Backlash sinks magazine cover deemed racist by many

Tami Sawyer, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

by Erica R. Williams

(NNPA)—Memphis magazine has pulled its September issue after receiving backlash for what some have called a racist cover.

The magazine featured caricatures of three mayoral candidates—Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland and former Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton.

But it’s the illustration of District 7 Commissioner Sawyer that garnered the most criticism.

After the cover was released, several people on social media pointed fingers at the local magazine’s characterization of Sawyer, calling it racist and offensive. Recently the company issued an apology in a column posted on their website titled, “We Failed Memphis.”

“Being a print publication, a certain number of copies already exist in the world. We have, however, halted newsstand distribution of the September issue to as many retail locations as possible,” said Anna Traverse, chief executive officer of Contemporary Media, the parent company of Memphis magazine.

“I took the step as soon as Ms. Sawyer and I spoke on Friday afternoon,” Traverse wrote. “By now, we all know what the cover looked like and what effects it has had, the image has been removed from this website and will never go back up.”

Before the apology, and almost immediately after the cover was released, Sawyer issued a statement regarding the depiction.

“I’m shocked, disappointed, and disgusted by the egregious mischaracterization of my personhood and continued inaccurate reporting by Contemporary Media and other Memphis news outlets on my background, activism, and values. The caricature (reminiscent of Jim Crow era cartoons historically used to demean and demoralize African Americans) printed in the September issue of Memphis Magazine is both insulting and hurtful and represents a false view of how I am seen by my community.”

Sawyer also took issue with the article that accompanied the illustration, calling it an attempt to support her opponent.

“The writing by Jackson Baker and imagery used to support advances racial narratives, reflects clear bias against women and Black people, and is simply irresponsible. While I am portrayed as outlandish, militant, confrontational, and combative, my opponent is portrayed as thoughtful and cautious. We will not stand for the continued willful misrepresentation of and attacks on my womanhood and candidacy.”

While caricatures are often used in political satire and are meant to exaggerate the subject’s features, many drawings featuring Black women have sparked controversy as critics argue that they feed into negative stereotypes.

The cover art comes from longtime contributor to Memphis magazine, Chris Ellis who has defended his illustration while also criticizing Sawyer. On Facebook he referred to the mayoral contender as “the black female who was monstrously obese.” He also added that he had submitted several versions to the magazine’s editor, art director and publisher who approved his work.

(Special to The New Tri-State Defender)


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