Magazine Covers in 2020 Have Featured Black Subjects Three Times More Than the Previous 90 Years

(Courtesy: The Magazine Innovation Center at the School of Journalism and New Media at The University of Mississippi)

By:  and Today, a first-time visitor to a newsstand would see something long-sought: a mainstreaming of Black people into American life.

In the 90 days following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, mainstream magazines celebrated Blackness on their covers about three times more than in the previous 90 years combined.

It could be said that general interest magazines, like motion picture and network entertainment programming, have historically failed to embrace America as a diverse nation. A case in point: It was not until 1930 that Time featured a Black person on the cover; Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, who was also the news magazine’s Man of the Year (later changed to Person of the Year).

This ignoring of people of color occasionally rose to levels of insensitivity. On its June 27, 1994, cover, Time featured a digitally manipulated Los Angeles police booking photo of the most famous murder suspect of that decade, O.J. Simpson. On an inside page, the magazine correctly labeled the image an “illustration,” but the artist had darkened Simpson’s skin and made him appear unshaven and blurrier.

James R. Gaines, Time’s managing editor, was quoted in The New York Times afterward. Gaines said he wanted to create Time covers that were “in some way iconographic. … That said, I’ll be a little more careful about doing portraiture or photo illustration on very tight deadline, which was the case here.”

Cover designs in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, which was recorded by a bystander and shown worldwide, were clearly more careful, even intentional. These covers suggest a revolution taking place in the world of magazines, among the most significant transformations editors and publishers have delivered to their readers since the industry was born.

Our research found that each and every one of the 126 covers published in 2020 that featured Black subjects showed them in a positive and uplifting light, whether they were ordinary Americans like the couples on the covers of Psychology Today and Southern Bride, or celebrities and politicians like those on the covers of The Week Junior, Time and BookPage.

Ben Cobb, co-editor of Love magazine, stopped short of calling what has occurred in the industry a revolution, but he said the change is definite and said the cause was the combination of the pandemic, quarantine and police violence involving Black women and men.

“March to June,” Cobb said. “Four months that saw humanity brought to its knees — the global economy eviscerated, sovereignties shaken, bronze gods toppled and (ending) 400 years of black oppression at the top of every agenda. So f—— monumental. Maybe 2020 wasn’t so bad after all.”

Just three years ago, a study conducted by the Color of Change organization and reported in The Washington Post in December 2017 concluded that “if all you knew about black families was what national news outlets reported, you are likely to think African Americans are overwhelmingly poor, reliant on welfare, absentee fathers and criminals …”

Before this year, in-depth examinations of the failure of America to deliver on the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equality were not uncommon in the print industry. Add to that the 1968 Kerner Commission finding that Black Americans have consistently experienced a lack of coverage, endured negative stereotypes and framing that further marginalized Black communities.

But Floyd’s death, which triggered loud and long protests in the United States and elsewhere, brought wider consciousness to America’s generational dehumanization of Black citizens. Today, a first-time visitor to a newsstand would see something long-sought: a mainstreaming of Black people into American life.

The nation has seen hundreds of Black publications fight the consistent marginalization. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was also a magazine publisher, advocating for the rights of Black Americans in part to counter negative coverage by white publications. Douglass himself was a barrier-breaker, appearing on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1883.

There are, of course, well-known modern Black magazines. Editions of famed publisher John Johnson’s Ebony and Jet magazines offer political content, focused on civil rights, but also telling the true stories of Black citizens who have been successful in varied walks of American life.

For non-ethnic publications, there were about 40 total instances since the Selassie cover that showed Black subjects as respected, celebrated or as everyday Americans. In recent months, in what may be a new normal, Black subjects — both as personalities and models — have been on the covers of 126 magazines.

It’s not just the covers that are embracing diversity. Content between the covers reflects a new or heightened awareness and could be defined as part of this revolution.

An editorial in Bust Magazine has only three words, “Black Lives Matter,” repeated on the page, followed by “Vote, Vote, Vote,” and signed by Debbie Stoller, the magazine’s editor-in-chief.


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