(Changes in the story since it first appeared are in bold. See the end of the story for further information about the changes.)
Lansing City Council President Judi Brown Clarke and her husband, District Judge Hugh Clarke, have complained that this week’s cover of City Pulse was racially derogatory. Judge Clarke said it made her look like a “Sambo.” The Clarkes are African-American.
President Clarke demanded an apology or she would no longer “have a relationship with the Pulse.”
The cover showed Clarke and state Rep. Andy Schor looking through windows at Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, whom both are considering opposing next year.
Judge Clarke called me yesterday afternoon. He said his “heart sank” when he picked up the latest City Pulse because of how dark his wife appeared.
I told him I thought the whole cover looked dark and had noted myself earlier in the day that it appeared to have been over-inked on the press.
“Don’t tell me it’s the ink,” Clarke responded, adding that the image made her look like a “Sambo.” I terminated the conversation at that point, having felt deeply insulted at the inference that the cover was racist and angry about his unwillingness to even try understand my point of view. Unseemly behavior for a judge, whom you might expect to be open-minded, I thought. Unfortunately, I overreacted myself by ending the call with a vulgar suggestion on what he might do.
The children’s book “The Story of Little Black Sambo” came under fire in the 20th century because some viewed the portrayal of the leading character as a racial stereotype, in part because of how he was illustrated.
Later, Clarke’s wife left me a voicemail message. She called the cover image “very offensive, and in particular at this time when you have so much unrest, and it’s just disrespectful. Don’t tell me that it printed darker. That’s ridiculous. I mean, you got caricatures … I mean, give me a break. It’s not funny. And it’s just disrespectful. And if you don’t understand, then maybe you need some diversity training, but it’s just disrespectful. It didn’t print darker. It was created darker, and so I don’t appreciate it. And I’m sorry, you need to either apologize or I have no relationship with the Pulse, and that’s how I feel. So, print an apology and we’ll be fine. If not, then this is it. Bye.”
As it turns out, the cover was darker, but not just because of ink, I learned when I spoke to the artist, Brandon Hankins.
“It was never my intention to depict her in a harmful manner,” he said. “I made the entire cover darker because of the lighting effects. The whole color scheme was to make the cover darker than it really was.
“Basically,” he explained, “I did not give myself enough time to color every inch of the details, and I needed a quick way to visually unify the entire piece, which is why I chose such extreme lighting to give all the figures in a sort of blue outline.”
Hankins, who is African American, added: “If it was perceived in any other offensive way, then I’m truly sorry. I’ve spent my life studying African images in cartoons, and I’m kind of brokenhearted at this reaction, even if it’s an overreaction.”
Hankins called me back later to confirm what I suspected: The cover was overinked, causing it to be darker than we’d wished.
Furthermore, upon comparing the printed version to the digital, the ink transcribed much darker than the original," he said.
City Pulse prints at Newsweb, the commercial arm of the Greenville Daily News. We have no control over ink on the press. Perhaps the Clarkes would like to call the family that owns the paper and accuse them of racism as well?
I would have let this matter drop except for an email referring to my conversation with Judge Clarke that I received last night from a friend of the Clarkes. I am writing this piece out of concern that the Clarkes have already begun maligning City Pulse and that they will continue to do so. Therefore, I have chosen to go public and let the readers decide.
Supporting my concern about being defamed by the Clarkes, I received this email from Lyn Kressler, who compared our cover to the “TIME cover of OJ Simpson that deliberately emphasized his ‘blackness’ in order to affect public opinion that being an African-American automatically validated his guilt.” The writer adds she “was told of your rude and disrespectful comments to her husband” — which means that the Clarkes are continuing to spread defamatory statements about me — not that I was rude to him, which I was, but that the intent of the cover was racist. Or as this writer refers to it: “your despicable depiction of her. You are a disgrace to the concept of objective journalism.”
I find it disturbing the president of the Lansing City Council would react in such an arbitrary way by tying a (wrongly) perceived personal affront with her role and responsibilities to the public as an elected official. Part of that responsibility is communicating with the public through the media.
Moreover, as the story in this week’s City Pulse about the coming mayor’s race points out, one likely issue next year will be whether the incumbent mayor uses bullying tactics. President Clarke’s my-way-or-the-highway response suggests that she too has a temperament problem.
I tried this morning to discuss the matter with her. I left her a voicemail message asking her to call me and suggesting we both drop the matter, but if she was unwilling to do so, then I would feel compelled to defend City Pulse’s reputation in print.
She did not call me. Instead, she texted me that my voicemail “captures your threats and outlines your intentions.”
I texted her back, “Judi, we will let the public decide. I guessed I had hoped you’d see some reason here.”
To which she responded: “Nice try, redirecting your lack of professionalism and civility on me will not work.”
This unfortunate misunderstanding will make it a little more difficult to cover city issues, if Clarke makes good on her boycott. But we’ve been there before. Former Mayor David Hollister once ordered all city employees not to talk to City Pulse. Bernero has not spoken to City Pulse or me personally in months — why I don’t even know — although his spokesman, Randy Hannan, has at times responded to questions.
I look forward to a vigorous race for mayor, at the end of which I’ll decide whom to support, for whatever difference that may make. City Pulse has supported Bernero in all four of his mayoral races as well as for governor (one of only two papers in the state). But his unwillingness to accept the good with the bad in our coverage of him is wearing thin, coupled with concerns about whether he is still an effective mayor. A big part of the effectiveness issue comes down to his temperament and whether it is getting in the way of progress for our community.
Our coverage will be as fair as we can make it, but when it comes to whom to support, it’s going to be hard to forget that we apparently have another thin-skinned candidate to contend with in Lansing.
(This story was updated to reflect new information from the cover artist, which caused me to strengthen my original position that — as I tried to tell Judge Clarke when he called me — that the press was over-inked.)