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Michael Brown’s mother inspires controversial artwork by Mary Engelbreit

(Courtesy Mary Engelbreit)

It was a mother’s anguish that inspired artist and illustrator Mary Engelbreit to draw “In the USA.”

As she watched the news of the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., earlier this month, Engelbreit saw teenager Michael Brown’s mother trying to get to his body, left lying on a city street for more than four hours.

Brown’s mother “looked devastated,” Engelbreit told me. “It was just heartbreaking.”

And it reminded the St. Louis native of the death of her oldest son at 19 from a gunshot wound 14 years ago under still-murky circumstances.

“I started crying, and I don’t cry,” she said. So she did what she does when she’s upset to process events and emotions: She draws.

With Brown’s mother in mind, she created the picture of an African American mom holding her young son in her lap. His hands are raised in the familiar gesture of surrender as the two gaze at a newspaper headline that says, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot.”

There’s a single tear falling from the mother’s eye. Running down the side of the illustration are the words, “No one should have to teach their children this in the USA.”

To me, it’s a reminder of the racial divide in our country — one that led my She the People colleague Mary C. Curtis to write that “there is no room for error” if you are a black male.

That divide also led the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, pastor of St. James Church in Kansas City, Mo., to convene a panel of police officers and politicians Saturday to try to answer, “What do I do if I’m stopped by police?”

Engelbreit, hoping the drawing “could help in some small way” and perhaps lead to a dialog about race relations, decided to offer prints for sale and donate the proceeds to the Michael Brown Jr. Memorial Fund coordinated by Straub’s Market, where Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, works.

She posted the information on Facebook and her Web siteThen the onslaught of comments began. “I was shocked by how ugly the comments were,” Engelbreit said. People threatened to boycott her products. Some demanded she give equal time to create an illustration favoring law enforcement. Others resorted to name-calling and epithets.

Facebook, with no warning, took down her post, claiming it was “offensive.”

Yet the video of the beheading of journalist James Foley still appeared on other Facebook pages, Engelbreit pointed out.

She reposted and Facebook apologized. The illustration cost the artist around 700 followers, she said, but it gained her another 10,000. As of Sunday night, about $35,000 had been raised, and more is expected. Fans have requested T-shirts with the drawing, which may be available once Engelbreit locates a supplier.

It wasn’t just the hatred and the outright racism of the comments that she found appalling, she said, but the ignorance that racial profiling still exists.

She said she’s seen it happen in St. Louis to African American friends of her sons, and to a black resident of Ladue, the upscale St. Louis suburb where Engelbreit lives. Police stopped him every week until they were convinced he actually lived there.

Jumping into a politically charged situation is a change for the artist whose work adorns products ranging from calendars to coffee cups, along with several children’s books. A magnet proclaiming, “Let’s put the FUN back into dysfunctional,” hangs on my refrigerator.

She admits her work is generally described as “cute” and in an Aug. 22 Facebook status, she wrote, “More cuteness. It’s what I do.”

The situation reminds me of another illustrator famous for feel-good art who faced public outrage when he expressed controversial views. Norman Rockwell, after his contract with The Saturday Evening Post ended, painted “The Problem We All Live With” in 1963 for Look magazine. Inspired by Ruby Bridges, an African American girl going to school in New Orleans accompanied by federal marshals, the iconic image is one many of us associate with the efforts to desegregate schools.

That was the 1960s. Haven’t we made any progress?

“This shouldn’t still be happening,” Engelbreit said. As she explained on Facebook, “To be clear, I did this drawing as an illustration of the ugly, hard truth that racial profiling is still happening in this country. The drawing did not address the Michael Brown case specifically, nor did I claim to know any facts about what actually happened.”

None of us knows yet what really happened that day. We may never know.

But we do know a mother buried her 18-year-old son on Monday.

And that doesn’t feel right.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

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