Strawberry festival poster sparks outcry about race

AP News
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Posted: Mar 26, 2015 7:36 PM

PONCHATOULA, La. (AP) — After an outcry over an artist's depiction of two black children with no facial features except bright red lips, organizers of a Louisiana strawberry festival have agreed not to show or sell this year's festival poster, which the local NAACP president called racially offensive.

However, it remains the official poster for the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, which runs April 10-12. And the Kiwanis Club is still selling the $25 to $40 prints, independently from the festival.

The poster depicts two African-American children — a boy in a white suit and black bowtie and a girl in a short white dress and bobby socks. The girl holds a flat of strawberries. Black paint is used for the children's skin tone, and the lips are the only facial features painted in.

The lack of features was what upset Patricia Morris, president of the Greater Tangipahoa Branch of the NAACP.

"Blackface has always been a negative part of our history, because to us it represents that we are considered as nobody," she said Thursday.

Festival officials, city leaders, NAACP members and Kiwanis Club leaders met Wednesday to discuss the poster, which has prompted intense social media argument about whether it is offensive.

After Wednesday's meeting, Kiwanis President Randy Tomeny and festival Chairman Donald Lanier apologized for causing offense, but said they don't consider the design offensive.

"We'll apologize for offending anyone, as that was never our intent," Lanier said. "We also won't sell it that weekend or display it, but we're not recalling the poster by any means."

"The irony is the controversy has actually increased the sales," said Tomeny, whose organization makes and sells the poster to raise money for various charities in Ponchatoula, about 40 miles northwest of New Orleans, and the rest of Tangipahoa Parish. "The phone is ringing off the hook."

Morris said the best part of Wednesday's agreement was that both the festival and Kiwanis agreed to bring in minority board members.

"We are happy to know there will be African-Americans there or any race who may say, 'This may insult somebody, may be offensive.' Because the consensus was that it was not their intention to insult anybody. But it did."

Morris said she hasn't talked to artist Kalle Siekkinen, a Hammond native who now lives in New Orleans, but would if he is interested in talking with her.

Siekkinen, who is of Finnish and Italian descent, said he was surprised that anyone found the poster racist. Many African-Americans have thanked him, he said.

He called claims that the children resemble pickaninny or Sambo caricatures "heinous and slanderous," The New Orleans Advocate (http://bit.ly/1D29RM7 ) reported.

"I don't believe in any way I've done anything offensive, and I don't apologize for my artwork," he said.