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Cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft on being the first Black woman with a nationally syndicated comic

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Until 1991, there wasn’t a single nationally syndicated cartoon by a Black woman. That is – until Barbara Brandon-Croft.

"I kinda put them on blast," Brandon-Croft says. "'You haven’t done this, why not? Here is one.'”

Her comic strip “Where I’m Coming From” put the voices, images, and stories of Black women into many American homes for the first time. The comic strip was carried by over 60 newspapers and talked about everything from friendship to love to racism.

"It wasn't until somebody said to me, 'Hey, you're kind of funny. And you draw. You think you can come up with a comic strip?' And I was like, 'I think I can.'”

Today, On Point: We sit down with the legendary comic strip artist Barbara Brandon-Croft.

Guest

Barbara Brandon-Croft, cartoonist and creator of the comic strip “Where I’m Coming From." First Black female cartoonist to be nationally syndicated. Author of the book “Where I’m Coming From,” a collection of her strips from 1991 to 2005. (@barbarabrandoncroft)

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from 'From Where I’m Coming From.' Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly. Not to be reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.

Comics by Barbara Brandon-Croft

From Where I’m Coming From. Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.”
From Where I’m Coming From. Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.”
From Where I’m Coming From. Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.”
From Where I’m Coming From. Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.”
From Where I’m Coming From. Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.”
From Where I’m Coming From. Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly.”

 Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In 1989, Barbara Brandon-Croft got her own comic strip in the Detroit Free Press. She was so excited that she quit her reporting job at Essence Magazine to pursue being a comic strip artist full time. Problem is, it paid just $75 a week. That's about $180 a week in today's money.

So, Brandon-Croft knew that if she wanted to do it full time, she needed to be published in many more papers. She needed to be nationally syndicated. So she reached out to the syndication companies, and she got a lot of rejection letters. But she also received one yes. And with that, Brandon-Croft made history with her comic strip, Where I'm Coming From.

And her story and a collection of her comic strips from 1991 to 2005 are in a new book also titled Where I'm Coming From. And Barbara Brandon-Croft joins us today from New York. Welcome to On Point.

BARBARA BRANDON-CROFT: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: I can't tell you what a joy it is to be able to talk with you today, so I'm so grateful that you're with us. I'm wondering if you could start by actually telling us more about that story of how you reached out to the syndication companies. Because you wrote a letter, submitted some of your sample comic strips with it, and the letter itself had a pretty vivid style and message in it. What did it say?

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BRANDON-CROFT: It said, "You don't have Black women in your comic pages. Here I am. What's the point? I mean, what's the matter?" I don't know, I put them on blast. I just pointed out that there have been comics around forever. And few have been Black. None have been women — Black women, that is. And I just think they needed to recognize. And I was already published. So I was like, "It can happen. I have something that can work." So that's what I did.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you know, I have to say, from what I understand, the letter was visually arresting also, right? (LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) It had a headline. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: It was like big, bold letters that said, "Few Black cartoonists have entered national syndication since the 1970s. None have been Black women." Now, I just want to — when you were processing that and thinking about that very fact when you were sending out these letters, obviously it's something that you had known for quite some time. How did that strike you? Because that meant you were growing up at a time where there were no Black women comic strip artists in the papers that you were reading as a child.

BRANDON-CROFT: Absolutely. There were very few Black comic strips in the papers I was reading at all. But my dad was a pioneering Black cartoonist, one of the few who made it into the mainstream press in the late 1960s. And he had a comic strip called Luther. And so I was well aware of the industry. I actually worked on his comic strip at some point when I was a little bit older. So I knew what was happening. I could see it in front of me.

And I also knew that if you had one Black comic, you're not going to have another. So often, my dad would be, you know, "We already have Quincy" or "We already have Wee Pals, we don't need Luther." So I was well aware of how few Black faces were on the comic pages.

CHAKRABARTI: And your father was Brumsic Brandon, Jr.

BRANDON-CROFT: That's right.

CHAKRABARTI: We're going to talk more about him quite a bit in a few minutes, Barbara. But I have to say, I admire how much in that letter that you sent to the syndication companies that you kind of lean on what you were hoping were their better angels, right? Because you say, you know, "It's the 90s and I'm optimistic. I'd like to see Where I'm Coming From now being self-syndicated, distributed nationally. I only hope racial and sexual attitudes have matured to a point where those in key decision-making positions at newspapers and syndicates recognize the need for social commentary from the Black female perspective." Now when you got all those rejection letters, save one, what did they say?

BRANDON-CROFT: A lot of them were your boilerplate, "Thanks but no thanks, try again," that kind of thing. But I did get one very nice one. It was long. And it was explaining why they didn't think it was going to work. I couldn't just do Black women. I couldn't just do heads. I had to put them in environments. If I wanted to think about it differently, they would consider me again, but what I had to offer at that point, they were not interested in and did not think there'd be enough people interested in looking at it.

CHAKRABARTI: Doesn't that sound nuts to you?

BRANDON-CROFT: It sounds insane!

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, the world's most famous comic, Peanuts, is basically just like heads and little squat bodies. (LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: I mean, really! And if you look further down the line, there's some comic strips that are, visually, they're not really hitting and holding. They're just sticks or assorted other things. I just wanted to let them know that this is a point of view that you guys are missing and it's already worked in Detroit. I think it can work beyond Detroit.

CHAKRABARTI: And it was United Press — oh my god, I forgot what the UPS means.

BRANDON-CROFT: Oh, Universal.

CHAKRABARTI: Universal!

BRANDON-CROFT: Yes, yes, Universal Press Syndicate, yes.

CHAKRABARTI: That picked you up. So they're the ones who were like, "Hey, there's something here." And good for them.

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: So but let's go back. You mentioned your father, and I do want to talk about him and your early life and whether or not becoming a comic strip artist was in your life plan as a little girl. So, as we mentioned, Barbara Brandon-Croft's father was Brumsic Brandon, Jr., the creator of the comic strip Luther. And that was one of the first nationally syndicated comic strips to feature a mainly Black cast of characters and it began in the late 60s. So here is Brumsic Brandon, Jr. in 1998 at Ohio State University talking about you, Barbara.

BRUMSIC BRANDON, JR. [Tape]: Some of my neighbors had tried to tease me by saying, "I see your daughter's working in a paper. And her work is much better than yours." To which I respond, "She had a better teacher." (LAUGHTER)

CHAKRABARTI: And thank you to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum for that clip. So tell us about growing up with your dad, Barbara. And how much his work was part of your life as a child.

BRANDON-CROFT: Sure. So my dad was a cartoonist all his life. He started selling cartoons, I think, when he was 18. He did many things before Luther happened. And by the time Luther happened, I was a kid, a young adolescent.

We grew up in a small house on Long Island — Newcastle, Long Island. And my dad's studio was our dining room table. So he would set up his situation — pens, papers, pads, light box, the whole thing, do his work — and then take it all down so we could have dinner on the table. So I was watching a cartoonist, a real life role model, one that I could touch, in my home.

And it's kind of interesting because when you're younger and you're in a small house and you're running in and out of the house, we had to actually be quiet during the time when he was working on Luther. So he did a daily. I did a weekly. So for every other week, he had to do two weeks of Luther. And so for that week that he was working on the two weeks, we had to be quiet. And it was just kind of wild to me as a young person. I'm like, "This guy is supposed to be a cartoonist, he's supposed to be fun," and we have to tiptoe around him. And he's mean! (LAUGHS) He's actually stern at this time. But that was just the reality. But I saw the ethic, the work ethic that it took to do a comic strip.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But you say in the book, also titled Where I'm Coming From, that you were drawn to the visual arts, but you didn't necessarily think that becoming a comic strip artist was going to be in your future.

BRANDON-CROFT: Exactly. I did not. And being rebellious, you know, sometimes you're like, "I'm not gonna do what my father's doing. Are you kidding me?" That was just me being, as I grew older, I'm like, "That's not me. That's him."

But it wasn't until I tried to get a job at a Black woman's magazine. And that's when — her name's Marie Brown, she was the editor-in-chief. She's now a literary agent. But she was like, "You're kind of funny. And you draw. You think you can come up with a comic strip?" And I was like, "Yeah." Had no idea what I would do. But I like to say, had my dad been a truck driver, I might not have said yes, I can do it. But seeing him do it, I actually had the attitude of, "Hey, if he can do it, I can do it." And I came up with something that she liked.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Now, this was when you were at Essence Magazine?

BRANDON-CROFT: This is when I was at Essence. Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And you were the fashion and beauty writer there. Were you also --

BRANDON-CROFT: Oh, you know what? It's actually the other way around. I was working at Retail News and I took it to them, to Elan. And when Elan folded before they could publish a strip, I took these strips to Essence. And they were like, "Oh, we're thinking about it." Then they were like, "I don't think we want to put a comic in the magazine, but what are you doing since you're not making it as a cartoonist?" I was like, "Well, I'm writing fashion for Retail News."

And they needed a fashion and beauty writer. And I was like, "I know nothing of beauty." They're like, "We can teach you." But they gave me a test, an editorial test. I took that. And they liked me. And I quit my job. I was like, I'm going to take somebody's place for four months at Essence Magazine. But I quit my job. And there I was at Essence. And, you know, lucky for me, the person who had the job before me, Paula White, she decided not to come back. And I stayed there almost six years as fashion and beauty writer.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Now, so eventually, after that inspiration of becoming a comic strip artist, the Detroit Free Press was looking for diverse voices. And I believe they reached out to your father and he told you to apply?

BRANDON-CROFT: He had gotten an award for being one of the pioneer Black cartoonists. And they sent him a letter and it was congratulating him and saying, "We need our pages to reflect our readership. Do you know of any Black cartoonists?" And he showed me the letter. He's like, "Are you gonna talk about being a cartoonist? Or are you going to be one?" (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) You see the effectiveness of his language. It's very spare, but very precise. It's like the exact same thing that happens in comic strips.

BRANDON-CROFT: Exactly. Exactly.

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Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Barbara, you know before the break I talked about how comics are both this like incredibly rich medium that somehow pulls it off with seemingly spare artistry. And the reason why I mention that is because I remember as a kid, you know, the first time you get swept up into the world of comics, you just enjoy them at the level that children enjoy things, right? You jump into that world completely. You don't really think about what's going on.

But as an adult, when I look at comic strips now, I think, "How do they do that?" I mean, it's just — I don't want to say just — it's these line drawings and just in a couple of panels that take me into a world that say so much, that have this beautiful commentary, that carry a story along. Can you talk about your artistry? Like, how does that happen?

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah, it's interesting. And again, I credit my dad for much of this of this understanding. Because the reality is, if somebody's reading a comic, it's going to — you got their attention for maybe 10 seconds, 15 seconds. So you have to do something, whatever you're going to say — and hopefully you're saying something that is going to resonate with someone — you have to do it succinctly. You have to find the least amount of words to make this happen.

For me, I write down ideas of what I want to do or what I want to say. And then I try to figure out how I can get to that punchline. How can I, what's the dialogue that gets me there? Is it going to be two characters? Is it going to be one? Which ones are they going to be? So that's the way I do it. I come up with the idea, try to figure out how I can say it with the least amount of words, and then put it together.

CHAKRABARTI: How long does that take?

BRANDON-CROFT: So I was lucky because I had a weekly. Unlike my dad who did two weeks of Luther every other week, I had to do two strips every other week. And I would say, because I'm a procrastinator, (LAUGHS) I could wait until, I've got, "Oh no, I've got three days to do this. Where were those ideas? How can I do this?" So physically, it probably takes me three hours. The coming up with the idea and then writing it, that takes the most time.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, you know what they say about something that looks so easy. That's because it's probably really hard to do. (LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) That's what they say, yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: So this also, how you're communicating those ideas begins with the style that you decide to draw in, right? And yours is so singular. I'm wondering if you could talk about how you decided that you were going to have a cartoon that is telling the story of Black women just by featuring their faces — their heads, their hair and hands and that's it.

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah, so when I first came up with the idea, I was like, I am so tired of women being objectified. I'm so tired of us being thought of in terms of our bodies or our body parts. I wanted to have my characters talking directly to the reader or directly to each other and the rest of us are kind of eavesdropping on their conversation. I wanted to make it clear that I'm talking about what is going on in these women's heads. What's on their minds. Look in their eyes, look at their expressions, look at their hands. I only started using hands to be more expressive. But I didn't want to include bodies.

And that was one of the complaints I got early on, too, was like, "You can't just do heads." And it does look odd. It's not a comic strip that you see anywhere. So when Detroit was like, "I like this kind of oddball-looking strip," and they went with it, I was so pleased to even just get started.

CHAKRABARTI: It really does focus you as the reader on what these women are saying. I think it's just so, so effective. But I understand that even the Detroit Free Press early on, they were — was there some concern that the strip would come across as being anti-male?

BRANDON-CROFT: Oh, absolutely! Yeah, the very fact that I had a comic strip that had all women and then all Black women, before people even read it, took a look at it, they would say, "Hmm." They had the notion that I was anti-male and anti-white. And I'm like, "Wow, I can't even exist on a page without assumptions being made about me."

So, you know, sometimes you just let that foister [sic] you. You know, like you feel a little more empowered. You're like, these are Black women. It's an opportunity for a larger segment of society to take a look at a smaller segment and say, "Huh, that's pretty normal." It's like, yes, we're all humans. We all, you know, worry about hairs growing out of our chin. (LAUGHS) I would talk about anything from something like that, something so superficial, to as deep as I wanted to go. And it's interesting to me how there was that concern.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you know what? It's making me think just about the comics I used to read as a kid, which was many decades ago, I'll grant you that. And how you're saying the same assumptions were not foisted on other comic strip artists.

BRANDON-CROFT: Right!

CHAKRABARTI: About like, "Would you be anti-this, anti-that?" Because I'm thinking like — okay, I know people are gonna just laugh at me or they're gonna send me tweets about how this is terrible. But I used to be a huge fan of Andy Capp of all things!

BRANDON-CROFT: See? Yeah!

CHAKRABARTI: And I mean, could there be a more misogynistic cartoon, comic strip out there? (LAUGHS) I mean, it's crazy!

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) I know, I know. It's so true. And even, just being women, they're like, "We already have Cathy. We don't need Where I'm Coming From in our paper." I'm like, hey, women come from different points of view. And not only that, Heathcliff and Garfield can be in the same paper! (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Cats are allowed to have more than one point of view! Why not women?

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) Come on!

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh my god. So we're laughing now, but I think, you know, this is the thing about America. Where do we see ourselves, right? And, in fact, historically, comic strips have been a really, really, really important place for American stories to be told, right?

BRANDON-CROFT: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: And some of the times they have been, I mean, speaking of racism, I would say that the world of cartoons and comics has, sadly, been a place where there has been a lot of just horrible racism in the past. So the idea that you had to struggle so much to become the first nationally syndicated Black female comic strip artist is — it's disappointing. I have to say.

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah. I'll go back to my dad one more time — I mean, maybe more than once --  but the fact that in the 60s, late 60s, they didn't have Black comic characters drawn by Black hands in the mainstream. So like you're talking about, prior to that, Blacks were seen on the comic pages as stereotypical buffoons or coons. It wasn't a place where you could see a real look at what it's like to be a Black character. And then for me, you never saw Black women, unless we were maids or mammies. So it made a difference, I think, for me to be able to have my hands drawing these characters and speaking through their mouths what's on their minds, you know?

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, I wish that I had — when I was a kid, my hometown newspaper did not carry your comic strip.

BRANDON-CROFT: Aw, shucks.

CHAKRABARTI: Or actually, maybe I was older then because you were nationally syndicated after 1991. So I'll have to go back and check and see if and when they ever started carrying it. But I would have loved seeing it as a child. So I'm wondering if we could just talk a little bit more about, like, if you could give us some examples of some of your favorites that are in the new book. And I know that's probably pretty hard to whittle down. But do you want to talk about a couple of them?

BRANDON-CROFT: Sure. I had an opportunity to talk about things when we were putting the book together and I had to go back through strips that I did in the 90s and the 2000s, I was a little worried. It's like, "What did I do?" Because you do it, you put it out there, and it's gone. Because like with you, it wasn't in a New York paper. I was living in Brooklyn. It wasn't in a New York paper. But a lot of major cities out there had it. So I did it, sent it out there and kind of left it. You know, let it go.

So now that I go back and look at what I was talking about, what's most striking to me is that we're talking about the same things. And things that have not been resolved. You know, surprise, surprise, are still an issue. So I did pick out a few. This one got me in trouble. (LAUGHS) But if you're going to talk about rights to abortion, that's going to get you in trouble.

And so I'll just read this one. And this particular character is LaKeisha, and she's the most socially conscious, and she's the most militant, I'll say. This is her. And she says, "I cannot believe these anti-abortionists. I mean, how can you say 'pro-choice equals murder? Murder is a sin. And if you don't agree with us, we'll kill you.'" That was a strip that I did in the 90s.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow.

BRANDON-CROFT: And that's when abortion clinics were being bombed. Doctors were being shot. But some people found it offensive and you can't please everybody, obviously. But that's one that I did way back when.

CHAKRABARTI: Can I just ask you quickly, how do you decide how to — I mean, those are powerful words accompanied by her face and her expression. Like how do you decide what expression to give to those words?

BRANDON-CROFT: The mirror. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: You kind of exaggerate how you actually feel to give that expression to your characters. But yeah, that's how, that's how I do it. That's how I did it. That's how I do it. So you maybe exaggerate the expressions a little bit, but that's how I find it, yeah. In my reflection.

CHAKRABARTI: So speaking of which, how many of your characters are sort of inspired by you or people around you?

BRANDON-CROFT: I would say all of them.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah.

BRANDON-CROFT: So I identify with LaKeisha. She's very socially conscious. She is up on the news and knows what's going on in the world. But I'm also Jackie, who's like very anxious me, who's worried about things that she shouldn't. Like, I worried about my hair coming to the radio show. That's crazy, Barbara! (LAUGHS) That's the kind of thing that I have.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: I'm like, is my hair okay? It's like, what difference does it make, Barbara?! But all of them are either parts of me or parts of friends. Or both. Little aspects of me and little portions of friends that I can stick in and come up with a character.

CHAKRABARTI: Barbara, could you share another one of the strips that are included in the book?

BRANDON-CROFT: Sure. I was thinking — so what I also did was include some post-syndication strips.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah.

BRANDON-CROFT: Because I still do it. I still create Where I'm Coming From. I don't have a syndicate, but I'll put it on my Instagram or something. But this character is Cheryl. And Cheryl's kind of snarky and opinionated. And unfortunately, you can't see her expressions. But here's one. And she says, "I know it's important to be respectful of folks with opinions other than my own. I know a dialogue between the right and the left is necessary to help this nation mend. I want to be a part of this solution, but — " and she kind of shrugs her shoulders --  "for the life of me, I can't figure out how to have a conversation without saying, 'Don't be a moron.'" (LAUGHS) Oops!

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh god. I'm sorry! (LAUGHS) You're catching me in an honest moment here. If I was at home in my kitchen reading that, that's exactly what I would have done. (LAUGHS) Oh gosh. Here I am worried about getting in trouble about laughing on the radio. I mean, what kind of trouble did you get into over your career with some of this edgy stuff?

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah. I got letters. I got letters for those same reasons, you know, I'm being anti-male or I am being anti-white. And honestly, those kind of letters kind of made me feel good because I'm like, "Huh, I pushed your buttons, did I?" It makes you feel good that you reached somebody on that level.

But back then when I was doing stuff, it wasn't like times are now where people can just whip out their phones and start their thumbs flying to bring you down or talk about how much they don't like what you're doing. They had to actually get a piece of paper and pen and find an envelope, get a stamp, take it to the mailbox, you know. So I'm like, "Wow, you took a lot of effort just to tell me that you don't like what I'm doing!"

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you think those things would be obstacles, but obviously it didn't stop folks, right?

BRANDON-CROFT: No.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, some of the feedback — I call it feedback-- but some of the criticism you got was pretty vicious. Like people telling you to "go back to Africa."

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah! And take Jesse Jackson with me. I was like, "huh?" I mean that's ridiculous. I was like, you kind of have to laugh at that kind of nonsense. I got a letter from a guy saying that he was very upset with what I was doing and I was anti-male and this is no way to show and "There's no room for all this."

And I would write people back on occasion. And I wrote him back and I just said, "I don't know if you noticed, but if you read my strip, I usually don't say 'men.' I'm talking about a specific man, like there's Maurice and Victor, there's certain guys that are part of the strip that you never see." I said, "But if you see yourself in something that one of my characters is complaining about in this particular guy, then really, where is the problem? Is it me? Or is it you?"

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Yeah, like that's on you!

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah! What?

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, wow. Well, so, just tell me: Was there ever a strip that you had conceived that you decided in the end that you weren't going to do because it was maybe too edgy?

BRANDON-CROFT: No. Ha! (LAUGHS) Short answer. No. I just did them.

CHAKRABARTI: That was the answer I was hoping for, Barbara. (LAUGHS)

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Barbara, if I may, there's a strip right at the beginning of the book that just makes me laugh every time I read it. So I want to read it to you and just tell me a little bit of the story about this one.

It's right there at the top. It's where the character's saying, "Vernon and I have been seeing each other for nearly five years. I still haven't figured out the attraction. Even after all these years, I still don't feel like we're close. I bet he couldn't even tell you what my favorite food is. Yesterday, Vernon told me how proud he was that I'd finished college, got my MBA, and opened my own business. He called us 'serious' and said he'd finally found a woman worthy of his ultimate commitment. So I mailed him my resume this morning and told him he could marry that."(LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) That was an early one. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, but so tell me about — this is, again, one of those issues and stories that can only come uniquely from the perspective of a Black woman, right? Because you're not just talking about marriage in general. You're talking about Black women and relationships and marriage.

BRANDON-CROFT: I'm talking about that Black woman and relationships and marriages. And I recognize that sometimes you can be so accomplished and you find yourself in a relationship and you wonder about it. And when they come off with something like they've checked off all their notches, you know, "She's this, she's this, she's this. Okay. She's good enough for me." And she's like, "What? You can marry my resume if that's what's impressing you."(LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Okay. Well, just so that we get our history right. You are the eighth Black comic strip artist to be nationally syndicated and your father was the third, right?

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah, it's something like that. You know, the dates. But also we always have to make sure we say mainstream press because there's a whole host of cartoonists that were in the Black press. And the first woman who was in newspapers was in the Black press and her name was Jackie Ormes. And she did a number of cartoons. But her things were all but lost because they were in the Black press. But now she's getting her roses, so to speak, and people are recognizing it.

My distinction is that I crossed the color line. So I say mainstream press, but I really mean white press. And same with my dad. One of my dad's heroes was Oliver Harrington, who was in the Black press. But a lot of people have lost — that's lost to a lot of people. But my dad and Ted Turner — ah, Ted Turner, listen to me — Ted Shearer and Morrie Turner came along with my dad at the same time. And so they crossed the color line and became cartoonists in the white press, just as I did become a syndicated cartoonist in the mainstream press.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Okay, so once again, just to remind folks, Barbara's father is Brumsic Brandon, Jr. who brought the world Luther.

BRANDON-CROFT: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: And we have another clip of him speaking. This is from a 1991 interview he gave on CBS News, and he was asked about the impact cartoons have on public opinion and policy.

BRANDON, JR. [Tape]: I think it's very, very important. I don't think it can be stressed enough. I think Thomas Nast determined that many, many years ago, when Boss Tweed, I think it was, said he didn't mind what they wrote about him in the newspapers because his constituency couldn't read. But get rid of those damn cartoons. So I'm certain that that still applies.

NEWS ANCHOR: (LAUGHS) They make a point with brevity and with conciseness and with a kind of penetration that sticks right in.

BRANDON, JR.: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: So Barbara, what do you think about that?

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) I think my dad was right. He was very funny. That interview was before I was syndicated. I was only in the one paper. And it was interesting to be on there with my dad, talking about cartoonists and the importance of cartooning. And that seems like it's part of my blood, really, realizing that this is such a way to communicate ideas. And it's also a way to record our history. And so I look at myself as a conscientious history reporter, a cultural commentator. You know, I record our history. I try to do exactly what he was talking about. It's important to, as he would say, observe, interpret and record. And it's a unique way, doing it through cartoons, to get those points across and to record history.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And also, of course, many people enjoy comic strips as adults. But I also think that their importance is double or even triple because comics are an entrée for young people into the very kind of issues that you're talking about, Barbara. Like, I remember one of my kiddos, she was a particular fan of Calvin and Hobbes, right?

BRANDON-CROFT: Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Just like addicted to Calvin and Hobbes. And occasionally she'd come to me with a question about like, some philosopher or some random existential question. I'd be like, "Where did you learn about that?" And she'd be like, "It was in today's Calvin and Hobbes." And I'm like, "Oh my gosh." But I mean, that's kind of a lighthearted example of what I'm trying to get at is that this is a medium in which young people can be introduced to the very ideas that you put in your strip for so long about the lives of Black women, about racism, about things like that. Did you ever think about that as you were writing the strip?

BRANDON-CROFT: I think as I was writing it, this early iteration, I was just putting it out there. It was bubbling out of me. There are things that I wanted to talk about and I talked about it. But since, I realized I have a cousin in San Francisco who talks to her grandkids about my strip, two boys, she'll have them read it and have them discuss it. And that's really flattering to me, that I could put some ideas out there that spur this kind of conversation, especially in younger people.

This woman told me that her daughter who's 13 looked at my stuff and said, "Ma, she's funny. She could be doing this now." And I love the idea that young people can look at my work and get something from it. It's really great.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, this is what I think is so wonderful about comics, right? It's seemingly a disarming medium, but you can really hit people with some big ideas.

BRANDON-CROFT: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, so tell me more then — we talked about some of the negative feedback that you got. But you must have received lots of positive feedback as well, as people who had never had a chance to have this kind of story told in their newspaper were seeing your work.

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah. I got a lot of really nice letters. A lot of times women would write and say that I was telling their story. And they'd never experienced that. Especially in Detroit when that first started, they're like, "Wow, I look forward to Sundays to look at — to see what she's going to talk about my life in this time."

And since then, I've met women — there's a reporter in New York who said that she used to, when she was working in Texas, that she used to cut out my strips. And would put it as like a letterhead when she wrote her friends, because it wasn't everywhere. It was in a lot of major cities. But I thought that was pretty — it warmed my heart to know that she would actually cut it out. She'd cut it out, put it on a wall, and she'd cut it out and use it as a header for her letters to friends, just to spread the word. And that's pretty awesome.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I love that. Now, there's one more — I mean, we could talk about many more things regarding your father's work. But I know there's something in particular that you wanted to discuss because there's an exhibit that portrays your father's work and your work together. Can you talk about that?

BRANDON-CROFT: Yeah, yeah. So we put together an exhibit here in New York with Tara Nakashima Donahue as the curator. And we put together several exhibits, but we did one here in New York, and the exhibit's called Still...Racism in America: A Retrospective in Cartoons. So what we used were things from my dad, not just Luther, things he did for Freedomways, which is a Black journal that was started way back when. And my dad was a part of it. He would do editorial cartoons for them.

We include some Luthers, which, you know, are at the Billy Ireland Museum at Ohio State University. And we include things that my dad did post-Luther, which he did for Florida Today and different places. He did a lot. Prolific. But we put together an exhibit of his work and my work. And what's astounding, and maybe not so much, is that we would talk about the same things 30 years apart, easily.

So what we do is put the strips on the wall and the only thing we would put there would be the year that this came out. And it's kind of profound to see how little we've moved the mark. You know, we are still struggling with, dealing with racism. And when we opened in New York, that's when COVID hit and there was a lockdown and that was the end of the story. But when Ohio State called and said, "We could put it in the Billy Ireland," I was like, "What?"

And they brought us out there. We put together a really — break my arm, patting myself on the back — but a really incredible exhibit. And then that ended, you know, exhibits last. But now we're talking with and making it happen at the University of — UC Davis is what I'm trying to say and bringing it out there. So for 2024, it's going to live again and I hope it gets to travel because it's a real education. Maybe I can get it in Florida. (LAUGHS) They could use an education.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) You know, Barbara, I have to say your humility, it just amplifies your tremendousness in my mind because, listen, you are a pioneer, you're a pathbreaker, you get to own that, you get to celebrate that. You don't have to worry about breaking your arm patting yourself on the back. I'll pat you on the back then, save your arm, okay? (LAUGHS)

BRANDON-CROFT: (LAUGHS) Thank you. Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: But I do want to ask you — I don't know if this is something that you actively think about — but being a pioneer, do you ever wonder or do you think about what you want your legacy to be?

BRANDON-CROFT: I guess what I think about — because actually I've been asked that kind of thing, and it makes me feel like, "Oh my God, what do you mean?" It makes me feel a little uneasy. But I do like being thought of as somebody who accurately recorded our history. And who accurately told the story of what these nine Black women were going through in the 90s and now, currently. Because I still use them. I still do it. So I don't know. I think I'd like to have that as my legacy, that I told the story. And I told it honestly.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Well, so how much do you think the world of cartooning and comic strips has changed after you crossed that color line and opened those doors?

BRANDON-CROFT: I think that once I got in, I was feeling very good and proud. And I'll say, rightly so. I should be proud. I was feeling very good and proud because I knew I had broken down the door. But I also felt like I was standing in the door because nobody else could get in. You know, it's like, "We have Barbara. We don't need anybody else." And that was kind of a weird feeling, too.

I'm glad that since I've moved on, there are other cartoonists out there, women cartoonists, that are making things happen. And Black women cartoonists syndicated, two of them. Or at least now. There's another woman in The New Yorker regularly. There's Jennifer Crute. There's a lot of Black cartoonists that are out there that are women and they're doing it. And I hope that after I unclogged the door, that I offered some path for them.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you most certainly did. And I keep thinking about what you said earlier: If we could have multiple comic strips about cats, we should be having dozens of comic strips about Black women. (LAUGHS) So you weren't standing in the doorway. It's just that the doorway wasn't, wasn't being made wider for a long time.

So Barbara Brandon-Croft, the legendary comic strip artist behind Where I'm Coming From. She's got a new book out with the same title. It's a collection of her strips from 1991 to 2005 and also includes essays and letters from her career. Barbara, it's been such a great pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRANDON-CROFT: Thank you. Thank you. I really appreciate it, Meghna.

This program aired on March 10, 2023.

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