By Erica R. Williams, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
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 mis-characterization 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. The article is an obvious attempt to elevate the stature of the in-cumbent Mayor. While I am por-trayed 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.
Former first lady Michelle Obama has been the subject of caricatures where she was often portrayed as masculine and irate. And last year, a drawing of tennis star Serena Williams caused a stir when she was depicted as hostile, jumping up in a hulk-like manner after losing a tennis match.
In a recent op-ed, local political columnist, Otis Sanford emphasized the troubling history of caricatures as it relates to African Americans. He also questioned “Memphis” magazine’s lack of diversity for the hiccup.
“There are plenty of appropriate descriptors for the cover, which shows caricatures of Willie Herenton, Tami Sawyer, and Jim Strickland, the three leading candidates for Memphis Mayor. None of the descriptors are flattering, either of the cover itself or of those in leadership at the magazine who approved it,” he wrote in an op-ed column. “…but Sawyer is treated the worst. Her caricature is a throwback to an era when black women especially were depicted in cartoons as horribly unattractive and with exaggerated facial features that suggested the person is subhuman.”
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.
More local leaders have come to Sawyer’s defense and condemned the magazine cover. Leaders from the Memphis Branch NAACP said they “took issue with the cover’s insensitive and offensive nature.”
“…Upon review of this piece, all I can say is that I’m deeply upset and saddened that we must still contend with blatant racism, sexism, body shaming and an overall abysmal disrespect from some of our most trusted media outlets in this century and climate,” Deidre Malone, resident of the NAACP Memphis Branch wrote in a statement.
“I would call on them to do better and be better in order to set higher and more acceptable standards for the important profession of journalism. I would also ask that they consider the underlying messages that they are sending about these individuals to the local community and to the nation.”
Monday the new Chairman of the Shelby County Commission, Mark Billingsley, said that he won’t be silent regarding the “grotesque” cover. He urged other leaders to speak out against it as well.”
“I feel September’s cover of Memphis magazine, “The Race for Mayor” to be racist, demeaning and an effort to represent candidates as grotesque, especially my Commission colleague Tami Sawyer. This is the second time in my position as a Shelby County Commissioner that I have had to decry misrepresentations of those that offer themselves up for public service, especially as a person’s ethnicity and personal features were misrepresented.”
With the election less than 30 days away, Sawyer is moving forward with campaigning. Most recently she attended the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)’s Labor Day parade. She did post a final message on her campaign page regarding the cover.
“First, I’m a Black woman and I’m proud of that. I was taught by Black women to never bow nor break and to always stand tall. It is our lot in life. Since moving home, I’ve dedicated my life to serving and strengthening Memphis. To standing up to the racist and oppressive systems, leaders, and policies that keep us poor, lacking opportunities, and disconnected.”
The election is October 3 and today (Sept. 3) is the last day to register. Early voting is Sept. 13 through Sept. 28.