We Have September Issues: Black Women Are Covering Magazines, But Who's Behind the Lens?

Illustration for article titled We Have September Issues: Black Women Are Covering Magazines, But Who's Behind the Lens?
Photo: Ebony Magazine

A funny thing happened while we were basking in the glow of cover after cover of fashion magazines featuring black faces this September: We came across an absolutely gorgeous cover of Issa Rae on Ebony’s Fall Fashion Issue.


Stunning in a black tulle Vera Wang ballgown while striking a ballerina’s pose, Rae was the epitome of the overwhelming amount of black girl magic this fall fashion season is bringing. But while we weren’t at all surprised to see blackness in full effect on the cover of Ebony, here’s something we didn’t expect—or at least, hadn’t given much thought to—simply because the possibility never occurred to us.

When Rae, being the ever-gracious muse she is, took to her Instagram to promote the cover story and thank the many creatives who made it possible, we couldn’t help but take note of one surprising fact: Aside from stylist Shiona Turini and Rae’s go-to hairstylist Felicia Leatherwood, not one member of Ebony’s cover-creating team was black.

Now, you can debate amongst yourselves whether the fact that Ebony isn’t all-black-everything is problematic, in and of itself. We’re admittedly conflicted about it; for instance, we’re huge fans of Rae’s longtime makeup artist Joanna Simkin, who has repeatedly shared her red carpet beauty tips with The Glow Up. Hell, we even have one deeply beloved non-black staff member at The Root (though she’s still a woman of color).

But in a season where we’ve been heavily focused on Vogue magazine using a black photographer for the first time in its 126-year history, and British Vogue—now under the helm of its first-ever black editor-in-chief—featuring a black celebrity for the first time on its coveted September issue, we’d be lying if we said learning that one of America’s oldest black publications is heavily relying on non-black talent didn’t sting a bit.


For Rae’s cover story and feature, Ebony hired photographer Brian Bowen Smith and relied on in-house photo and video producer Bianca Grey and creative director Courtney Walter to produce her spread. Is it beautiful? Undeniably. These are clearly talented people, well-qualified for their jobs.


And if that grace and opportunity were regularly extended both ways, this post wouldn’t even be necessary.

But to be fine with the fact that Ebony captured the woman who famously coined the phrase: “I’m rooting for everybody black,” while using a less than even half-black crew takes a special kind of cognitive dissonance. This is especially true if one reflects on the controversy that arose in 2010, when Essence hired a white fashion director, sparking outrage and dismay among devotees of the one magazine historically devoted to black women.


And while we could point a finger at Rae for not leveraging her influence in the way Beyoncé reportedly did to ensure that a black face was behind the lens, this is not Vogue. That Ebony, a decades-long mainstay of the black community which has faced its own share of controversy in recent years would hire as full-time employees a non-black creative director and producer speaks problematic volumes; especially when we consider the crumbs we are generally tossed by the mainstream fashion industry.


This is not an indictment or debate of the talents of Grey and White. But while we’re still fighting for a seat at table, Ebony is obviously handing them out indiscriminately—which is really what the equal opportunity ethos should be all about. And that’s the rub: Because while Ebony may be setting an ideal example of how things should work, we know from personal experience that it doesn’t work equally in every direction.

If we’re not insistent upon elevating our own—not just on covers, but behind the lens and in the boardroom—how are we to demand it from others? If we can’t depend on our own publications to employ and elevate our talents, who can we expect to do it?


There has to be some standard to which we’re willing to hold ourselves—and some platforms we have to be willing to regularly extend to our own storehouse of talent while we wait for the rest of the world to recognize and reward it. We need to be able to trust each other to do that. All of which is just to say...

We’re not angry, Ebony; just disappointed.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?



This is purely speculation in defense of Issa, but it is quite possible that she didn’t use her influence as Beyonce did ahead of the shoot to ask for all black staff, because it is Ebony. She probably assumed as we all would have that the staff would be black, and perhaps was as surprised as most of us are now that this was not the case. Just a thought.