New York Times style connoisseurs have described Vogue Magazine as “the world’s most influential fashion magazine.” Hundreds of hopeful models starve (no pun intended) to someday grace the front cover of the magazine and aspiring fashion designers envision their collections featured within its renowned pages. Nothing less than the best in couture gowns and fine jewelry ever makes the cut in Vogue.

So, whose brilliant idea was it to stick Lebron James on the cover? Or more importantly, why was James chosen to be the first African American man in 116 years to be featured on the cover of the prominent magazine?

Granted, he’s a star athlete with killer abs, a massive Nike contract and a shitload of money. But he’s definitely no André Leon Tally, or Ms. Jay Alexander for that matter.

The recent March 2008 cover issue of Vogue has received intense scrutiny from critics calling it racist and stereotypical. The cover features James in basketball shorts and a tanktop loosely gripping Brazilian supermodel Giselle Bundchen with an animalistic grimace and ashy kneecaps. The photo is said to perpetuate the historic stereotype of the violent and predatory black man.

Ironically, the ever-so-humble “King James” does look a bit like King Kong in this picture, but the issue is not that James is replicating a pose that’s made him millions of dollars on the court. Nor is it that he’s all hugged up with a skinny, blond-haired, blue-eyed, ditzy-looking white chick. The problem is that once again, out of all the college-educated, philanthropic, debonair, brothers in America, an athlete was chosen to be the historic face of black men everywhere.

Why is it that whenever magazine editors decide they want to shake things up a bit and put a minority on the cover, they immediately turn to the NBA or NFL? Athletes have become the new faces of Black America. What else can explain why Michael Jordan has been featured on more magazine covers than Michael Eric Dyson?

It doesn’t just stop with athletes. Ask any random 15-year-old black kid who Kanye West is and he’d be able to write a 10-page essay in 60 minutes. Ask him who Cornel West is and he probably wouldn’t be able to write one sentence. Rappers and entertainers in general are another common minority face on American magazines. Jay-Z has had more than his fair share of front covers, including Life Magazine, and is internationally recognized as an American legend. The same is true for many other rappers and actors.

Unfortunately, many of these entertainers and athletes abuse their fame, falling into the trap of displaying outlandish and ignorant public behavior. Black male celebrities are not saints and aren’t expected to be, but most don’t seem to recognize, or care, that they have the opportunity to change the world’s perception of black men through their actions, and thus end up making careless, stupid decisions that make headlines.

Are the implications of American magazines true? Are the only people capable of crossing racial barriers athletes and entertainers?

Don’t get me wrong, black athletes and entertainers have opened up a lot of doors for African Americans, especially since so many of them have used their popularity to protest racial injustice. Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali are two great examples. Both have been featured on the cover of popular magazines, including Time and Esquire. These men gave hope to the black youth who had limited opportunities and resources because both athletes used their power to speak out for an otherwise voiceless community.

However, this new breed of black male superstar athletes and entertainers couldn’t care less about social justice. Give them a million-dollar shoe deal and a lifetime supply of Powerade and they’ll spend their free time hosting illegal puppy-boxing matches. Sure, most of them have made an effort to give back by creating their own “foundations” – I even got a scholarship from a well-known basketball player myself. But rebuilding a playground doesn’t mean anything when the kids using the playgrounds see their hero on television get arrested for drug charges. Their young minds immediately conclude that if the nice, rich superstar in the fly car who fixed the basketball court uses drugs, using drugs must be cool.

Magazine editors have a job to do, and this means soliciting the celebrity who can rack in the most dough from a broad array of communities. There’s limited room for black faces on magazine covers in general, so whoever is the most popular at the time will always be the token of the year.

Of course, my top celebrity pick would’ve been Barack Obama, but I guess America is just more concerned with free throws and freestyles than universal health care.

Shakira Smiler can be reached at stsmiler@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.