Breonna Taylor stands dignified among shades of blue and vibrant grays. Wearing a soft, flowing dress, the engagement ring she never received, and a gold cross, Taylor actively gazes back at the viewer with her hand on her slightly forward-shifted hips. She is beautiful, proud, tenacious, omnipresent, and graceful as she adorns the cover of Vanity Fair’s September issue, which is dedicated to exploring how intersecting tragedies—the coronavirus pandemic, police violence and others—are affecting the lives of Black Americans.
Despite the glorious reimagining of Taylor, the portrait felt off-puttingly familiar to me at first, an extension of this summer’s flood of impassioned but schematic calls for legal action against the police officers who shot and killed her. “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” became the punchline for quirky, viral memes and even the background music for a Tik-Tok dance.
The longer I sat with it, however, the more the cover appeared to pose an important question about the thin line between the journalistic duty to tell people’s stories and the danger of making those stories into commodities. It was indicative of an unfair choice presented to Black Americans, when so few options are otherwise available. Do we seize upon the moments to highlight, in the mainstream, the lives of those we’ve lost—especially when that highlighting can be done by someone with the stature of Ta-Nehisi Coates, the issue’s guest editor? But what does the whole exercise accomplish? If Breonna Taylor were alive, or if her death at the hands of police had not become an internet meme, would her likeness have graced the cover of a major magazine’s most important issue?
“Are you simply going to ask those who have been marginalized or subjugated to come inside of the institution and participate in the same process that led precisely to their marginalization?” asked Angela Davis, in an interview in that same issue of Vanity Fair. “Diversity and inclusion without substantive change, without radical change, accomplishes nothing.”
Davis, ironically, speaks directly to the crux of my conflict with the cover and these past two weeks: Substantive changes are slow in coming. The troubles that have long faced Black Americans are beginning to get their rightful due in the mainstream. Uprisings in Ferguson following Michael Brown’s death changed the ways in which we covered police violence and catapulted Black Lives Matter into the limelight. Subsequent uprisings nationwide have cemented BLM as a political force, one that continues to push the transcribers of history to do so correctly and with grace. But the attention, though a step in the right direction, hasn’t stopped the police violence or eliminated any negative outcomes experienced by Black people in America.
Vanity Fair’s September issue, The Great Fire, holds these lessons of the movement close. Editor-in-Chief Radhika Jones handed her publication over to Coates, who retells Taylor’s life story through her mother, and opened the door for many trusted Black voices—including Davis, Eve L. Ewing, Jesmyn Ward, Kimberly Drew, and others—to deliver raw perspectives on this current moment in American history.
Representation and visibility are tricky concepts. Race animated both political conventions. Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, a Black woman whose identity has been the subject of much debate, advised viewers of the perils of structural racism during her acceptance speech. Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the Republican stance on “law and order” during social uprisings. Ja’Ron Smith, an adviser to President Trump, lobbied for the commander-in-chief’s “true conscience” while Republican Sen. Tim Scott presented himself as the embodiment of a Black dream un-deferred.
But this doesn’t mean either party—let alone both—has treated Black Americans adequately. And despite one being significantly worse than the other, Black folks are well aware the choice is to go with the lesser evil. It’s a familiar choice, as with choosing whether to work during a pandemic or go hungry; as with choosing between saving money or taking care of your family; as with centering a major magazine around your plight or not sufficiently appearing in its pages at all.
This brings me back to Taylor’s cover. Seeing Black women, and seeing us honestly, is valuable. But the line between visibility and commodification is thin in America. Taylor is still there as a symbol of caring about the larger systemic problem of police violence against Black folks. Evoking her name and likeness in this manner is an attempt to fill a need it can’t ever alleviate. I’m not convinced that a major magazine would have loved a Black woman, who is not a celebrity, enough to put her on the cover of their September issue had her story not ended so horrifically, so unfairly. Black women, in order to receive adequate recognition, either have to be exceptional, down and out, or dead. At the same time, Black folks oft have to seize on these moments in order to illuminate the masses.
It’s all very unfair.