Opinion: Intention vs. Interpretation

Part of a statue depicting chained people is on display at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a new memorial to honor thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, Sunday, April 22, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala. The national memorial aims to teach about America's past in hope of promoting understanding and healing. It's scheduled to open on Thursday. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
The cartoon by Ken Catalino mentioned in the column (courtesy)

Last Wednesday, a political cartoon by syndicated cartoonist Ken Catalino ran in the paper, which caused a little stir and generated even more confusion.

The image, which you will find along with this column, depicts two white people, one of whom is holding a Confederate flag, looking down at several slaves in shackles.

“We’ve moved on … why can’t they?” the hypocritical white folks ask in the drawing. To me, the image was clear in its message, but my assumption fell flat on its face.

The images of the slaves in the cartoon are pulled directly from statues at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened in late April and it is my guess that it served as the inspiration for Catalino’s cartoon.

For those who may not be aware, the Legacy Museum’s mission is to shed light on racial issues in the Deep South through the dramatization of the enslavement of African-Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America.

While I’m just a lower middle class white dude, it’s obvious to me the museum is a major step forward in driving and shaping the complicated dialogue surrounding race in our part of the country.

However, several readers seemed to be unaware of the museum opening. Instead, a handful of people took specific issue with the images portrayed, with one reader going as far to say that the African-Americans depicted were “being arrested.”

Even when I tried to explain what I viewed as the intention of the cartoon through context clues, the reader would not back down from their interpretation of what he perceived to be racist propaganda geared toward further marginalizing African-Americans.
And he wasn’t the only one.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was lambasted by several readers who took specific offense to how the African-Americans in the cartoon were depicted … and when asked if they had heard of the Legacy Museum, and the sobering statues that decorate its campus, none of them had.

“You’re telling me oh well it’s happened and it’s in the past,” one reader said. “Next thing you’re like Kayne saying it’s a choice. It wasn’t! They were slaves brought from their homeland, abused, raped, bucked and murdered for the color of their skin.”

For someone who specifically chose to publish the cartoon to underscore the hypocrisy of white people clutching to Confederate flags while snobbishly saying black people should move on from the effects and memories of slavery, I was completely floored.

I have to admit, I was expecting a deluge of angry responses from white people with pro-Confederate sympathies.

Boy, was I wrong or what?

But what this tells me is there is an acute lack of awareness when a positive step forward is made in terms of racial reconciliation. Problems relating to race are quite pervasive today, but it saddens me to know so few people in our part of the South had heard about a museum going to creative and powerful lengths to tell the story of slavery.

While the opening of the Legacy Museum was national news for a day or two, it was easily overshadowed by stories like the two young black men who were unjustly arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks.

The story of the two men arrested is important and does deserve to be broadcast out to shed light on issues regarding race and law enforcement. But with the premium we put on stories that show the worst in people, which are important and must be reported, we easily lose sight of when progress is made.

Some of that is the media’s fault, but at what point do we hold ourselves accountable for being quick to become offended and slow to research, while being too fascinated with controversy to see the efforts of those working hard to push us forward?

The Legacy Museum was needed in the Deep South to remind us - all of us - of who we were, who we are and who we should strive to become.

Ryan Phillips is the executive editor of the Starkville Daily News and Daily Times Leader. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the newspaper or its staff.