During my eight years at the helm of the City Paper editorial department, I’ve authorized a fair number of controversial covers.
There was our much derided Raccoon Stew cover from this past February, which got the lovers of those vile, rabid little beasties all in torch-and-pitchfork tizzy.
Then there was June’s cover story on the Upstate-based web series Girl from Carolina. Our decision to use a stylized Confederate flag on the cover prompted a few members of the local community to steal several hundred copies and dump them at our front door.
And who could forget that time way back in 2009 when we created a photo illustration of former U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint performing fellatio on the Washington Monument. OK. That one didn’t actually make it to print, at least not in the graphic way we originally intended.
Of course, there was also that time we ran a frosty beer mug on the cover of our craft beer issue, but the less said about that dust-up the better.
The point is, I understand what it’s like to get blowback for putting out a controversial cover. And that’s why I’m trying my damnedest to understand what the fuck the staff at Charlie were thinking with their recent Unity Issue.
From what I gather, the issue was designed to show how, in the light of the tragic Mother Emanuel shooting, Charlestonians, both black and white, came together as one community. The Unity Issue was a celebration of that, but more importantly, it was a hopeful message that this feeling can continue, that the racial wounds of our tragically shared past had finally begun to heal. But this cover, um, I can’t help but feel makes a mockery of that newfound unity.
And it only gets worse from there.
Now, mind you, the above photographs were not for a challenging essay on our past and how white Americans must learn to put themselves in the same place as their African-American brothers and sisters. The photos were not for a Vice-style satirical photo spread mocking today’s hipster Dust Bowl wear and all things roots music. They were for a fashion spread, no more no less, complete with information on brand names and where you could buy them. I guess you can call it Slave Chic.
The Charlie staff, however, did offer a reason for their fashion spread. In the intro to the spread, it is written:
On a day in early August, a crew of 20 convened in McClellanville, a fishing village 40 miles outside of Charleston. It’s a place were, it seems, time has stopped, so we staged scenes from the early 20th century. Fishers fished, pickers picked, a baptism was performed in the river. Real scenes of the past happened with one difference: desegregation.
That’s a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t change the fact that this was a horrible idea. It’s one thing to provide a dramatic imaginary rewriting of history in the hope of making us face the sins of the past; it’s another thing to create a pastoral Song of the South paradise in order to show off pretty people in pretty clothes. What we have here is a series of photos that celebrates African-American suffering and poverty and cheapens the black experience.
Although slavery and Jim Crow make up our shared past, it was a past that wasn’t shared equally, and to somehow act as if it’s acceptable to show dead-eyed white models in faux sharecropper clothing, standing alongside equally blank black faces, is a mockery of every man and woman and child who suffered under the lash.
In the right hands and under the right circumstances, this possibly could have worked. But as it is, Charlie’s Unity Issue fashion spread is a misguided mess that mangles American history and attempts to whitewash Charleston’s very real sins in a shallow glassy-eyed gloss of faux nostalgia.