No sooner had the above cartoon been published than complaints from offended readers began to reach the offices of The Rebel Yell, student newspaper of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. It was early-1997, not long after a controversial decision by the school board of Oakland to recognise Ebonics as a primary language had kick-started a national debate, and editorial cartoonist Alex Raffi had clearly hit a raw nerve with his irony-steeped piece. Multiple allegations of racism provoked the newspaper’s staff to publicly back him, whilst Raffi himself drew another cartoon and offered explanations to as many people as possible, but it was this letter from Pullitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Berkeley Breathed in response to a request for guidance that provided the advice needed. Says Raffi:
Amazingly he offered me his advice. I learned a lesson early on that doing this kind of work is a privilege. You better be clear on what you mean. I still believe in the point of the cartoon but I executed it very poorly.
Transcript follows. Huge thanks to Alex Raffi for his permission to feature the letter.
June 3, 1997
Welcome to Editorial Cartooning. Having fun yet?
At your age and position, I went through an eerily similar situation. The offended were Hispanics at the University of Texas. They wanted my internal organs on a platter. My reaction was the same as yours: respond with a cartoon about everybody being so damned over-sensitive.
But… and this is a big one. But, I am now embarrassed looking back at the cartoon I had defended so defiantly before. I could have made the same point without pushing the delicate buttons. These skills I would learn in the following years… to a degree. Offending folks is a dandy pastime. It’s our job, in a way. But an offense that comes from misinterpretation is vulnerable. Experience will teach you how to do so with minimal reader confusion… the Achille’s heel of cartoonists. Offend with the cutting clarity of an idea well-expressed… and defend it to the death.
Finally, don’t let the editors speak for you. That’s not their job and they won’t do it as convincingly. As a reader, I don’t care what they say. I’d want to hear from you. If your point is well taken, but you can see where confusion was caused, then apologize for the latter, defend the former and pledge to continue with unwavering resolve and more practiced skill.
By the way, I am a member of PETA, and I am cancelling my subscription to the Rebel Yell due to the speciest nature of your other enclosed cartoon.
Go get ’em.
(Signed, ‘Berkeley Breathed’)