PW cover 185x250Publishers Weekly, the leading trade publication for the American book industry, is not a magazine that comes to mind when you think “racial drama.” A magazine of its ilk doesn’t have much reason to push the envelope; it’s simply there to keep its readers abreast of news and reviews from the book publishing biz. So, when PW made headlines this week for an edgy cover image, a lot of folks probably did a double take. Publishers Weekly stirring up controversy? Go figure.

But the image of an African American woman with a slew of Afro picks in her natural hair under the coverline “Afro Picks!” has been controversial indeed. The photo is connected to PW’s cover story on African American literature and was the brainchild of Calvin Reid, an African American editor at the periodical. Nevertheless, many readers have expressed dismay over the cover.

“The black woman as the exotic, wild creature with crazy hair is not, perhaps, the wisest of images,” said one critic. And black novelist Tayari Jones called it “startling and alienating.”

The consensus around the Web and blogosphere seems to be that the cover was a big mistake — a compelling, artistic image ripped out of context and reduced to a disturbing, black sterotype. (The original shot comes from the 1999 photograph “Pickin'” by Lauren Kelley, which is featured on the cover of the new book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present.) By itself, the photo is a compelling image. Used on the PW cover, it takes on an oddly comedic purpose. “The disturbing thing about the PW cover,” said black author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, “is that somebody thought it was funny.”

In an acknowledgement of the controversy, if not a full-fledged apology, PW’s Reid explains:

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.

So, what do you think? Is the image offensive? Does it mock or marginalize black people and black women in particular? Or are folks overreacting? Haven’t we seen white celebrities and models with intentionally weird and bizarre hairstyles on TV and magazine covers before? Is it possible to be so politically correct about race that it becomes impossible for a magazine editor and art director to produce nuanced and thought-provoking covers that deal with race and culture?

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