How ridiculous that Vanity Fair went so long without hiring a Black photographer for the cover. It’s an embarrassment, but sadly not a surprise. It took Vogue until 2018 — and while one could argue Beyonce’s creative input is the only reason that happened, the point remains that when the tortoise Vogue is beating you to the punch by two freaking years, you know you’re inexcusably behind. Radhika Jones tried to mitigate it in her editor’s letter with some math: There were only 17 covers featuring Black people in the 35 years before she took over, and she has done almost as many in only two and a half years. That’s progress, for sure, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the magazine still hadn’t hired a Black photographer for its showcase. There isn’t math that can mitigate that. Dario Calmese was RIGHT THERE, too. He has worked for Vanity Fair before. Look at these 2019 Billy Porter shots. It’s insane that he wasn’t given a cover opportunity sooner, and he’s far from the only talented Black artist out there who would have delivered a knockout. (That’s especially relevant, too, in the wake of the Simone Biles Vogue covers shot by Annie Leibovitz, which smarter, savvier voices than mine criticized for its poor lighting; that also added a chapter to the overdue and increasingly prevalent discussions about the treatment — and lack of understanding — of Black people when it comes to, to name just one example, hair and makeup in Hollywood.)
What a debut this is, though. Viola Davis must be a photographer’s dream. And Dario knew he was making history, and he stuck the landing. He gave a terrific interview to The New York Times about it. His influence was an 1863 portrait called “The Scourged Back,” of an enslaved man named Gordon who escaped a Mississippi plantation.
“It’s about replacing the images that have been washing over all of us for centuries, telling us who we are and our position in the world and our value,” Mr. Calmese said. […]
“For me, this cover is my protest,” he said. “But not a protest in ‘Look at how bad you’ve been to me, and I’m angry, and I’m upset.’” Rather, it’s: “I’m going to rewrite this narrative. I’m just going to take ownership of it.”
If you are a subscriber, click and read the entire thing.
As for Viola… I mean, she’s incredible. I could quote this entire piece. I won’t; it’s not behind a paywall, so you can devour every word she says. But I mean:
“When I was younger,” says Davis, “I did not exert my voice because I did not feel worthy of having a voice.”
It was the support and affection of people who knew she was worthy that lifted her out of what she calls “the hole”: her sisters Deloris, Diane, and Anita, and her mother, Mae Alice. “[They] looked at me and said I was pretty,” she says. “Who’s telling a dark-skinned girl that she’s pretty? Nobody says it. I’m telling you, Sonia, nobody says it. The dark-skinned Black woman’s voice is so steeped in slavery and our history. If we did speak up, it would cost us our lives. Somewhere in my cellular memory was still that feeling—that I do not have the right to speak up about how I’m being treated, that somehow I deserve it.” She pauses. “I did not find my worth on my own.”
In school, Davis learned the accepted version of American history, which only raised more questions. “I was taught so many things that didn’t include me,” she says. “Where was I? What were people like me doing?” One summer when Davis was a teenager, a counselor at Upward Bound heard her and her sister repeating what they’d learned: that the slaves were illiterate. He hauled them to the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in Providence and showed them microfiche of the Black abolitionists to inspire them. “We sat there for hours and we cried,” says Davis. “We cried the entire time.”
There are a great many disservices we’ve done to kids in this country, but high among them is the way history is taught — and not taught. There’s a lot more in here, and more stunning art. Do yourself a favor and spent your Tuesday with Viola and Dario.