My mouth dropped open when I saw this image on the Dec. 14 cover of Publishers Weekly. While I love the creativity of the Lauren Kelley image itself, it has no place on the cover of a trade magazine touting what’s new in African-American books.
In an article titled PW’s African-American Cover Image: Black Beauty or Big Mistake, Calvin Reid, a senior editor, explained his reasoning for selecting this image, the back story on the image and writing the questionable cover line.
The image was reminiscent of the 1970s and appealed to me, someone who grew up in the middle of the 1970s-era wave of black pride, black power and big afros with big afro picks stuck right in the back. To me it is a sweet, tongue-in-cheek funny and striking image of quirky black hair power. And while it never occurred to me that anyone would be offended by these images, I was very wrong and I have to acknowledge that. Quite a few people were offended by it and outraged by what some perceive as a disparaging or degrading image of a black woman. I certainly regret offending anyone and while I still love that image, I intend to think long and hard about whatever image is chosen for next year’s cover.
I’d be curious to know how PW illustrated its annual African-American issue in previous years. This image, called Pickin’ and taken by Lauren Kelley in 1999, is included in Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, a photography book compiled by Deborah Willis. It is clever as a work of art. While Calvin notes that, for him, the Afro is symbolic of black hair power, I think for many others it is deemed as being rebellious and militant. The whole hair thing is a separate subject unto itself and one I’ve shared my thoughts on previously.
It’s hard enough to get other races to read our books, see our movies, watch our television shows, visit our art galleries, all ways to help us understand one another in today’s multi-cultural society. Therefore I don’t think using this image on the cover is a way to draw even the readers of PW into Felicia Pride’s article, which is more about what sells and today’s economy. Slap the words “Afro Picks” above the picture and it demeans what I think is indeed a thought-provoking and beautiful image and does a disservice to the article. Would NBC, for example, use “Afro Pick” when weatherman Al Roker announces his pick city of the day as he does daily on Today? Would ESPN super impose an image of an Afro pick behind Michael Irvin’s head before me makes a prediction for Monday Night Football? No. That’s why I cry foul for Calvin’s choice.
And this is why it’s important to have diversity throughout the workplace. Granted, you’ll never please every member of any race all of the time but a reasonably intelligent person should be able to discern whether a particular race would be offended by something like this by asking around. I have no idea how many minorities PW has on its staff but numbers can be misleading anyway. I remember when I first walked through the headquarters at People in the late ’90s when I started working out of the magazine’s Los Angeles bureau. There were so many chocolate faces looking back at me. Little did I realize they were the support staff. I can’t recall a Black being in a decision-making position and attending key meetings. And that’s the way it is throughout mainstream publishing. This is how come offensive images, or in this case an inappropriate image and words, continue to pop up every so often.
When I worked at the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press back in the late 80s, there were a few unnecessary instances where the paper ran less-than-flattering photos of blacks. I finally said something to an editor and it was as if no one had ever noticed. I also had to speak up in defense of then University of Pitt basketball star Charles Smith. If I remember correctly, there were some rumblings about whether Pitt had violated NCAA rules by providing him certain things, like a car. I explained to my editor, perhaps rather naively, that it is possible for black parents to buy their college child a car. Heck, I had a car in the 11th grade and so did many of the Black teenagers from my neighborhood. The idea seemed so foreign to my editor. Really?? It was as if it had honestly never occurred to him that a Black family would be in such a financial position. And as I recall, Charles came from a middle-class background. BTW, no violations were ever found to have occurred with Charles and the university.
As for PW, well, that was a major violation.