It’s Black History Month, and you know what that means: time to celebrate the bloodless heritage of a legacy media property. On Monday, the New Yorker trotted out old Eustace Tilley, its monocle-wearing mascot, for the magazine’s annual anniversary issue. This year, for the first time in the character’s near centurylong history, Tilley has been rendered as a black woman.
It’s a lovely cover, all kidding aside. But it exists within the larger context of a profound lack of diversity in the stable of artists that Françoise Mouly draws upon in her role as the magazine’s art director. To be clear, I don’t doubt that the cover’s artist, Malika Favre (whose mother is French Algerian), is “allowed” to draw black women. Of course she is. My question is more basic, and more broad: How many, if any, black women have ever drawn a New Yorker cover?
The answer is zero, at least for the past 15 months. With the caveat that Google is an imperfect tool for mining the demographic data of total strangers, let me offer a few statistics. Since the 2016 election, the New Yorker has published 60 covers, fully half of which were drawn by white men who are 55 or older. Of the 34 artists whose work was featured during that time, only two were black—and both of them were men.
But the covers themselves represented black womanhood with some frequency, often as a political signifier. Take, for instance, the magazine’s February 2017 cover about the women’s march, which reimagines Rosie the Riveter as a black woman in a pink pussy hat. The white artist, Abigail Gray Swartz, crowed about the cover as a gesture of inclusivity, but I’m not so sure. A white woman hiring another white woman to draw a black woman (in what was destined to become one of the most widely disseminated images of the march) and calling that intersectionality—well, that contains a very different, and much more difficult, sort of message about the “movement” that perhaps doesn’t lend itself so well to pat cartoons. Even as that cover ran, Mouly garnered widespread praise for publishing the work of (unpaid) artists, including many women of color, in Resist!, the political zine she curated with her daughter, Nadja Spiegelman.
Two weeks after the Women’s March cover, the New Yorker published “#OscarsSoWhite,” which depicts the Oscar statuette as a black woman. Mouly quoted the white cover artist, Eric Drooker, who said, “I’m glad this is finally beginning to change.” But his image, much like Swartz’s, was an empty avatar of change, which is different from change itself. Here again we see a vision of what inclusivity looks like for black women—in the arts, in feminism, and in the magazine—that the art department of the New Yorker itself has failed to live up to, not just in terms of these individual covers but much more broadly in its hiring patterns.
One thing you’ll notice if you look through the archives of the past few years is how often the magazine’s politically charged covers about race have been assigned to white artists. Mark Ulriksen got the Martin Luther King Jr. Day cover, which shows the civil rights icon kneeling with Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, in January. On Tuesday, the American Society of Magazine Editors announced that David Plunkert won its Cover of the Year award for August 2017’s “Blowhard,” which tackles white supremacy. The image shows Trump in a tiny boat, blowing into a sail that looks like a Klan hood. It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? The president alone, full of hot air, lost at sea—a tidy abdication of responsibility for white people.
Still further back, in 2016, comics superstar Chris Ware drew two New Yorker covers about race relations in Chicago. The second one, “Old Bobby Hill and Black Bobby Hill Share an Awkward Silence” (OK, it’s actually called “Shift”), seems to be gesturing—especially in its visual emphasis on sameness—to some idea about universality, or shared feelings that transcend race. But police brutality in the United States is an experience that is emphatically not universal. It is largely the experience of minorities, and that’s not something that should be co-opted lightly. While Ware has churned out more race-related covers than perhaps any other cover artist at the New Yorker over the past few years, you’ll find that the handful of artists of color who’ve been hired by Mouly are often tasked with light covers for holidays like the Fourth of July.
New Yorker covers are rapidly losing any cultural cachet they once had, with the occasional transcendent image by, say, Maira Kalman, Ivan Brunetti, or Malika Favre getting lost in all these glorified greeting cards and hackneyed, incoherent political cartoons that have become the status quo. It’s easy to buy into the fiction that diversity doesn’t matter much in such a silly, square corner of the art world. But as Mouly herself has noted, New Yorker covers are “the best-paid job” in editorial illustration. Representation matters, and maybe those dollars matter most of all.