And when he get on he leave your ass for a white girl.

—Kanye West

I've spent the day hugged up with Vogue — staring into its beset April cover featuring athlete LeBron James and android Giselle Bundchen, and trying hard not to be numb.

I'm trying to brush off the fact that the first black man ever pictured on the magazine's cover is not gracing it, he's debased by it. They're trying to dismiss the recent calls of racial insensitivity as hypersensitivity. And we're trying to explain why seeing a big black man baring his teeth whilst an alabaster damsel drapes his side still hurts us in 2008.

People justifying the cover choice have scoffed at complaints that the pose conjures up the crudest King Kong symbolism. But Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University, recently conducted a study on the use of animalistic imagery in relation to black men. Titled, "Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences," the study, published recently by the American Psychological Association, asserts that "subtle metaphors" connecting black men and apes can go unnoticed but still have "great effect."

"They penetrate our unconscious," said Goff, "and they end up sort of powerfully influencing our behaviors."


This image was lost some time after publication.

An eerie echo?

The country vacillates, he explained, between being too afraid to discuss racism and race to simply ignoring the problem. America suffers simultaneously, he explained, from "racial hysteria" and "historical amnesia."


So, we're sick then.

When I bought the April issue for $3.99 at the Barnes and Noble in Georgetown, I definitely felt queasy. Holding it with both hands and looking at James in black warm-ups (his own line for Nike) and Bundchen in Calvin Klein, the cover didn't seem vulgar or racist or even non sequitur — just lazy. The woman at the register sucked her teeth and tapped the magazine with her finger. "This is a really popular issue," she said. "Probably because of that photo."

"LeBron James is a beast," explained one of my guy friends, trying to justify the image. But even he agreed that coupling the animal metaphor with a white woman (yea, yea, she's Brazilian) elevates the photo from still life to real life.


Vogue spokesman, Patrick O'Connell, has described the "shape" issue as celebrating "diversity." If Vogue's masthead was diverse then maybe someone would have lifted a manicured hand and said, "Hey, guys, excuse me, but umm this might not fly with some folks."

Can we blame 57-year-old photographer Annie Leibovitz or 57-year-old editrix Anna Wintour? Had they never seen the seven movies based on the giant ape from Skull Island? Did they not know those films were about aggressive black male sexuality or did they think no one would notice?

"We fetishize the intentions in America," said Goff. "Who cares whether Vogue intended to cause harm?" The point is — they did.


"This is not about who is or who isn't racist," Goff continued. "This is about living in the United States, seeing these images, not knowing where they come from, and not knowing how to be a good and wise consumer of them."

What's more is that Vogue seemed to be doing pretty decent when it came to celebrating actual diversity. Actress Jennifer Hudson graced its cover last year.

And then there's Andre J., the genderless New York downtown diva who elevated the cover of French Vogue last November. He wore a traditional bob, turquoise trench, bare legs, broken wrist and ankle boots. He was fierce.


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Andre J on the cover of Paris Vogue.

"Most people are conditioned to think of a black man looking a certain way," Andre J. told the New York Times. "They only think of the ethnic man in XXX jeans and Timberlands, and here Andre J. comes along with a pair of hot shorts and a caftan or maybe flip-flops or cowboy boots or a high, high heel."


It seemed as if Vogue had something interesting to say about black masculinity then. Maybe it's time they found something new to say.

Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.