Monkey See, Monkey Doo-Doo: How VOGUE “Honoured” LeBron James by Smearing Black People with White Supremacy & Gorilla Feces

Before and After
Everything but the helmet: LeBron James meets his doppelganger

“Vogue spokesman Patrick O’Connell said the magazine ‘sought to celebrate two superstars at the top of their game’ for the magazine’s annual issue devoted to size and shape.

“‘We think Lebron James and Gisele Bundchen look beautiful together and we are honoured to have them on the cover,’ he said.”

“But magazine analyst Samir Husni believes the photo was deliberately provocative, adding that it ‘screams King Kong.” Considering Vogue’s influential history, he said, covers are not something that the magazine does in a rush.

“‘So when you have a cover that reminds people of King Kong and brings those stereotypes to the front, Black man wanting white woman, it’s not innocent,’ he said.”

“Vogue cover starring LeBron James is called racially insensitive by some,” Megan Scott, The Associated Press

Annie Liebovitz“Lying,” photographer Annie Leibovitz’s late lover, Susan Sontag, famously said in an essay, “is an elementary means of self-defense.”

Perhaps knowing this is why both Leibovitz, right, creator of VOGUE’s controversial April 2008 cover photo, above right, and Anna Wintour, VOGUE editor-in-chief, below, both 58, have remained absolutely mute since accusations began to fly, over a week ago, that their coy image—featuring Cleveland Cavaliers point forward LeBron James, 23, and supermodel Gisele Bündchen, 27—was a less-than-subtle piece of racist indoctrination.

Anna WintourIn other words, maybe they knew that an elementary self-defense—a lie—couldn’t cut it, so they’ve said nothing. (“Time For Leibovitz To Confess” prodded Gawker.com.) This, particularly, once it became clear through a trickle on Thursday, then a flood on Friday, that VOGUE’s cover picture not merely insinuated LeBron “King” James play Kong to Bündchen’s Fay Wray—MEDIA ASSASSIN readers remember we covered this on March 20—but was arguing something far more sinister: A relationship of kind between James and illustrator H.R. Hopps’s topless-white woman-clutching, club-dragging, bloody-pawed, drooling ape, from his notorious, 1917 Destroy This Mad Brute—Enlist poster. (The image is rendered above, directly comparing it to LeBron James cover, and below on the newly-in-paperback Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality by SUNY/CUNY professors Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen.

You might say she’s “Divine Brown…”Furthermore, as we reported on MEDIA ASSASSIN when the VOGUE story first broke, but seemingly few if any sites have also done, Leibovitz and Wintour’s calculated blurring of Black people and monkeys comes mere weeks after Stanford professor Jennifer Eberhardt, working with fellow scientists from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Berkeley published a paper, based on six years of research, concluding that many Americans subconsciously associate Black people with apes.

The study—actually a set of six—ran in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology‘s February 7 edition. The monthly is published by the American Psychological Association.

Titled “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization and Contemporary Consequences,” the paper argued, apparently a little too soon, that “historical representations explicitly depicting Blacks as apelike have largely disappeared in the United States.”

An accompanying Stanford press release says that this white, subconscious, imaginary link between Black people and apes

has devastating consequences for African Americans because it “alters visual perception and attention, and it increases endorsement of violence against black suspects.” For example, the paper’s sixth study showed that in hundreds of news stories from 1979 to 1999 in the Philadelphia Inquirer, African Americans convicted of capital crimes were about four times more likely than whites convicted of capital crimes to be described with ape-relevant language, such as “barbaric,” “beast,” “brute,” “savage” and “wild.” “Those who are implicitly portrayed as more ape-like in these articles are more likely to be executed by the state than those who are not,” the researchers write.

Typecasting, yes?Good white people, whatever those are, might smugly mount that perhaps Leibovitz & Wintour should have read Eberhardt’s paper, or Ewan & Ewan’s Typecasting, before embarking on their dark journey into mass mediated racist symbolism. (Or that James, the first Black male in front of VOGUE in its 116-year history, and initially “pleased” by the cover, thinking the controversy was overblown, should have studied these texts.)

Facts or knowledge do not blunt racist intent. This is a truth daily and ancestrally familiar to Black people. Ewen & Ewen quote journalist Walter Lippmann, who “observed [that] ‘any disturbance of’ deeply ingrained stereotypes constitutes, for most people, ‘an attack on the foundations of…[their] universe.” Ewen & Ewen then add that “one of the most unrelenting exemplars of such highly pliable symbols is that of an animalistic and alien enemy ravishing a helpless white woman.”

As such, many white bloggers were initially skeptical of the VOGUE cover racism charge. (This suspicion is also wearily same to Black people.) “Vogue Cover (Mini?)-Controversy” read the N.Y. Observer‘s online space. “Media ‘racism,’” read another. “LeBron James Vogue Cover Is Racist, According to Racist People,” read another.

Let go of me, you hairy beast!!!Even mainstream sites that addressed the issue open-handedly posted comments of incredulity by the hundreds. “The only thing offensive is people thinking this cover is offensive,” said “Tom,” typically, on ABCNews.com’s “Is Vogue’s LeBron Cover Offensive?”Here’s someone else waving the race card. no wonder people have turned a blind eye to true issues of racial discrimination,” said “bree.” Both comments ran before Friday’s wide release of the Hopp’s poster image, but not long after a white art professor, James Rosenfeld, eloquently likened the VOGUE image to Emmanuel Frémiet’s 1887 Gorilla Carrying off a Woman, above. Readers were unmoved. “Mr. Rosenfeld,” said “DC,” “with all due respect, sir, you really need to find something better to do with your time.”

Even the sight of the gorilla propaganda poster left “mcgeorge” unmoved on Gawker.com. “It is supposed to represent, GERMANY, people. … the idea that it is racist is pretty laughable.” mcgeorge should take this up with Stuart Ewen, who, earlier than almost anyone, except Jezebel.com, linked the two images, arguing VOGUE’s artwork “resuscitates time-worn race hatred as a fashionable entertainment of the first order.”

Irving Penn, Ballet Society, 1948Vanity Fair, March 2006It’s also interesting: This is not the first time Leibovitz has been singled out for what one site called “artful borrowing”, but you might name biting: Look, here, at her May 2006 Vanity Fair cover portrait of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Al Gore. Now, compare it to Irving Penn’s 1948 “Ballet Society” photo of artist Corrado Cagli, composer Vittorio Rieti, dancer Tanaquil LeClerq, and choreographer George Balanchine. Anything look familiar?

America’s Meat Roundup!However, when I first saw the direct evidence from Leibovitz’s pilfering of historical sources, it immediately reminded me of another like incident, almost exactly twenty years ago.

In February 1988, Fleming Companies, a food wholesaler based in Oklahoma City, distributed a poster depicting a ruddy-looking blond cowboy to its stores. With the caption, “America’s Meat Roundup,” the poster was the lead edge of company’s attempt to market meat-eating as a patriotic pastime.

The graphic was put together by an outside agency, and all went well for a few months, until, out in New Jersey, a college student thought that the image looked strangely familiar.

Hitler Youth

When the company got wind of the rumor that their meat roundup poster was lifted, down to the pixel, from a Hitler Youth poster out of the Nazi Third Reich, the first thing the executives did was say that the image had come from a live model. So, someone floated over the original image. As you might imagine, from comparing the two paintings, here, the jig was immediately up. Fleming offered a maroon-faced apology, destroyed all the images, fired the ad agency, and made other efforts to repair the damage from this grotesque incident.

That is what Conde Nast needs to do, right now, but cubed.

What they potentially have on their hands is something that could make the Rutgers “nappy headed hoes” controversy look like a sunny day out in the park.

This isn’t college basketball players fighting Imus over ill-chosen words. This is the world’s greatest photographer making a white supremacy salute behind the back of arguably the world’s biggest athlete, employed by one of the world’s biggest advertisers, on the cover of the world’s biggest fashion magazine.

This is gutter, Five Points-level racism; worse than a politician ending a phone call with a Black supporter by saying, “Talk to you later, Buckwheat.” This is the kind of thing that ends dynasties. Annie Liebovitz needs to call in her career at VOGUE and Vanity Fair, maybe shoot some high school graduating classes for a while. Anna Wintour needs to go wherever Michael Richards is right now, and maybe let him run the magazine.

Conde Nast needs to show that the blinding whiteness that is their company is merely a temporary setback, one they can readily manage and repair as quickly as they do anything else.

What these two women have performed is a cowardly act, an indifferent, flip assault against what little dignity racism allows non-white people under the present arrangement. This must not stand or rest. When assaulted, every person has the right to an elementary means of self-defense.

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28 comments ↓

#1 Chinou Yamale on 03.31.08 at 9:53 am

You know you started something with this pic. The media is saying “the critics are outraged….”. Your the critic who started it!
So proud of you!
People shouldnt get away with negatively portraying us througout the media like that. Shame on Lebron for not knowing better!

#2 Lena on 03.31.08 at 11:00 am

This is really good reporting – both now and before the scandal broke.

I, do however, believe that VOGUE and Liebovitz will “get away with this” unscathed – unless LeBron’s legal people step up and get involved…which probably won’t happen.

I also think that LeBron’s PR team needs to get canned. This mockery was dead-on and so easy to spot. How did they miss this? Oh, yeah…that’s right, they were blinded by the VOGUE bling.

And, why the HELL hasn’t LeBron made a statement about this???

#3 Testify on 03.31.08 at 11:06 am

Great coverage. I couldn’t agree more that this cover deliberately perpetrates a vile stereotype. But the fashion industry is pretty vile overall, so I can’t say I’m surprised. And Annie Liebovitz as “the world’s greatest photographer”? Harry, you’re too kind!

#4 Ray Winbush on 03.31.08 at 2:29 pm

Excellent coverage and good insight! Like Lena asks why doesn’t *LeBron* say something insightful about this??!! Where are the Black athletes like John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Muhammad Ali and Curt Flood who were not only athletic but political as well?

Gone are the days…

#5 The Voice of Harlem on 03.31.08 at 2:39 pm

This is yet another despicable example of the insensitive ways black people have been depicted in the American media since D.W. Griffith’s racist film, “Birth Of A Nation” made it “ok”. But it’s not ok and the excellent work of journalist like Harry Allen are greatly needed to expose and explain how one of Americas biggest magazines has dealt from the D.W. Griffith deck. Annie Lebovitz spends tens of thousands of dollars to shoot Vanity Fair & Vogue covers like this and hundreds of pictures are taken to get the desired shot. I can imagine her and Anna Wintour looking through the images from this shoot to get this vile picture. I wonder what the well known Vogue editor at large and close friend of Anna Wintour, Andre Leon Talley, thinks of this?

We won’t let this one fade away!!

#6 You Know on 03.31.08 at 5:20 pm

If it bothers you, write a letter to Vogue.
Vogue Magazine. 4 Times Square, NY, NY 10036.
Or e-mail talkingback@vogue.com. Include your name, location, daytime phone number, etc.
The only way to get their attention is to have a definitive public outcry. Take it to the top!

#7 Sabrina on 03.31.08 at 6:18 pm

Harry, thank you for your thorough, scientific, timely, comprehensive, investigative analysis and expose of this visual depiction of the reminder “call to arms” for the system of racism/white supremacy. Your title, Media Assassin, is well-earned.

RWSWJ

#8 Serena Kim on 03.31.08 at 10:32 pm

“This is the world’s greatest photographer making a white supremacy salute behind the back of arguably the world’s biggest athlete, employed by one of the world’s biggest advertisers, on the cover of the world’s biggest fashion magazine.”

THANK YOU HARRY ALLEN!!!

I would be curious to know what Wintour’s best buds, Andre Leon Talley and P. Diddy have to say about this.

#9 Blackgirl on Mars on 04.01.08 at 2:18 am

Thanks for this–but I do have to say that the reason why images like this persist is because they “work” for the status quo–the majority of people respond to it on a subliminal level and since it confirms (subliminally ofcourse) their belief about race and gender, it settles them. That’s why photographers like Leibovitz did it (I doubt that she was even articulate enough to know what she was subscribing to at the time–but through your examples you can see that she, like so many others before her, are merely using images that placate the status quote. Hey, you used the quote yourself, many Americans still see as as apes–so how can we be surprised? Vanity Fair is not written for us. It has rarely ever been inclusive and it panders to ideas of white supremacy, as does our education system (and many many other institutions). In the end, when I look at the cover I am unmoved. LeBron is caught up in something way over his head and sadly, like many of us,he has no idea of his history and how it has been and continues to be institutionally erased from our memories and souls. In the very least, maybe this whole episode will aid his awakening. Otherwise, thanks for the GREAT commentary and in the end, Vanity Fair merely aired its true color(s) and that is what? White, of course.
All the best,
the lab

#10 hoodoo goddess on 04.01.08 at 5:21 am

Your words are passionate and on point in so many ways what you fail to recognize is the view of white women who have grown even more fearful of the black
and this cover serves as a mantra to help them not be scared of all that big blackness
if a 100 pound white girl can smile in the arms of the most terrifying thing that exist in their consciousness then aint life grand!
its yoga for the psyche

lebron james gets it- so if this is what it takes to relieve their fear of the black then show the beast for’um and make that monies!

anyway thats my take
it aint nuthin to call out the biggie brigade – lol

chile u know white folks crazy and black folks feed off their insanity in ways that are destroying the planet
just know that all we speakin about is energy
and energy heats
energy cools
energy creates
energy destroys

#11 Michael Fisher on 04.01.08 at 7:44 am

Good analysis, Harry. You’re on point as always.

Could you do me a favor and shoot me over some of that Brazil video footage from 1992?

Would be greatly appreciated.

Michael

#12 JDingle on 04.01.08 at 3:06 pm

I knew it!

Hey Harry,
I love fashion and lifestyle magazines and this is one of the reasons I created one. “We have to have our own things.” In 1996 or 97, Mademoiselle,a fashion magazine for 20something women, did a feature on the history of women with braids. There was no illstration, photo nor mention of black girls, nor Africa. Now I had tolerated enough from these editors, so I wrote a long letter. The following month, as if to taunt me personally, they did a feature on locks. The story started with a Pomondor, the dreadlock dog. (I was so upset I called Kierna.) The next two pages were white girls with locks and the last was Bethann Hardison. I love Bethann, but that was the black person they knew and I felt like they threw her in there to appease me, personally. They don’t think about us and when they do, it is so often skewed by monkey business.

I do wonder if Lebron was shown this inspiration. If they had the nerve to show him this image? If so LeBron, his people and Leibowitz and certainly, Wintour are bold and crazy. I have always loved Leibowitz’s work, but this cover had an ill-vibe on sight. Thanks Harry for solidifying what I wanted to ignore.

Joicelyn

#13 Kate Stone on 04.01.08 at 3:20 pm

Harry left a reasoned comment on my website where I asked “What the fuss” about the photograph. I recognize that I am one of a few who did not view the photograph as racist but rather saw it as a provocative slash at racial stereotypes. I realize, though, how this cover can be seen as racist and remain appreciative of the many who did see it that way. Leibovitz also photographed her partner, Susan Sontag, as she lay near death. Some of us thought that was going too far. As I mentioned in my post, Tina Brown caught huge flak for a cover of Vanity Fair showing an Orthodox Jew kissing a Black woman.
Controversy sells and Vogue is a business. Still, I don’t want to believe that Leibovitz personally set out to perpetuate racism and that LeBron James helped her to do so.

#14 norell giancana on 04.01.08 at 4:54 pm

Lebron James did actually make a comment about the photo pre-Army Enlistment poster debut: http://www.cleveland.com/cavs/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/sports/120626264122660.xml&coll=2
and if you’re interested in a great analysis of Lebron’s “politics” aka why he isn’t bothered at all by this blatant racism check out:
http://www.edgeofsports.com/2007-05-17-251/index.html

#15 Me on 04.03.08 at 11:25 am

If you are biased enough to see a similarity with a black man and an ape, you are racist. All you people saying, “Oh no, I saw it immediately”, you’re raciest. If no one had pointed it out, I never would have thought, “Gee… That kind of looks like King Kong and Fay Wray”. Call me gullible, but I would have thought it was a basketball player showing how tough he is. Never would have seen King Kong in there. Think you for pointing out how racist all of you still are. Quit being so hyper sensitive and trying to start trouble. Read up on Annie Leibovitz. See who she is. Then ask yourself if you think it was intentional or are you reading something into the picture that’s really something in you.

#16 Jason M. on 04.03.08 at 7:12 pm

“Everything I put my name on is going to be looked at in a bad way and a good way” James told a Cleveland newspaper, “who cares what people say”. Annie Lebowitz is a photographer who is known for her close collaborations with her subjects. Obviously no one involved has a problem with the cover. Lebron (a.k.a. KING James) is extremely intense on the court and it appears that he is bringing his emotions to the cover. I don’t think that James is an idiot who was tricked into doing something that he didn’t want to, he actually seems very intelligent and articulate during his interviews. Some of the other options for the cover that I’ve seen are very boring and this one may have been chosen for its potential controversy.

#17 Nikcole N. on 04.04.08 at 8:47 pm

Hoodoo Goddess…get a clue…who cares if whites are scared of blacks…that is their own hang-ups. LeBron is young…he just does not see things as they should be seen because of the life he lives. He is an acceptable black male. What I don’t understand is why the people that are suppose to have his best interest at heart; i.e. his family, did not say anything about this. In-terms of the people at Vogue, although I have never worked at a fashion magazine or any magazine for that matter, I have sense enough to know that it is not just two people that look at prospective photos before they get published. So why wasn’t there a break in the chain. The voice and or voices of reason or the mole to contact someone in LeBron’s camp to let them know.
For the six people who took six years to research to show that american still view African Americans as apes…really come on…you could have gone to any urban community and spent a week and base on that week have enough material to write articles for the next millenium.

#18 artdodge on 04.05.08 at 8:52 pm

I have seen no reaction to the interpretation of the club of Kultur, in the original, as the basketball LeBron James wields in the Leibovitz.

Or that the American government was so willing to openly savage German Kultur in it’s depiction of the Kaiser that Americans understood they were to dispose of their former unrefined identities as Europeans and immediately don the manufactured conformity and repression of American Culture.

Annie Leibovitz is making so many astounding statements in this photograph, and leaves them at our doors to digest.

Brava!

#19 Jason Rosenfeld on 04.08.08 at 10:06 pm

An excellent synopsis and critique of the controversy so far.
Many thanks for your good reporting.

#20 Vega on 04.08.08 at 10:49 pm

I have to say, if I didn’t work at a publication, I’d be more inclined to believe they did this intentionally. But I’ve worked as a photo editor for Vibe and Time Magazines, both of which have gotten into its own controversies for its photos. I have to admit these things are taken out of context and is always read far more than what was intended, usually intent is innocuous. I am not at all trying to play naive to the negative messages that the media has conveyed to its readers, yet the criticisms aren’t always correct.

#21 Ralph on 06.14.08 at 11:56 pm

Yeah.. it never would occur to me that this was meant to mirror Kong and Fay Wray. EVEN now seeing them side by side. This is really reaching. I’m sorry, if this is what you SEE, you are the one who sees black people as apes. This is disturbing, and ironic.

#22 Will on 04.24.09 at 9:46 am

They obviously did get away with it. Months later & nothing has changed, nothing has happened to the perpetrators. I live overseas, read lots of online papers & still heard nothing about this.

This photo IS racist.

It plays on an exisiting racial stereotype. To those that try to make us protestors out to be racists for noticing it please wake up. They are alluding to a very well known long existing stereotype.

I know both the WW1 poster & sculpture concerned, I see the massive similarities with the photo. The white woman is still a white woman yet the (black) ape becomes a black man. White slavery is a much played on fear, white women stolen by Arabs & Africans (see: apes) & can be seen again in modern films like last years “Taken”.

The photo is posed in the same way as the poster & yet there seems to be no acknoledgement of the source & no defence of it after the event.

But maybe I’m biased, I see less racism in Leni Reifenstahl’s work than I see in a lot of Liebovitz’s work!

W

#23 Peter Boulding on 08.05.09 at 12:56 am

I think the choice of the word i.)”shape” and the ii.)”(not)” are part of the message to enhance the sublimal message. i.) the words APE and the negative beside the positive You are says their true meaning. The big 87 could invoke the year 1987 the film Interacial Sex came out.

#24 DebBev on 01.11.10 at 6:54 pm

Thank you for your much needed scholarship, particularly your closing statement. LeBron and Gisele are too young to remember, many of us are not including Annie and Anna … and thousands more Vogue readers.

#25 Cait on 11.16.10 at 6:50 pm

Ummm… I obviously haven’t read the article since I don’t read Vogue, but how is the cover racist? It’s a black guy and a white girl, so what? I think people are reading too much into it.. Relax folks.

#26 Danielle on 11.18.10 at 1:44 am

Looking back on this, I’m disgusted by this bias in which you write with. If you look into something deep enough with the frame of mind you have, you’ll see what you want to see.

#27 Patrick on 06.21.13 at 8:02 pm

This is a very accurate portrayal. Lebron is a big ape, get over it.

#28 Arminius on 05.20.15 at 8:54 pm

Is this a joke the WWI propaganda poster refers to Germans as brutes not blacks!

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