Crisis magazine covers had a revolving tendency of portraits of women, mothers, children, and all gaggles of people in finely trimmed suits. Why did they focus on aesthetically pleasing items?
Because these images gave off a clean feeling, that they were pure and untainted, that they had beauty.
So why was there this focus on beautiful things?
Because, beautiful things are world shattering! They destroy thoughts and keep gazes steady as all try to understand! And all that is left are bystanders gazing upon its visage, breathless in awe. It’s a way to scream at someone that beyond all their hang-ups and biases, they still enjoy looking at something beautiful and wanting more from that very same image.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the idea of a beautiful negro woman was completely undeveloped. Most depictions from that time period were caricatures that racists mocked and laughed at, used as further fuel that both sides were too physically incompatible with one another to ever truly see peace. Photos were none the better. A typical complaint from Du Bois, quoted from ‘Painting Between the Colored Lines (Page 80)’, went as such:
The average white photographer does not know how to deal with
colored skins and having neither sense of the delicate beauty of tone nor
will to learn, he makes a horrible botch of portraying them.
The white photographer of that time period does not know what makes a negro beautiful, they only know what they think a negro should look like. The people who do know the beauty of the negro would be the negro themselves. He bemoans that not enough black photographers existed to express the beauty of the natural black man or woman. With no good representation depicting the negro’s likeness, the heart of the public beated out fear.
It would be impossible to verbally disprove these notions, so instead, Crisis magazine chose to redirect their arguments into their cover pages and printed out beautiful topics.
They explored beauty from all avenues, from the untainted beauty of children, the wistful glances of a woman, the pure heartedness of mothers that care, the valiant bravery of soldiers, the serene winds of nature, the professional allure of a man in a suit, and the divine grace of saints in relation of religious holidays. These are all things a white man or woman could be similarly depicted in, and by using a negro as the topic of such pieces of beauty, Crisis magazine tries to establish a common ground in which both sides are equal and both sides radiate beauty.
It’s not just to equalize the viewpoints of the white populace, but these beautiful covers appealed and worked to change the perceptions of their primary audience, the negro community. They wanted their covers to uplift all their readers on what beauty is, and to reiterate an earlier point, they can be as beautiful, if not more, than a white man or woman in any scenario.
As Enter the New Negro puts it (page 631), the negro community set themselves off to completely redefine what it meant to be black. Though this led to a paranoia that they could not have any relation to the old stereotypes and their old image. This comes to a head where Crisis magazine posted the cover “Women of Santa Lucia”, and met with backlash from their readers, fearing that it fed into the old stereotypes too much.
Du Bois thought differently, as sourced from ‘Printing Between the Colored Lines(Page 82)’:
Our photograph of a woman of Santa Lucia, with its strength and humor
and fine swing of head, was laughed at by many.
The team at Crisis magazine found the covers to be beautiful as well in their own way, as a stand of pride and what a proud black woman looks like. That their struggles didn’t weaken them, but made them tougher.
Though perhaps the backlash had proven too much, and in favor of not rocking the boat too much, they opted to aim for a more standardized idea of beauty in the covers thereafter.
In conclusion, they wanted their covers to catch the eye of all those who saw them and change their minds because they found: all is equal in the eye of beauty.
HARRIS, D. O. N. A. L. D. (2019). Printing the Color Line in The Crisis. In On company time: American modernism in the big magazines (pp. 80–82). essay, COLUMBIA UNIV Press.