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December 15, 2009

Publishers Weekly goofs on latest cover

publishers weekly cover

Publishers Weekly has kicked up some dust this week with this cover photo illustrating a story on the African-American publishing world. On Twitter, comments have ranged from "wonderful" to "offensive," with some saying: "Publishers Weekly has lost its mind."

Today, the editor in charge of the cover design, which includes the line, "Afro Picks! New Books and Trends in African-American Publishing," apologized. Senior news editor Calvin Reid wrote, "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." Well said, if somewhat late.

The photo Reid chose is arresting -- and ironically comes from "Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present," a book celebrating the diverse beauty of black women. But PW's cover misses the mark because it turns a compelling photo into a joke with the "Afro Picks" text. Meant as an inside joke, it's subject to all sorts of misinterpretation in the larger world, Clearly, the topic of image is too sensitive to be tossed off lightly. At least the PW editors were quick to note their error in judgment.

Posted by Dave Rosenthal at 12:35 PM | | Comments (9)


It's more than that image is too sensitive...i don't see how the image has anything to do with black publishing today. moreover, "Afro Picks" what is that. we haven't been afro-americans since the 1970s when this photo was created. i wanted to see a photo depicted african american readers today.

moreover, it says something to me that no one at pW thought that that image was problematic until after they received some public dissatisfaction. does PW not have any african-american editors on staff?

For me it looks stupid,that's my opinion.

Dee, for the record, Reid is black.

I actually saw the cover before reading the caption this morning and thought it was pretty cool, too. However, it was disturbing to me afterwards that it was on black author "picks". Context is everything, and mixing stereotypes of black presentation with something that substantive is pretty problematic. Its like not being able to take black scholarship seriously or remove it from the realm of perceived black cultural practices/stylings.I just think that the picture ans the article needed to be two independent entities

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that cover at all. But I guess this is what happens when the clueless/uneducated begans to take part in intellectual discourse. This is very artisitic. Beautiful. Yes it would be nice to see an African American reading perhaps the woman should have had a book in her hand or her face burried in the book. Cover possibilities are endless. I think they did a good job in selecting that cover.


The labels "clueless/uneducated" are often used to exclude those who bring up troubling points about the dominant "intellectual discourse." This included "clueless/uneducated" women in the early 20th century who were agitating for the right to vote and were interrupting the "intellectual discourse" of men. When a person of color speaks from their perspective, they don't have to have a PhD in order to make a meaningful contribution.

The piece by Lauren Kelley, Pick Wig, not Afropick as stated by another post, was a featured work in an exhibition by new young artists from the diaspora that was mounted here at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History in spring of 2008. To see info on the exhibition go to For a perceptive review of that exhibition go to
The piece, and the artists, are both examples of the creativity and vision that marks the breadth and depth of the Black experience as expressed though art. Audience reaction to that piece, and others by Lauren, were unequivocally positive and most viewers of her work identified with the various meanings that might be implied by the different elements visible in the photograph.
This work is a daring take on the way that symbols of Black power, Blackness, femininity, feminism, Africa, and the diaspora can be understood by different generations and by those who come from different cultural backgrounds within diaspora communities. It is, without a doubt, a provocative piece in the same manner that much art seeks to provoke critical thought and commentary.
It is somewhat saddening to see some of the comments and reactions . Persons are free to like or dislike a piece of art, but likening Pick Wig to something akin to "voodoo" , as was stated on one blog, is deeply problematic. Not because there is something wrong with associations with voudun or with any other syncretic spiritual traditions, but moreso that the writer of that post seems to see negatives in both the photo and voudun.
The question of context is also raised, which is a fair and serious concern. I found no contradiction in the use of this image for the article in PW given its theme. The point, to me, seems to be focused on ways that Black writers maintain connections to symbolic and practical notions of personal power while continuing to have to navigate the limiting categories defined by markets and those who market.
Obviously many folks disagree with this interpretation. Regardless, I think it is an unfortunate and all to common occurrence for us to impugn the integrity of an artist because we happen not to "like" their work. The attacks from the posts demonstrates how far we have to go when it comes to principled critique, something I'm sure Lauren would have been quite willing to engage. Instead, in the all out assault on PW, Ms. Kelley becomes a casualty of a regrettable, take-no-prisoners approach.

Some people are angry about this cover of Publishers Weekly.

As a Kenyan-Canadian novelist, broadcaster and community activist (and former school teacher) who's performed anti-racist and multiculturalist work for decades, I want you to know I liked your cover choice a great deal.

The only thing I didn't like was the exclamation mark (possibly because they're so rarely used, they seem insincere when they are).

Part of the negative response to the issue may be that, in my experience, many North Americans of non-African ancestry discuss Afros as if they were ridiculous; certainly many of my students asked over the years if, "back in the day," I wore a "'fro," which I tended to regard as a silly if not a patronising question (it was posed in the same context as asking whether I wore clothing that was now deemed unfashionable; these young people were far too young to understand any of the social politics and significance of the Afro).

I suspect the tendency to see Afros as deserving of ridicule is connected to the wigs worn by circus clowns, which, combined with the cosmetically-painted grotesquely large lips, imply an origin that was anti-African (as with Blackface minstrels, for instance; similarly, the etymology of "cabal" is from "kabbalah," demonstrating the mostly-forgotten but actually anti-Jewish origin of that term).

That being said, I regard our naturally kinky hair as beautiful, and hold fond memories of my Afro pick, so the cover was a source of great delight, featuring a beautiful, elegant African woman and a fun play on words.

I'm also glad that PW chose to make a theme issue featuring books by African authors. To the best of my knowledge, PW hasn't been excluding us, either (although I'm no expert on PW). I certainly hope that every issue of PW will review novels by African writers (whether we're Kenyan, Nigerian, Jamaican, Canadian, Brazilian or American).

Good choices, PW.

(No exclamation mark.)

before publishing this type of photo, proper considerations should have been taken. Afro-American issue is not a new one. there is no benefit if some arguments are ready to be ignited.

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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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