Can the Memphis mayor’s race get any uglier? Already, the top two male candidates refuse to set foot on a debate stage with the other front runner, Tami Sawyer, a black woman.

But then the September cover of Memphis magazine rendered in caricature the hideousness of a contest with an image many Memphians say is a racist, sexist and demonizing depiction of Sawyer.

While the point of caricature is to exaggerate the subjects’ well-known qualities and features, artist Chris Ellis’ rendering of Sawyer tends toward obliteration. (By way of explanation, Ellis said on Facebook Friday that “the facial images I drew of a monstrously obese female of color were traced.”)

With his drawing, Ellis, who is white, managed to expound on what Sawyer’s challengers have done.

In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 3 municipal election, both Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who is white, and former Mayor Willie Herenton, the city’s first elected black mayor, have made excuses for failing to face each other and Shelby County Commissioner Sawyer, a millennial cut from activist cloth. Herenton refuses to say Sawyer’s name at public events, opting to refer to her as the “young lady.”

Strickland too refuses to say her name and goes farther, by “deprescencing” her in his telling of the story of Memphis, as if she were not even there. This, despite the footprint Sawyer has left up and down Union Avenue leading the #TakeEmDown901 coalition to demand the removal of Confederate monuments in taxpayer-funded parks.

Then comes Ellis, better known for his black-and-white caricatures of the deceased. He shoved Sawyer into the through-line of African-American women maligned by artistic “expression.”

Recall how cartoonist Mark Knight rendered Serena Williams with Sambo-like lips throwing a temper tantrum in a tutu after she defended what she, one of the greatest athletes of all time, deemed bad referee calls during a 2018 U.S. Open upset. Former First Lady Michelle Obama was routinely drawn as masculine and equated with being an ape in a trope planted in the American psyche by the likes of venerated Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke, an investor in the burgeoning 18th century business of trading Africans into enslavement.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism spoke to artists and a scholar of American history for their thoughts about the controversial magazine cover.

“Wow!” said Dr. Kali Gross, the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University and co-author of “A Black Woman’s History of the United States” with Dr. Daina Ramey Berry due out in February by Beacon Press. For a few seconds after she viewed the image on her cellphone, she was speechless. Then Gross offered:

“The rendering is definitely a throwback to racist caricatures from the 19th century,” said Gross, evoking the mammy stereotype that accompanied others designed to denigrate the black body and psyche, ensconcing African-Americans on the bottom of the racial hierarchy. “The way they depict her hair, her nose, her face. It’s a distorted image that’s designed to objectify and humiliate.”

Memphis magazine’s September cover

The fact that Ellis exaggerated Strickland and Herenton, too, is no excuse for the distorted image of Sawyer. This false equivalency aims to suggest that misogynoir — hatred directed toward black women, as defined by queer black feminist scholar Moya Bailey— cannot exist on a page that lampoons two male candidates.

And yet, Ellis excels at the phenomenon by offering up a humiliating disfiguration in the shape of Sawyer’s head and nose. A black mass of scribbles become Sawyer’s clothing. Strickland and Herenton are fully clothed in smart suits, reflecting the white supremacist tendency to impugn black women “with respect to race and gender, so she is othered in every possible way,” Gross said.

Ellis defended his work in a Friday night Facebook discussion, calling Sawyer “a monstrously obese female of color.” Actually, he wrote “monstrously obese” more than once: “They are an almost exact representation of the photographs sent to me by the Magazine. And after several versions submitted to the editor, publisher and art director were satisfied. In 100% of the cases of drawing commissioned by any publication that is validation enough.”

While calling itself “a progressive voice,” the magazine defended its work:

“In publishing that cover, we were following a long-standing satirical tradition. It was not our intention to demean any of the candidates or to satirize one more than the others, but we are sympathetic to the perceptions our readers have shared. We regret any pain this caricature of public figures has caused.”

(In a statement published Sunday, Contemporary Media CEO Anna Traverse issued an apology and said that the company had halted newsstand distribution of the magazine and that staff was collecting copies that had already been delivered.)

While some would argue this caricature is just how politics are done in Memphis, the image of Sawyer is emblematic of the routine misrepresentation and maligning of black women and women of color who stand up for the communities they represent.

Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Presley (D-MA) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) have faced similar types of violence in words and imagery after answering a generational call for women to run for office. For example, white male Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) supporters wearing “Team Mitch” shirts groped and choked a cardboard cutout of Ocasio-Cortez.

The magazine’s approach, too, appears to undermine Sawyer’s femininity, casting her, like so many outspoken black women, as creatures, not as human beings. In our experiment in democracy, reliance on these tropes reveals the lie of American’s founding principles while revealing the truth that black women have always been at the forefront of making this country true to what it says on paper, to paraphrase Dr. King.

“The fact that this is stirred up in this way, I think these women are the medicine for what ails this society right now,” Gross said. “And the fact that they are attacking them and coming at them with this level of fervor and fury shows their fear and desperation.”

Joyce Owens, a Chicago-based artist, curator and professor whose paintings and assemblages confront race and gender, notes how Sawyer’s caricature made her look cross-eyed with “lightning bolts” for eyebrows. Her shrunken cranium, Owens said, is drawn to suggest there’s not “that much brain in there.” The oversized rendering of Sawyer’s nose doesn’t reference her actual nose, which is what the art of caricature does: “He made her nose big, like, if she’s black, she must have a big nose.”

In comparing online images of Strickland with his rendering in Memphis magazine, Owens finds “the magazine cover gives him a bit more stature by showing him in business-attire.”

In Owens’ opinion, “Herenton looks ‘a-racial,’ if that is a word, in the caricature. His strength shows up in his hand gestures. He does have an elongated skull. I don’t know if having him appear race-neutral is offensive to his constituents.”

Genesis Be, a Mississippi-reared activist, and recording and visual artist who created the People Not Things solo exhibition, said she would never attempt to guess an artist’s intention: Nevertheless …

“All of the depictions of the candidates are ugly; no one is uglier than the other in my opinion,” Be said. “The artist made sure to exaggerate the nose and lips of all the candidates, probably to avoid criticisms of racial bias. I don’t think there is racial bias depicted in these caricatures, but I do see a bias in that Jim Strickland is portrayed more favorable than the other two candidates.”

Strickland is shown as big, smiling “cuddly character” with squinting eyes full of joy. His pose appears to be an accurate reference of a signature hands clasped stance.

“Any viewer familiar with the candidate would most likely see this caricature and have a favorable response… like “I know this person,” Be said. “He is in an impeccable white suit, unlike the other depictions, perhaps the artist views him as pure and clean. He is recognizable and very humble compared to Mr. Herenton.”

Herenton’s depiction suggests he is desperate and self-promotional, Be said: “He’s all the way in the background, not smiling and seems more of an annoyance rather than someone the artist is taking seriously as a viable candidate.”

Of Sawyer, Be said: “Her realistic features don’t seem to be as exaggerated as the two other candidates; the picture simply doesn’t look like her. It’s as if the artist did a quick pass of her depiction, “that’ll do.”

“The attempt to depict her seems forced or feigned. The other candidates have both hands showing, normal size, in memorable poses. The artist gave her a little baby hand that isn’t really serving any purpose, nor is it reflective of her personality or brand as a candidate.

“And where are her freckles? The artist seemed comfortable putting dots on the caricature of Mr. Herenton’s face, for what purpose I know not. Although her nose is exaggerated like the other candidates, it baffles me as to why. Her actual nose is quite small and almost button-like in my opinion, to exaggerate the smallness of her nose would actually make for a more accurate and recognizable caricature, I think.”

On Saturday, Sawyer released this statement:

“I’m shocked, disappointed, and disgusted by the egregious mis-characterization of my personhood and continued inaccurate reporting by Contemporary Media and other Memphis news outlets on my background, activism, and values.

“The caricature (reminiscent of Jim Crow era cartoons historically used to demean and demoralize African Americans) printed in the Sept issue of Memphis Magazine is both insulting and hurtful and represents a false view of how I am seen by my community. The writing by Baker and imagery used to support advances racial narratives, reflects clear bias against women and black people, and is simply irresponsible.

“(The article is an obvious attempt to elevate the stature of the incumbent Mayor. While I am portrayed as outlandish, militant, confrontational, and combative, my opponent is portrayed as thoughtful and cautious. We will not stand for this continued willful misrepresentation of my womanhood and candidacy.)”


More on this story

Regarding Our September Cover

We Failed Memphis.

Memphis Magazine halts distribution of September issue after criticism over mayoral caricatures

Catch up on Tami Sawyer, the black woman who would be mayor

Does activism forge better leaders?

Confederacy groups launch social campaign to troll mayoral candidate

Meet the Memphis educator leading the charge to take down her city’s Confederate monuments

WATCH: City of Memphis gets rid of two Confederate statues

Weathersbee: Tennessee Republicans wrong to reconsider honor for Memphis activist Tami Sawyer

Memphis Mayoral Candidate Tami Sawyer Says Black Women Can Reclaim the South

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and public policy. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change. Sign up for our newsletter.