I knew James as a cutting edge griot, a Black nationalist whose talents equaled his ethnic pride, and whose aggressive paintbrush was his conduit to Black liberation.
Lester James Kern passed away last week in Atlanta after a lengthy bout with cancer. His passing is reason to hang Black liberation flags at half-mast.
James was a member of the original staff of the Milwaukee Community Journal, serving on our production team, but more importantly as our editorial cartoonist.
He eventually moved to Atlanta, but only after establishing the MCJ as the premier Black newspaper in the Midwest. His unique talent was epitomized by the fact that each year we entered his cartoons in national competition and he redundantly won top honors. As a cartoonist, he had no equal.
In Atlanta he honed his skills as an artist. His paintings (you can observe much of his work by Goggling his name) were universally unique, and he soon gained a national following.
But it was his cartoons that endeared him to thousands, and earned him national recognition both as an artist and as a social commentator.
James was also a talented writer, although he never felt as comfortable relaying his opinions through that medium. Instead, he put his biting wit and unique perspective on Black life and culture, politics and civil rights into his cartoons.
As a Milwaukee native and child of the 1970s, James had a unique perspective on Black life. He was born in the shadows of the civil rights struggle. He was brought up in a segregated Milwaukee, where police brutality was an accepted consequence of being a Black Milwaukeean. It was an era when school desegregation was the challenge of the day, and the Black power movement was the alternative to an integration crusade that never took root.
James was more attuned to the former than the latter. He saw Black empowerment as the only true catalyst for social change. He consistently challenged the pace of the movement, and Black disunity.
As a result, he passed up lucrative job offers to work at the MCJ, finding in us a vehicle to prod and push, to critique and educate.
He found himself somewhere between my Black Nationalist philosophy, which included a desire to blow up the walls of apartheid, and the more traditional civil rights advocacy espoused by the publisher, Patricia O’Flynn Thomas (now Pattillo), who sought to tear down the walls one brick at a time.
During the infancy of the MCJ, we operated out of an apartment building—the newspaper’s first home—on North Port Washington Road. On Mondays, James, and I would push the envelop through editorials and his supportive cartoons, some of which ended up on the front page of the paper, which at the time was a tabloid. Our perspectives were eerily similar, and usually we didn’t have to collaborate to compliment each other’s editorial summaries.
James’ cartoons greatly influenced my editorials and columns, or verse versa, and each week we would seek to push the envelope, crossing our fingers with the hope that the publisher, Patricia Pattillo, would not declare we had gone overboard. Rarely did she voice an objection, even though our commentaries would often invite rebuttals from Black leadership.
With a green light, James and I blasted timid and ineffective Black politicians. We struck hard at racism in every form. We challenged the chief of police, Harold Breier, who retaliated in ways that struck fear in lesser-inspired men. And we prodded the Black community to rise up and fight to control the institutions that affected our lives.
Our philosophy was an intermingling of Black Nationalism and Africentricism. We took no prisoners and often cost the newspaper advertising revenue when corporations punished us for our advocacy, and friends, who found themselves the targets of our impatience, turned their backs on us, or in the case of one politician, tried to sue us for libel.
On Tuesdays, James, production manager Joe Martin and I would lay out the paper in a makeshift production space in the living room of the apartment.
I was also the chief photographer and developed film in the bathroom. Our production camera, operated by James and Joe, was in the kitchen.
Because we couldn’t afford a headliner machine, I would type all of the story headlines at the conclusion of the production day, normally about midnight or so.
Joe, James and I would meet again at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday mornings and drive to a publishing facility in West Bend, where we finished the newspaper before our printing run time.
During the first week of that arrangement, we encountered a laborer whose racism surfaced even before we finished our first edition. He reportedly told the owner of the printing company that he didn’t want to work with Black people.
The publisher quickly retorted that ours was one of the largest contracts the company had recently acquired, and if he couldn’t put his racial feelings aside, he would be replaced.
Interestingly, James and the guy had to work closely together. Initially the relationship was strained, but over the course of the year, they established a mutual respect, if not a friendship. James never retreated from his principles, or his Blackness. But he somehow eased tensions while demanding respect and contradicting racial stereotypes.
Interestingly, what apparently broke the ice was an incident that occurred after we had left the printer one morning.
Normally, we would race from West Bend as soon as we finished our work. On this one morning, we decided to stop for breakfast at a West Bend restaurant.
After being ignored for 10 minutes, I became irritated and shouted out to the waitress, “excuse me, can we get some service, or don’t you serve Black people?”
Joe was shocked and uneasy. James stood up with a menacing glare.
We were soon served, but it appeared that there was spittle in the eggs of one of the plates.
Joe, who had polio, wanted to leave and make a complaint to the NAACP or some other authority. James and I wanted to confront the waitress and manager.
We were ready to fight, if necessary. Joe’s position prevailed, but not before we loudly declared our anger with a few obscenities and racial epithets. (We did drive quickly out of the city, fearing the West Bend cops would meet us with barricades and tanks.)
The following week, James relayed the experience to the racist. Even he was disgusted, but that scenario seemed to open the doors for a dialogue about being Black in America.
The situation forced him to look at Black people in a different light. He even applauded us for standing up, asserting he would have done likewise.
There are many great illustrators in the country, but what separates them is not their artistic ability per se, but their worldview.
And in James’ case, his ability to translate a subject, theme or philosophical position into a thought provoking and conscience-building cartoon was unparalleled.
James’ decision to leave Milwaukee was rooted in both his inability to break the glass ceiling in Milwaukee (a factor that contributes to the ‘Black Brain Drain’) as well as his desire to raise a family in a more progressive city, like Atlanta.
And James was indeed a dedicated family man. He was among that dying breed of Black men who prioritized family, community and our nation within a nation.
He also believed in the Africentered adage that a father’s primary purpose is to take their children ‘further’ than himself.
In his own way, Lester James Kern was an artisan who used his talents to fuel the Civil Rights Train.
Through his cartoons and caricatures, he awakened the Black masses, pushing them down the path of self-respect and empowerment. He dedicated his career to bringing knowledge and beauty to our community, through his art and his personal example.
To say he will be missed is an understatement. But, we can take solace in the assumption that God needed his talents in heaven, while his earthy contributions will live on through his visionary art.