Consider America’s greatest political cartoonists. Hands down, my favorite is Aaron McGruder and the cutting political satire reflected in his cartoon strip, The Boondocks. That being said, I must admit that I do enjoy the barbed satire of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Recently, Trudeau’s political observations ran a red light in referring to the nation’s National Security Advisor, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, a black woman, as “brown sugar.” Frankly, the political satire in the April 7, 2004 Doonesbury escapes me and most women I know, black or white, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It draws on centuries of deep-rooted, wicked and indefensible portrayals of black women. In doing so, it is decidedly unfunny. The only purpose served by this cartoon strip is that it proved one sad fact: despite the contentions of many, in 21st century America, race and gender still matter.

At first glance, Trudeau’s comic strip seems merely to depict President George W. Bush and Dr. Rice discussing Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism adviser to Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton. In the strip, after waxing on about Clarke’s portrayal of Dr. Rice in his book, Dr. Rice asks the President whether he had heard of al Qaeda. The President quips, careful ‘brown sugar,” evoking the painful stereotype of the black woman as a hot-blooded minx.

It is not lost on me that in musing about President Bush’s reported penchant for giving nicknames to people around him, Trudeau also suggests that this is how President Bush views Dr. Rice. Needless to say, it seems that that the President?s respect for Dr. Rice is profound.

In Trudeau’s cartoon, the president was not giving Dr. Rice a nickname. He was putting her in her place. The images of black women being put in their place are widespread and have been exploited in literature, art and song since the first slave ships traversed the Middle Passage. The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” which is considered by some to be one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time, demonstrates my point:

“Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans. Scarred old slaver know he’s doin’ alright. Hear him whip the women just around midnight….Drums beating, cold english blood runs hot, Lady of the house wond’rin where it’s gonna stop. House boy knows that he’s doin’ alright. You should a heard him just around midnight. Ah brown sugar how come you taste so good (a-ha) brown sugar, just like a black girl should A-huh….Oh just like, just like a black girl should.”

The fact is that black women at the apex of power have struggled long and hard for respect. The struggle still continues. This is why in this context, references to black women as brown sugar are not funny. It reminds us of the historical exploitation of black women in America. It reminds us that there are those who believe that no matter how accomplished we may become, no matter how educated we are, and no matter how many books we read, black women should remain in “their place,” figuratively or literally. This place is one that is out of public view.

For example, it has been reported that in 1990, when Dr. Rice served as an adviser to former President George H.W. Bush, she was shoved out of the way by a secret service agent while attempting to enter the White House. Lest you think this treatment is reserved for Republicans, think again. In 1993, then Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, both black women and Democrats, were invited to join former President Clinton at a political event in the District of Columbia. Aides to Clinton stopped Kelly and Norton from appearing with him before the cameras, apparently not realizing that they were two of the District?s highest ranking public officials. Clinton was forced to personally intervene.

While we are discussing stereotypes, let us not forget the ever present prattle about the prodigious achievements of such prominent black women. In 1990, Dr. Rice described it as “Condi in Wonderland.” She told one publication that she had a friend whose words for it were, “My goodness, the monkey can read. It’s amazing.”

Things should have been different as Dr. Rice prepared for her appearance before the 9/11 commission. Whether or not you like Dr. Rice or her politics, the facts are what they are. A product of the segregated South, Dr. Rice entered college at the University of Denver at age 15. She holds a doctorate in international relations. At Stanford, she was a Russia specialist and later, became the university’s provost. She has been an advisor to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on strategic nuclear policy. She served as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush for national security affairs and senior director for Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council. Dr. Rice is the first woman ever appointed as National Security Advisor. After Secretary of State Colin Powell, she is the second African American to hold the post.

As Condoleezza Rice prepared to testify before the 9/11 commission about the events that lead up to the greatest single tragedy in American history, she — no, we all — deserved better. Even in satire, it’s just not funny.