The killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans this spring sparked a national reckoning over the treatment of Black people and other minorities in the United States. As protestors took to the streets to decry institutional racism and demand change, employees began to call out instances of racially insensitive and discriminatory behavior in their own workplaces.
The media industry in particular was hard hit by allegations of racism, both within office culture and within the content companies were putting out. Staffers at major cable outlets, broadcasters and media companies came forward to decry their working conditions, detailing instances of discrimination and harassment.
In June, shortly after Floyd was killed by police, staffers at Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, came forward with complaints about racism. Similar allegations arose in July about the culture at Hearst Magzines, which puts out O: The Oprah Magazine and Cosmopolitan.
Now, these magazines have dedicated their September issues to Black voices.
The move is particularly notable because September issues are typically the most important issues of the year for magazines. They’re typically bigger than other issues and have lots of glossy editorial shoots, advertisements and fall fashion trends. They’re a reset as consumers return from summer vacations and settle back into regular life. They’re tone-setting.
Vanity Fair, Vogue, and O: The Oprah Magazine all took a different approach to their editions.
Vanity Fair brought on American author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates as a guest editor and allowed him to curate a “special edition exploring art, activism, and power in 21st-century America,” the magazine said in a statement.
Coates, who writes about cultural and social issues with a special focus on Black Americans and white supremacy, has also published three non-fiction books that capture his experience as a Black man in this country.
“There’s no one better suited than Ta-Nehisi to illuminate this urgent moment in American history — to answer the question, why is this time different?” said Editor-in-Chief Radhika Jones. “We are honored to collaborate with him on this project, bringing together the writers, artists, and icons whose work pushes us toward a more just world.”
Coates was able to oversee nearly every part of the edition’s creation, including assigning stories, editing, selecting writers and photographers and directing the art, design and multimedia. He highlighted the work of prominent Black writers, artists and photographers, including Ava DuVernay, Eve L. Ewing, Bomani Jones and Josie Duffy Rice.
The issue included articles about the move to abolish the police, systemic racism and inequities within collegiate athletics and featured a cover with an image of Breonna Taylor painted by artist Amy Sherald.
Taylor, 26, was an emergency medical technician in Louisville, Kentucky, who was gunned down during a “botched police raid” in March, according to a lawsuit from her family. Plainclothes officers showed up at Taylor’s apartment after midnight with a no-knock warrant.
An image of Taylor was also featured on the September cover of O: The Oprah Magazine, marking the first time someone other than Oprah Winfrey has appeared on the cover since its launch in 2000.
“Only in the wake of George Floyd’s filmed execution was national attention brought to the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, two and a half months after she was killed,” Winfrey said in a statement. “Pleas for justice have fallen on deaf ears. As I write this, in early July, just one of the three officers involved has been dismissed from the police force. This officer blindly fired ten rounds from his gun, some of which went into the adjoining apartment.”
The other two officers in the raid were placed on administrative leave and the Kentucky attorney general is still investigating the case.
The September issue of Vogue centered on “hope” and featured two covers by two different Black artists, Kerry James Marshall and Jordan Casteel.
They were given “complete freedom to decide who would be on their cover, a real or imaginary person, and how that person would be portrayed,” Vogue said in an article explaining the covers.
Marshall said the figures he paints have skin so dark it’s “at the edge of visibility.” For his cover, he painted a woman standing “regally in a room” that leads onto a penthouse terrace. She’s depicted wearing a formal white evening dress designed by Off-White, a fashion company founded by Black designer Virgil Abloh.
“The point is to show that blackness is rich and complex, within the blackness alone,” Marshall said. “If you say, ‘Black is beautiful,’ you have to show it. And what I’m doing is showing it at the extreme. Yes, it is black — very black — and it is very beautiful.”
Casteel chose to paint fashion designer Aurora James for her cover. James started the 15 Percent Pledge in June to support Black-owned businesses.
“What’s most exciting to me is being given artistic integrity and being able to choose the person to be my sitter — someone who reflects a portion of my own identity — and then to do that truly in the medium of my choice,” Casteel said.
“This is the way that I speak to the world. And this is the way I’ve been speaking to the world and talking about the humanity of our people, talking about humanity in general. It’s a really profound experience. I do think I’m participating and a change is happening.”