After all the posts on Twitter and after all the passionate discourse both pro and con, what do we take away from the controversy surrounding the photographic image (and the cover line) used to illustrate the African-American feature on the cover of the December 14 issue of Publishers Weekly?
We certainly acknowledge the passion and seriousness of the criticism we've received over the past week. Images of black people in general and certainly black women in particular continue to be a charged visual terrain. The sorry legacy of how African-Americans have been depicted in this country cannot be dismissed. Indeed, this history of misrepresentation will always generate suspicion and skepticism about the intent and meaning of any representations of black life.
Nevertheless, we take pride at Publishers Weekly in covering African-American publishing and the writers, editors, and retailers who work tirelessly to create and distribute for that market. We have covered this market extensively for more than 30 years, and it goes beyond our annual December feature: we cover the beat, in news articles and book reviews, throughout the year, and we are no stranger to the book industry's struggles with its own diversity issues.
The choice of cover image last week—a photograph of a woman with the extraordinary halo of Afro picks in her hair—was not an attempt to provoke, nor was it some effort to be fashionable: it was a natural response to a compelling image, which is something we strive for on every cover. More to the point, it was an image taken from an important new book on black American life and used specifically to illustrate a feature story about the latest batch of new and forthcoming works by and about African-Americans.
If magazine covers are supposed to be memorable; this one certainly is. Artist Lauren Kelley's image—a self-portrait, by the way—is a complex evocation of beauty, black history, and, yes, we believe, gentle humor. Alvia J. Wardlaw, longtime curator at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, who included the image in a museum exhibition in 2008, told PW that she was “quite surprised at the response. It's the image of a crown! If you look at the history of the adornment of the hair of black women going back to Africa, we've always worn braids and elaborate headdresses.” Wardlaw continued, “I love this work, and Lauren is brilliant. But there seems to be a lack of understanding out there, an inability for us to get out of our own way.” Deborah Willis, author of Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, from which the image was taken, told PW, “Young women like Lauren are looking at the 1970s for strength and a new vision of themselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not having this conversation. Thanks to PW for getting this conversation started.”
Wardlaw and Willis are not alone in supporting our cover choice. After a flurry of complaint on Twitter, a second wave expressing support for PW and the image arrived. Kelley's work, titled Pickin, is from a series of sculptural works evocative of black life that she created in the late 1990s while she was a grad student at the Art Institute of Chicago. In a phone conversation with PW, Kelley, currently an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and in her 30s, described the reactions to the controversy that she dubbed “Afro-Gate.”
“It's exciting to know your work can evoke any kind of emotion, but I'm annoyed that people are so easily offended,” she said. “Americans in general often have a problem with art, and black people can be very conservative about the notion of what black beauty can be.” Kelley called her works “celebratory” and an evocation of the “pride and texture” of black life. She said her work is an effort to connect across generations with the political issues of the 1970s as well as an effort to “make the ordinary extraordinary.” And she emphasized the importance of humor in her work. “It's important to be able to laugh when you're tackling trying circumstances,” said Kelley. We couldn't agree more; though we do regret upsetting anyone, often enough, that's part of getting a conversation going.