If you love Black folks and Black culture, it’s impossible to scroll down the Black Magazine Covers Instagram feed without a chill going down your spine. There’s Ralph Ellison on the cover of The Atlantic. Malcolm X on the front page of the foundational Black general-interest and news weekly Jet. Aaliyah's posthumous elegance on Vibe. The singular beauty of Pam Grier on New York. Denzel on Essence. And then there are the contemporary works of art like Rihanna for [insert any magazine ever here] or a Kadir Nelson illustration for the New Yorker. Sammy Davis Jr. on GQ in 1967—the first Black man to grace this magazine's cover—in full profile, which was rare in that era, just radiating pure charisma.
GQ talked to the page's curator, Donovan X. Ramsey about the Black Magazine Covers account. He tells us that when magazines are at their best, they're essentially a convergence of beautiful imagery, design, aesthetics, storytelling and art. So naturally, as a Black journalist (check out his profile of Bubba Wallace for GQ here), he wanted to celebrate the people responsible for putting this beauty into the world—the stars, the photographers, the stylists and the writers too. Over the phone, Ramsey talked about his favorite covers, loving Black people, and how the page can be used as a resource for Black creatives.
You're pretty much a certified Black archivist now. Do you see yourself that way?
[Laughs] I don’t see myself as a Black archivist, but I’ll take it. I have a deep appreciation for Black people first and then Black culture out of that. There aren’t enough institutions and individuals that are cataloging our culture and putting it in context. If you’re a person that loves Black culture then it’s impossible to not want to do that. To not want to collect, to not want to curate. If you have the time and the resources—if you’re a person like me who also loves journalism, it’s a natural passion.
When you say you love Black people first before you love black culture, what do you mean by that?
It's very easy, in this day and age, to divorce Black culture and Black aesthetics from the actual lived experience of the people who create those things, and you see that in this neverending phenomenon of Black cultural appropriation. Where people want signifiers of Blackness or to have Black physical features—wanting to be dark, full lipped and curly headed. That is what it means to love Black aesthetics and Black culture without necessarily having love for Black people. For me as a Black person, I love the experiences and the people who created that stuff. If you think about what it means to live as a Black person with full lips, and in particular for women, right, because the magazine space is so much about beauty—there were many years when there weren’t lipstick shades made with Black women in mind. There were years when beauty campaigns didn’t have anybody with full lips, so that aesthetic that people love so much was really hard fought by nameless, countless Black women. For me everything that I do around Black culture that is around Black aesthetics has an appreciation at its core for the people that created it.
When do you think Black Magazine Covers really started to get some attention and what's changed in the two and a half years it's been active?
People started paying attention to it really when you started to see some shifts in the industry about a year ago. I think it's a few different factors acting on each other. One is the rise of platforms like Instagram has given an audience to this new generation of black photographers and they have been pushing in really significant ways for more space in the industry. They're pushing to get covers, but they're also able to share their work and build an audience. I think that’s made magazine editors and photo directors a lot more conscious of the fact that Black people should be taking pictures and in particular, taking pictures of black subjects. I started seeing a lot more covers of Black stars, by Black photographers. Being able to post and share those has given me content and that has drawn an audience.
But then I would say, most recently, with the protests around the killing of George Floyd this past spring, I’m seeing a lot more editors and industry professionals following the page. I think that’s because they’re trying to be more intentional about representation within the magazines and they’re assigning more stories that have to do with Blackness, which means that it increases opportunities for people to be on the covers, but also opportunities for the photographers.
What goes into curating the account? It began with a barrage of GQ covers—Sammy Davis Jr. being the very first on your page. When you started out you would post a collection of covers from the same magazine, but it varies more now.
There isn't a ton of thought that I put into it these days because I am a working journalist constantly publishing stuff. When I originally started the page I wanted to sort of put out a statement of what the account was about. I was thinking about the magazines that I really loved and appreciated growing up that I thought did photography and beautiful colors. So GQ was at the top of that list. GQ really sets the tone for style. So, I naturally was curious about what that has meant for Black men. So I did some digging into all of the GQ covers that feature Black men up until a certain point and published those and of course Vogue was a natural area to explore after that. But, these days, I’m really just interested in new covers. I’m interested in new magazines. I’m interested in beautiful work and who’s pushing boundaries when it comes to photography and how they’re positioning, lighting and thinking about Black bodies. I try to be as current as possible.
A big part of magazine covers is style. Have you taken notice of style trends that have changed? The things that are wack now and the trends that have made their way back into our lives?
Yeah, I mean, street style is bigger than it's ever been and that has to do with the rise of hip-hop. So, I think that whether it's a black subject or not, you're going to typically see some street style elements on the covers of magazines. But, also I think that people are really interested in small independent designers—not necessarily big brands. I think that comes from artists and models having a lot more autonomy in being able to dictate what they want to wear on the covers of magazines. No longer do you have style directors and stylists being the entire voice for what’s fashionable. I think that’s evident when you look at Angela Davis on the cover of Vanity Fair that was sort of the b-side to the Breonna Taylor cover that Ta-Nehisi Coates put together. She was wearing Pyer Moss. How dope is that? Like, how amazing is it that in 2020 you can have a magazine like Vanity Fair guest edited by a Black journalist with a Black woman activist like Angela Davis. A legend, really, an icon. Dressed by a Black designer. Photographed by a Black photographer.
100%. But, that cover had a lot of backlash. Do you have any thoughts on the backlash that issue faced?
The backlash I saw to that was basically people being like this is not Justice for Breonna Taylor. I understand the frustration behind that because at the end of the day the men who killed Breonna Taylor need to be held accountable [Ed Note: Some days after this interview was conducted, they, inevitably, were not.]. And our justice system needs to see to that. That said, Vanity Fair—the magazine industry— is not our justice system. Vanity Fair can’t hold the men who killed Breonna Taylor accountable in the court of law. But, what it can do is really what the journalism industry has done best, which is to push back against the forces that led to Breonna Taylor’s killing. It can present beautiful images of Breonna Taylor. It can present beautiful images of Black people. It can include a story about who she was told by her mother to Ta-Nehisi Coates. It can handle her memory, her image and her story with care. That’s what media is at its best. And I do think media has a place in this kind of moment in pushing for more justice.
I think the single greatest era of magazine covers was George Lois' tenure at Esquire, things like the Andy Warhol cover, theJFK covers, the Ali cover, which is one of my favorites of all time. Is there a certain era of design in magazine covers that speaks to you?
You just named it. I think that might be as good as it gets when you look at these big magazines—the Hearst, Conde, Time Inc. brands during the 1960s. I think the reason they were so good is that it was really before this era of celebrity worship. The way celebrity took off in the 70s and 80s really meant that magazines became more about putting stars on the cover to sell them. People did away with putting writers, business people and thought leaders, even models on the covers. That puts limitations on what you can do. With that Ali cover, even though you’re dealing with one of the biggest celebrities of that time, it was inspired by classic art.
Who do you want to see on magazine covers that you aren’t seeing right now?
I want to see more of Yahya Abdul Mateen II. I want to see more non-entertainers. There are incredible writers right now like Colson Whitehead. He was on the cover of Time, but, let’s put Colson Whitehead everywhere. Let’s put Isabel Wilkerson everywhere as a thought leader. Leaders like Michael Tubbs who is the mayor of Stockton, California, who is putting forward a Universal Basic Income program in the city he’s from.
Let’s talk iconic covers. What are some of your favorite Black magazine covers?
There are a few that I have actually here in my apartment. One is the July, 1968 cover of Esquire that is the companion to a James Baldwin piece where James Baldwin tells us all how to cool it this summer. It’s a group of Black men in a freezer with these blocks of ice. I’m also a big fan of old school Vibe magazines. I’m thinking about the fun and the ridiculousness of the TLC cover with them dressed as firemen. And this is after Left Eye burned down [Andre Risen]’s house. Just the balls to do that as a magazine cover. Incredible. Of course the classic Live from Death Row cover that Vibe did. The Rolling Stone Janet Jackson cover, because it’s just so incredibly sensual and she’s beautifully shot. Later we’d find out the hands covering her breasts actually belonged to the man she was secretly married to.
You posted one of Kanye’s latest covers with something along the lines of “Here’s Kanye if you’re into that sort of thing.” There aren’t any R. Kelly covers—definitely understand why, but he’s been the subject of probably a handful of great covers. Is there anybody banned from the page?
Here’s the thing—you’re not gonna see any non-Black people. You can mark my words on that. I love all Black people and for that reason Kanye breaks my heart. Kanye has not been banned because I think Kanye is really in crisis and needs help. But I do sometimes worry about the ways that Kanye is presented in media and in popular culture. I wonder whether or not that’s always responsible because I think that Kanye is unwell. The only Black people that I don’t fuck with are Black people who are harming other Black people. You can be wrong all day long. There are things that I think Obama was wrong about. There are things that Killer Mike is wrong about. T.I. is... regularly wrong. But I don’t think that any of those people have it out for Black people. Then there are people like Candace Owens who I think has it out for Black people. There is no place for Candace Owens on Black Mag Covers. I don’t think Candace Owens is interested in the health, safety and survival of Black people. You’re not gonna see Candace Owens, Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, because those are people who I think are dangerous to the Black community.
What do you think the future of the account is?
First let me say is, what I want to see in the industry is more Black editors in chief. I want to see more Black magazines. We’ve lost Jet, Ebony, Black Enterprise, Essence is struggling. For decades they’ve chronicled our experience in this country and produced stories and images that are important. If it wasn’t for those brands we wouldn’t know the history of Black people completely. In terms of Black Magazine Covers, I want it to continue to grow organically. But also I’m thinking about how Black Mag Covers can be a resource for community building among Black journalists, photographers and celebrities. If someone reaches out to you and says that they want you to be on the cover of their magazine, you can look at Black Mag covers and say, “I really like this photographer or stylist and I wanna work with Black people. Here’s a list of Black names.”
I haven’t seen a lot of Jet, are you saving all of them for the end?
Ebony and Jet are the definition of Black Mag Covers. If you go to Google and put in Ebony and Jet, you can find every page that they ever printed. Jet was weekly, so there's a lot of room to think about themes to pull out, to think about stories to pull out and I want to do something in a really intentional way. Stay tuned, I’m thinking about how to do really interesting storytelling with Jet’s archives. Maybe I’ll just do a whole Beauty of the Week.
Originally Appeared on GQ