Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My idea of beautiful hair - a perfectly shaped afro.

I remember growing up my big sisters had beautiful, perfectly shaped afros. They wore it tight; they wore it blown out; and sometimes they put an afro pick in just the right position. Absolutely beautiful.

When I first saw the image below, I loved it. I still don’t understand why a lot of other bloggers found it offensive. Neither did PW senior news editor, Calvin Reid (black guy)…

PW’s African-American Cover Image:
Black Beauty or Big Mistake?

It didn’t take long before complaints began to circulate on Twitter about the image used on the cover of this week’s Publishers Weekly to illustrate the annual feature on African-American book publishing.

“We don't get the 'Afro Picks!' cover. It's not hip, cute, or appealing,” said one tweet. Another tweet: “It seems like a big mistake,” while another read, “what exactly is the rationale behind the Afro-picks cover?” “This is a ridiculous cover. An afro with lotso picks. Get it?” “Publishers Weekly what were you thinking?” By early afternoon on Monday, Twitter was swarming with comments about the cover illustration and few of the comments were complimentary.

The image was a photograph taken from a new book from W.W. Norton, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present by Deborah Willis, a collection of carefully chosen photographs intended to highlight the physical and cultural beauty of African-American life. The image (Pickin', 1999) by Lauren Kelley is a photograph of a black woman whose hair is full of Afro picks, the ubiquitous metal toothed hair-comb of the 1970s, complete with plastic handle in the form of a black power fist. The afro picks are arrayed in the woman’s hair to create a kind of giant sculptural Afro hair-do and the woman is leaning slightly forward to give the viewer a better look at the quirky artificially created hair-pick crown. The coverline for the image is: Afro Picks! New Books and Trends in African-American Publishing and it refers to the feature story “African-American Books in Today’s Marketplace,” a look at the current marketplace for black books written by Felicia Pride.

In an effort to respond to the complaints, I contacted W.W. Norton executive editor Bob Weil, who edited the book from which the photo was taken. He wanted to emphasize that “this is a positive and transformational book.” He recently spoke at an event promoting the book at the Studio Museum in Harlem and said, “Willis's book goes miles to show a more complete and honest history of the black image. One man stood up in the audience and said he's using the book therapeutically with his psychiatric in-patients at Bellevue to improve their self-esteem; another young woman stood up and said she came upon the book by accident and was amazed to discover a book that reflected the world she knew.”

And with all due respect to those who were offended by the image, that is not a universal reaction. In an e-mail message from professor Willis, a scholar of black photography, chair of NYU’s photography department and a MacArthur Fellow, wrote: “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.”

Read the entire article here.