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I’ve known Naomi Rubin for many years. She’s a wonderful cartoonist and one of the best people I know, and I’ve always wanted to do a strip with her – but although she’s helped me as an advisor on countless strips, the right strip for her to draw never seemed to come up.
When I wrote this strip, I knew I wanted the two worlds of the strip, the storybook world and the classroom world, to be drawn in different styles. Having it actually drawn by two different cartoonists seemed fun to me, and then the idea of asking Naomi and my most-frequent collaborator Becky Hawkins to draw it appeared in my brain, shiny and bright and beautiful, and I gasped and fell to my knees and tears appeared in my eyes and my housemate Charles said “what’s wrong” and my other housemate Sydney said “oh geez, Barry’s being drama again, ignore him.”
(I’m always amazed that people support this patreon. But I’m especially amazed after writing a paragraph like the preceding.)
Anyway, Becky and Naomi were up for the collaboration; they chose to have Naomi draw the storybook while Becky drew the real world. After Naomi showed me her pencils, I loved them but thought they were looking crowded, so I made what had been a tall strip an even taller strip so the art would have more breathing room.
I’m very happy with how this strip came out. And also very happy that I’ve finally done a cartoon with Naomi.
As children (at least in America), we encounter many stories which paint racism as being two groups who are really just the same but are hung up on some trivial difference in their appearances and so hate each other. Even if one group is more powerful than the other at the story’s start, by the end we’re told that both sides are equally to blame, and all that’s required is for everyone to stop focusing on silly differences and just be nice to one another.
Examples include Dr Seuss’ story “The Sneetches” (in which the society is organized around who does or doesn’t have a green star on their navel), The “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode of Star Trek (in which aliens with faces divided in half, black and white, are at war because one group has black-left white-right, while the other group has black-right white-left), and the song “Savages” in Disney’s Pocahontas, which blames the Native Americans just as much as the armed invaders.
(Wow, has that movie aged badly).
I had noticed this, but not really put it together until I read a couple of viral tweets by the writer Christina Holland, back in August. Ms Holland wrote:
I think a big problem with kids’ allegories for racism is it’s like “the green people and the purple people hated each other just for being the other color, isn’t that silly?” and not “the purple people kidnapped the green people and treated them like livestock for 100s of years”
A lot of grownups learned about it more or less like that and that’s why they think “just ignore color” or “stop having hate in your heart” or “we need examples of opposite-color people being friends” will fix things, because it would, if it was the first kind of situation.
The thought really stuck with me, and I began mulling over how to illustrate it in a cartoon. I hope you like the result. (And if you’re on Twitter, please go follow Christina Holland!)
P.S. If you’ve never seen Lindsay Ellis’ video about Disney’s Pocohontas, it’s really worth a watch.
TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has six panels. Each panel shows a schoolteacher reading from an illustrated children’s book; in some panels, we also see images from the book.
This panel shows a teacher, who is white, reading aloud from a book. Above her, we can see the illustration from the page she’s reading. The illustration shows a bunch of cartoon people, some of whom have triangle-shaped heads, some of whom have rectangular heads. They are smiling and shaking hands and putting arms on each others backs in a companionable manner. In front of them, two children – one with a rectangular head, one with a triangular head – kick a ball around in the grass.
TEACHER: “And when they saw Jumball Trihead and Bigapie Squarehead playing happily together, the grown-ups realized it was silly to hate each other just because they looked different!”
TEACHER: “And that’s how they all stopped being racist!”
TEACHER: Any questions?
The “camera” zooms out a little, and we can see that there are small children seated on the floor listening to the teacher. One small girl, who is Black, has gotten up and is handing the Teacher a book. The teacher accepts it cheerfully.
IMANI: Miss Martin? My mommy wrote more about the triheads and bigheads. She said it’s a “corrected version.”
TEACHER: Oh, it’s about the same characters! How marvelous! Thank you, Imani.
The teacher, with a concerned and slightly frightened expression, is reading aloud from the new book. Above her, we see an illustration from the book: A Trihead, speaking straight out to the reader with an angry expression, slams a fist into a palm. Behind him, in silhouette, several Squareheads are trudging along, bowed and weary, chained together chain-gang style.
TEACHER: It says, “The story you’ve heard about the triheads and squareheads is lies. Here’s what really happened.”
TEACHER: “The Triheads kidnapped the Squareheads and enslaved them for hundreds of years.”
TEACHER: “Oh dear.”
We see the children listening with wide-eyed, somewhat stunned expressions.
Above them, we see an illustration from the book. Two Squareheads lean against a gray wall, as if preparing to be frisked. A Trihead wearing a police or prison guard uniform glares at them. They all seem to be in a barred area. In front of the bars, another Trihead sits at a desk, reading a copy of “The Bell Curve.”
TEACHER: “It took a whole war to free the enslaved squareheads. But even after the war, triheads used laws, violence, and prisons to crush squareheads.”
TEACHER: “This was racism. It was too big and structural to be fixed by Jumball and Bigapie playing together.”
A close-up of the teacher, who now looks very frightened but keeps on reading aloud. Above her, we see an illustration from the book. A Trihead is lying on the grass, head leaning against a tree, crying a spout of tears from each eye. Next to the Trihead, a standing Squarehead rolls their eyes, arms folded. And next to the Squarehead, a second Trihead is talking to the Squarehead with an accusatory expression, while pointing at the crying Trihead.
TEACHER: “Whenever a Squarehead complained about all the racism, Triheads yelled “How dare you accuse me of racism! Stop imagining things!”
A shot of the classroom, no illustration. The teacher is turning towards Imani and asking her a question. The teacher looks worried. Imani, now sitting cross-legged on the floor, replies with an “I don’t know” shrug.
TEACHER: “Another hundred years later…”
TEACHER: Imani, when does this story end?
IMANI: Mommy says we don’t know yet.