Why We Need Seats at the Table
photo: Dario Calmese
What did you see when you first saw this July/August Vanity Fair Cover shot?
Yes, Viola Davis is stunning. A Hollywood Icon, as the cover states. The dress is magnificent. Her hair a crowning glory. Her words evocative. And the cover is unusual- in the 35 years between 1983 and 2017- only 17 Vanity Fair covers have featured images of Black people, so a wonderful landmark to celebrate.
But did you also see the image below in your mind's eye?
Peter Gordon c 1863
Until this issue, Vanity Fair had never hired a Black photographer to shoot the front cover. Vanity Fair might be fashion forward and steeped in pop culture, but I do not think anyone could have called it socially conscious or politically forward until this cover by Photographer Dario Calmese. Not only is this Calmese's first Vanity Fair cover, but his first major magazine cover.
A few years ago, Rhadhika Jones, daughter of an American father and an Indian mother, became Vanity Fair's editor in chief. She studied literature in graduate school, particularly 19th and 20th century fiction and post colonial theory, and came to see how the English language and literature were "employed to impose certain values and narratives". She became a keen observer of the "cultural hierarchies that are handed down to us. They are not natural or foreordained; they were built by the gatekeepers who came before."
Seeing her role at Vanity Fair as "capturing the zeitgeist", inspiring creatives, and aware of the historical paucity of images and stories of people of color, she broadened the stories the magazine covered. And in "this heightened moment in American History," she hired Calmese. Jones gave him latitude with his inspiration, which he discussed at length with Davis, who had also noted, “They’ve had a problem in the past with putting Black women on the covers.”
Calmese told Insider he knew the cover was “an opportunity to say something.” "Calmese describes his cover concept as ‘a re-creation of the slave portraits' taken in the 1800s — the back, the welts. This image reclaims that narrative, transmuting the white gaze on Black suffering into the Black gaze of grace, elegance, and beauty,” Jones explains. And the image is stunning, all the more so for her flawless back.
"Whipped Peter", as the above image was called, "became one of the most widely circulated images of slavery of its time, galvanizing public opinion and serving as a wordless indictment of the institution of slavery. Peter's disfigured back helped bring the stakes of the Civil War to life, contradicting Southerners’ insistence that their slaveholding was a matter of economic survival, not racism. And it showed just how important mass media was during the war that nearly destroyed the United States." The photo was taken when Peter arrived in a Union camp in Baton Rouge in 1863. Barefoot, sweaty and mud caked, he had run 10 days, dodging tracking bloodhounds after a particularly brutal whipping at the hands of the Lyon Plantation's overseer. He fell into the arms of the Union soldiers, and promptly enlisted.
Below right, how he looked on arrival in the Union camp.
The examining surgeons note.
Peter's account of his injuries.
Like the image of Emmet Till, Peter Gordon's image is indelible in many of our minds. So, the pairing with Calmese's cover strikes a deeply resonant chord. Look how far we've come! But, I ask, would any but a Black photographer have created this cover? Told this story in such a visibly powerful way? Take that one step forward, and let it ripple. Imagine if Black editors controlled the entire issue. Imagine if every publication had Black editors. Imagine if every publication had Latinx and Native American editors. Then extend that: if all our media and institutions had proportionate representation at the highest levels of power. How different would the stories be?
Media is only a highly visual start point. Our country is rich for her diversity, but for too long, we have silenced too many, and been blind to too many.
I was still basking in the glow of that cover photo and story when Kenosha happened, and the below surfaced on social media in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Heartbreaking, but Truth. This pair of images resonate so deeply for Black people, reminders of how far we still have to go.
Contrast those with the images below, which strike very different chords.
Three different luxury brands, and all conceive, manufacture, produce, distribute and market these articles with racist images. How many Black designers do you think they have? Marketing executives? Even store employees as the goods were unpacked? I'm guessing none, since all were for sale when customers began complaining. "I was saddened when it was brought to my attention that it was being compared to painful images reminiscent of blackface," said Katy Perry, classic non apology style. Gucci released a statement that it “deeply apologizes for the offense caused”- the item was released in February, Black History Month! “We are fully committed to increasing diversity throughout our organization and turning this incident into a powerful learning moment for the Gucci team and beyond.” Prada apologized and later promised to donate proceeds from the line to “a New York-based organization committed to fighting for racial justice.” Prada announced it would set up an “Advisory Council to guide our efforts on diversity, inclusion and culture.” The same month, Adidas was called on to apologize for releasing a Black History Month commemorative shoe, all white except for the black sole, called "Ultraboost Uncaged"! One customer who complained about the shoe was told, "They're white because they're 100% cotton."
The tone deaf racism isn't limited to luxury brands. This from H&M, also recalled under protest.
It's not whippings, shootings or physical violence, it's not being overlooked for a promotion or having your resume thrown away because your name sounds Black, not being kept out of a school, an apartment, a neighborhood or C suite, or denied medical care; but it's hurtful and demeaning none the less.
Yes, there are many much more consequential issues to address. But these fashion examples are a very visible, graphic tip of the iceberg. This is what happens where we can all see it, with minimal stakes. What happens in all the other spaces? There is no area in the US not impacted by lack of diversity, particularly in power positions. The corporate world, the arts, education, housing and medicine all have glaring and subtle inequities yet to be addressed. And we all suffer from the absence of seats at the table for minorities.
Although many worry that whites are on track to be a minority as demographics change, truth is, when that happens, we will all be minorities. But question is, who will hold power?
I am grateful that Covid-19 and the videotaped police actions contradicting official statements, have pulled back the curtain and brought us to a reckoning . Echoing the United Negro College Fund's motto, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste", a race and the contributions of those people are terrible things to waste. I am hopeful that the turmoil of the last six months will translate into action and the policy changes we need to make this a country that lives up to our principles.