Memphis magazine may have pulled its September issue in the wake of a controversial caricature of the leading woman candidate for mayor, but black male leaders stood up Tuesday to call for more.
“Prodded” came up twice during a press conference at City Hall, as a coalition of black male elected officials and thought-leaders demanded the magazine do more than apologize for publishing a racist, sexist rendering of Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who is running for mayor in the Oct. 3 Municipal Election. The coalition urged the magazine’s owner, Contemporary Media, to re-evaluate its ownership structure, diversify its newsroom and end its relationship with freelance artist Chris Ellis.
“They’ve been prodded along to the point where they have expressed regrets,” state Rep. G.A. Hardaway said of Memphis magazine’s initial response to the controversy last weekend. “They were prodded a bit further. They had a second piece that came out, where it appeared by might even be repentant. Now we need to move them to the point to where they make repairs. They’ve done damage to the community.
“You can’t un-ring that bell,” Hardaway said.
The initial statement from Memphis magazine, published Aug. 31, justified the use of satire and expressed sorrow for “perceptions our readers have shared.” A fuller apology followed Sept. 1 after critics insisted the statement by a company with no black journalists on staff did not recognize the specific racial and gendered injury caused by the cover.
“We’ve had some comments from some leadership saying it was insensitive, and it was derogatory,” Hardaway said. “Let’s call it what it was: It was racist. Racist. Racist. If that picture was a word, then it would be the n-word.”
Anna Traverse, CEO of Contemporary Media, which owns Memphis magazine, said late Tuesday that they “do not plan to use Mr. Ellis’ services in the future.”
Admitting that not enough people reviewed the cover design, she reiterated: “Misgivings that a few people had were not taken seriously enough. There will be more sharing and more openness within our team about what we’re planning, and where we’re going right and where we’re going wrong.”
Such openness may allow staffers to articulate what critics saw immediately in the drawing of Sawyer: A blob-like figure with jagged eyebrows, scraggly, unkempt locs, an oversize, crooked boxer-like nose and exaggerated lips, evoking demeaning Jim Crow-era renderings of African-Americans. Compared with the other leading contenders Mayor Jim Strickland and former mayor Willie Herenton, critics said Ellis’ rendering of Sawyer took on a malicious tone.
The cover controversy is about so much more than a cartoon, said speakers at the press conference, including Darrell Cobbins, president of 100 Black Men of Memphis; City Councilman Martavius Jones; the Rev. Dr. Earle Fisher of #UpTheVote901; and Hardaway.
The men echoed the outrage expressed in an avalanche of social media posts over the weekend: While the First Amendment supports and protects journalists’ right to document and critique, the cover image follows a well-worn tradition of weaponizing imagery to tell a false story that undermines the credibility of African-Americans.
“They’ve done damage to the community,” Hardaway said. “Because somebody in society has been impacted with a negative thought pattern because they’ve got an image of people of color that is further dehumanizing in their mind.”
Fisher added: “What is important is for us to understand how toxic the political landscape is, and how we refuse to allow these things to become normal.”
The contingent also took issue with the drawing of Herenton, the city’s first elected black mayor. Critics — including journalist and commentator Otis Sanford, who was not at the press conference — have said his pointing gestures make it look like the former Memphis Cit Schools superintendent was flashing gang signs.
Hardaway told MLK50 the portrayal of Herenton looked “scary and like a criminal. And that perpetuates the narrative on black men; makes it easier for us to be abused and mistreated by the justice system.”
And according to Hardaway: “Demeaning images, like those caricatures featured on the cover of a publication that bears the name of the city, only encourage racist stereotypes and empower extremists that those featured are subhuman.”
Ellis’ own social media posts confirmed suspicions about his motives. Twice on Facebook he called Sawyer “monstrously obese” and wrote that she deserved her portrayal. He did not respond to a message to elaborate further or reflect on what has occurred in the wake of harsh, public critique of his work.
As for Strickland’s rendering, art critics have said his drawing hews more to the philosophy of caricature because it exaggerates common traits. For example, Strickland, who is depicted wearing a white suit and smirking, has a tendency to clasp his hands in front, which the cover image shows.
Cobbins asked: “What responsibility do we have to humanize each other and make sure that the representations that we present to the broader community of anyone is one that is deserving of respect and accountability, so that our young people see what they should be?”
The group called on all Memphis media outlets to diversify their staff, to help ensure that they are telling authentic stories about Memphians, a majority of whom are African-American.
Traverse told MLK50 that the publication will be doing just that. “We’ll have further announcements regarding personnel in the weeks to come as we continue to work on our strategy going forward. We intend to begin sharing information about this within the next two weeks,” she said.
Ironically, observers at the City Hall Tuesday noted only two journalists of color and no women showed up to cover the press conference.
“They normalize this stuff, we’ve accepted this,” Hardaway told MLK50. “But think about how normal it is for them when they don’t think of sending nothing but men.”
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