Just hours after it surfaced online, it’s impossible to scroll through a Twitter or Facebook feed without seeing the cover of the latest issue of Ebony. It features a literally shattered photo of the Huxtables—the beloved fictional family that showed the world that black families can live (and thrive) outside the projects of Chicago—in the wake of creator Bill Cosby’s ongoing rape scandal. The image has stirred up applause, nostalgia and even anger:
Now THIS is how you make a statement without saying a word. Powerful. https://t.co/Axql3n9OJ8— Pamela Jones (@goodnewsgoddess) October 15, 2015
I am disturbed that Ebony Magazine would release such a controversial magazine cover that disrespects Black culture! pic.twitter.com/rgU4NOT5h5— Vernon Wes (@ProdigyofHim) October 16, 2015
People more upset over Ebony’s cover than Bill Cosby being a serial rapist for the past 5 decades.— Jai Sophrosyne (@JChiron18) October 16, 2015
And we’re gonna let them finish, but first we went to Ebony’s editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo to find out from the source exactly how this cover made it to newsstands, why she and her team think it’s important to challenge the notion of respectibility politics and why she hopes people will actually read the cover story.
Why did you decide to explore the state of the Black family in this issue?
Mayo: I wouldn’t define it as the state of the black family issue per se, but it is a look at the black family. Every November for quite a few years now, it has been the tradition that we turn the focus on family for this issue. And being new to this editorship and constantly thinking about what we can do that is provocative and intelligent and unique, I was kind of at a loss. It was really confounding in a way, because when we sat down to talk about which black family really embodies what we wanted to say, many of the families that we wanted to reach out to were not available. We were faced with a situation where we could keep going in the more traditional direction, which would have been a celebrity cover in the classic sense, but one of my top editors, S. Tia Brown, suggested that we do “The Cosby Show.” And it immediately resonated. It really stopped me in my tracks.
Once I heard Tia say that, it sparked something in me that, you know, it just stuck and we kept going. We wanted to talk about respectability, and where we are as a community with this notion of perception. We wanted to be able to have a contemporary conversation about how people genuinely feel about the Cosby allegations, and it was a family issue. So things just came together and it all seemed to make sense. And then from there, we had lots of conversations within the staff and with my superiors as well, because it’s not something that we took lightly at all.
I haven’t slept in two days. Even before we dropped this, I had that knot in my stomach because I connect with black audiences. And it is not lost on me, or anyone at Ebony, that this is sensitive and that we care. We care in a different way and we’re fragile in a different way and are entitled to that fragility. But, we believe that it is past time to have an honest conversation about many of the things that this incident serves actually as a metaphor in our own families, in our larger families and in what we exalt as the perfect family.
Why do you think it’s provoking so many wide-ranging reactions?
Mayo: The image of the original “Cosby” show cast is not nearly what people are reacting to. They are reacting to the fracture on top of that image, I would argue. We’ve all looked at that image of the Cosby show hundreds of times as African Americans. That in and of itself isn’t what makes this a story. And I don’t think it’s why you’re’ interested in talking to me. I think it’s the statement we made that people are reacting to and that people are curious about. We deliberately did not use any language that we felt was jarring or especially sensational, as many coverlines are. You know, that’s what they are designed to do. But in this case we simply simply let our audience sit with this idea of a fracture over this iconic family that so many of us truly revered, and some still do revere. We wanted to ask the question: “Can we separate the man from the art?” And that’s what we do inside, with the story. And I really invite readers to not just react to the cover, but to take in the reporting as well.
Has the reaction been surprising?
Mayo: I can’t say that I’m surprised. I think maybe the volume is surprising to me, though, that there’s this level of conversation on either side. I’m hearing from hundreds of people with this refrain of gratitude that we’re pulling back the curtain on these things that we need to discuss. We absolutely have to talk about female victimhood. We absolutely have to talk about fallen icons. These are important conversations. We need to talk about respectability politics and the role that it plays in our community and whether or not it’s a safe idea as we move into the future. Is it intelligent to presume that if we just button up tight enough, or if we just don’t air our dirty laundry, or if we just don’t name our kids “Janiqua,” or if he would just pull up his jeans that somehow we can eradicate this oppressive racism that we all endure on various levels, from the microaggressions all the way to the very direct violence, nine people killed in a church, kind of way.
I’m saddened that so many people are angered by this as opposed to challenged by it. We in no way, shape or form meant to offend. We meant to provoke. We’re tying to be conversation starters. This is quite deliberate. And it’s the reason that we weren’t leading in our language whatsoever. You can come to the image from where you are with what you have and come away from it with whatever you do. But I can guarantee you that if engage the magazine and you read Goldie Taylor’s reporting, you will really be impressed and, I think, challenged to think about things in a new way.
What do you hope readers will ultimately take away from, not just the story, but the issue?
Mayo: There’s so much more in the issue than just this. I’m excited that there’s this level of conversation, but I don’t want the brilliance throughout the issue to be eclipsed. We’ve got a fantastic piece on coming out at home in black families. I mean, how sensitive is that? It’s really loving and uplifting. And we’ve got a photographic retrospective on the Obamas. We looked back at seven years of photographs and Rembert Browne is the writer. Black families are layered, we are complex, we are broken in some ways and we are whole in others. We’re just here to talk about it. People have said, “You’re so fearless and Ebony is so fearless.” But it’s not that we’re fearless, it’s that we’re willing to confront our fears.
The November 2015 issue of Ebony is now on newsstands, and you can read an excerpt of the cover story on Bill Cosby and “The Cosby Show’s” legacy at Ebony.com.