enough thoughtful people have told me they find it offensive,” Breen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, told The Washington Post. “I’m frustrated with myself because I feel with a few tweaks, the cartoon could have been salvaged, but I’m not exactly sure what those would be.
“Maybe with the wording. Maybe with James Baldwin and Toni Morrison saying something to Jussie Smollett. I’m not sure — maybe nothing could have made it inoffensive.” Breen said he was attempting to satirize Smollett through the incongruity of the cartoon’s roster.
“The problem is, I was trying to contrast Jussie Smollett with James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and people read it as a comparison,” says Breen, who notes that going forward, he will more carefully vet his cartoons involving race.
On the Andrews McMeel Syndication website that carries Breen, some commenters called the cartoon’s grouping of names a “disrespectful” and an “intellectually dishonest comparison” that appeared to “trivialize the greatness of two people.”
One reader said: “Your cartoon clearly positioned Baldwin and Morrison as if they were part of a police line-up with Smollett. At first- and at even second glance, with little knowledge of these literary geniuses or of Smollett’s story, they all look guilty of ‘storytelling.’ " Another reader, though, wrote: “I saw the cartoon as contrast and not comparison right away. Although I can see how it could be taken offensively I didn’t get that vibe from Steve Breen’s work. An explanation not an apology would have sufficed.”
Morrison has received the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for literature, the Coretta Scott King Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her writing, including the “Beloved” trilogy, “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye.”
Baldwin’s many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship and France’s La Legion D’Honneur. The late author-activist’s fifth novel, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” was adapted into Barry Jenkins’s 2018 film that received an Academy Award on Sunday and three Spirit Awards on Saturday.