Reading the Afro: A Hairy Issue for Publishers Weekly

By Michelle Chen Dec 16, 2009

Publishers Weekly raised some angry eyebrows with its latest cover illustration. Apparently, for an issue devoted to African-American publishing, the designer thought readers would be amused by the image of a Black woman adorned with a surrealistic "crown" of Afro picks. Senior News Editor Calvin Reid shrugged at the onslaught of angry tweets–bewildered that so many had taken offense to what he thought was a loving celebration of "quirky black hair power" (should that be hyphenated?). Another quirk in the story is the origin of the image: the photograph, by Lauren Kelley, was published in Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present , by Deborah Willis. Reid described the book as "a collection of carefully chosen photographs intended to highlight the physical and cultural beauty of African-American life." In his statement of apology to readers, Reid tempered his contrition by sharing a note from Willis:

It’s amazing how the viewers read this wonderful image that exemplifies power, humor, style, and beauty. Including the fist on the comb indicates power and strength and pride. It reminded me of the 70s. Ironic could it be that the readers are afraid to look at the power in black hair. (smile.) Thank you for using the image and exposing Black Beauty.

So maybe it’s exposure, not exploitation. It’s clear that many are unsettled when Black imagery, particularly the iconography of a racial justice movement, is reduced to hip emblems of popular culture. But where do you draw the line between ironic homage and trivialization? Does it matter that you’re making art or reviewing books instead of selling cosmetics or a hit album? Who gets to make that judgment call? Is identity intellectual property?