“Black women on the cover don’t sell magazines.” That bit of white mainstream market propaganda masquerading as fact has long been accepted as truth, but recent developments tell a much more colorful story.
W magazine’s February 2014 “Movie Issue” is celebrating six actors whose stellar theatrical performances transfixed audiences across the country. Included among these actors is Hollywood it-Girl and Yale School of Drama graduate Lupita Nyong’o, who breathed exquisite, tortuous life into “Patsy” in Stephen McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.
Also included is media mogul, philanthropist and actor Oprah Winfrey, whose critically acclaimed performance in Lee Daniel’s The Butler is garnering Golden Globe buzz.
Kerry Washington, who has rebelled against respectability politics and one-dimensional depictions of black women as ultimate DC political fixer “Olivia Pope” in Shonda Rhimes’ hit ABC series Scandal, has been featured on Vanity Fair, Elle and Lucky magazine covers in recent months.
Zoe Saldana, who sparked contentious debates when she accepted the coveted role of Nina Simone, The High Priestess of Soul, appears on the February cover of Lucky (that's two months in a row for WOC covers for Lucky) and has also graced the cover of Allure magazine.
Each one of these talented and accomplished Black women are or will be featured on the cover of mainstream magazines just as Hollywood award season jumps into full swing. That pivotal timing has many implications and one thing is clear: White magazines are betting on black women as never before.
This is not to say that black faces in traditionally white spaces is a completely new development.
Beverly Johnson, Peggy Dillard, Shari Belafonte Harper, Naomi Campbell, Michelle Obama, Halle Berry, Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Winfrey, and several others, have all graced the cover of Vogue magazine over the years. But the pomp and circumstance surrounding each cover literally transformed them into social, cultural and racial Rorschach tests:
What do you see when black women are placed on the cover of white magazines, particularly when no interest in black women is on display within its pages?
In black magazines from EBONY to Essence, our beauty is celebrated and cultivated in all of its manifestations in ways that so-called mainstream magazines could never understand. Black magazines nurture black beauty with the gentleness and fierce protectiveness of mothers who hold mirrors to their daughters’ faces to trace their features, interrupting destructive messages that tell black girls, “You could never be beautiful because you could never be white.”
So the acknowledgment of diverse representations of womanhood on mainstream magazine covers should not suggest that black magazines aren’t important. They are ours and they will always be necessary. Jada Pinkett Smith once asked:
“…if we ask our white sisters, who tend to be the guardians of the covers of mainstream magazines, to consider women of color to grace these covers, should we not offer the same consideration to white women to grace our covers?”
No, Jada. The simple answer is no.
The racial and ethnic integration of whitewashed magazine covers is important because they have never truly been about beauty. They have stood as beacons of white authority. They have affirmed for white women that they are the unattainable standard.
If even one vestige of white supremacy is allowed to thrive, institutionalized racism will adapt to its new surroundings and continue to flourish like the virus that it is --- and that cannot be allowed.
Black women must exist in a world where we don’t need to fit in to be allowed to stand out. We are exceptional in our ordinariness and ordinary in our exceptionalness -- and that is exactly as it should be. Our “otherness” can no longer be used to shame and silence us because we have waged fierce battles against the marginalization of our beauty – and we have won. Time and time again, we have won.
Beauty lies not merely in the superficial symmetry of facial features, but in an unspoken truth: barriers have been shattered, prejudices are being smashed and racism and colorism in fashion and beauty are slowly crawling bloody and bruised toward insolvency.
The unfurling diversity in mainstream magazines, on full display with Lupita, Zoe, Oprah and Kerry, says to White America: “Not anymore.”
You will accept our wide hips, our full lips, our curls, kinks and naps. You will embrace our skin, so powerful it kisses the sun. You will stop and be compelled to purchase magazines because of our eyes peering at you from the cover -- dark like secrets and ocean and magic and midnight skies. You will grow to understand that this beauty is American. This beauty is African. You will be forced to see us and realize that our beauty tells stories without uttering a single word.
This shift in cultural awareness became necessary because our talent, multi-faceted beauty and axis-tilting influence simply became too huge to deny.
And it’s about time.