When Ebony magazine unleashed their November "Family Issues" cover on Oct. 15, there was a deafening response. The controversial cover features an iconic image of the Huxtables, the fictional family on Bill Cosby's hit sitcom, The Cosby Show. The Huxtables' smiling faces appear to be encased in a shattered photo frame, with the broken glass layered over the face of Cliff Huxtable, portrayed by Cosby. The striking cover is beside a "Cosby vs. Cliff" cover line, which indicates that the reported feature directly deals with how the multiple rape allegations against Cosby impact the image of Cliff as patriarch of the Huxtable clan.
The cover is bold. It challenges the investment many Black Americans have in The Cosby Show, a 1980s sitcom that presented an upper middle-class Black family at a time when so few existed in the television realm. Forcing lovers of The Cosby Show to grapple with how Cosby's alleged actions tarnish his greatest creation is exactly what Ebony was attempting to accomplish with the cover. Ebony is a longstanding media titan for Black Americans, and opting to use this image in this way signifies that it's still relevant — and why we must hold icons like Cosby responsible for their egregious behaviors.
In a statement to E!, the magazine's editors said:
This is our annual Family Issue and we decided, after much deliberation, to go with a focus on what we felt was an urgent and provocative conversation happening within the Black community. It wasn't just about making a statement; the cover is also asking questions. Can we separate the man with 50 or more allegations of sexual assault and related crimes against him from the fictional, heroic father? Should we? I think it is fair to say that no matter what someone feels about our cover, Ebony is not the reason there is a shattered family image we are dealing with. This is a moment of reflection, for many Black people, a painful one for different reasons.
As for Cosby's response to the allegations against him, his lawyer issued this statement last November:
Over the last several weeks, decade-old, discredited allegations against Mr. Cosby have resurfaced. The fact that they are being repeated does not make them true. Mr. Cosby does not intend to dignify these allegations with any comment. He would like to thank all his fans for the outpouring of support and assure them that, at age 77, he is doing his best work. There will be no further statement from Mr. Cosby or any of his representatives.
Disappointment in Ebony ran rampant among those who are committed to holding Bill Cosby's artistic achievements above his alleged transgressions against more than 50 women. On social media, in particular, current readers vowed to unsubscribe from the magazine for participating in the tarnishing of Cosby's legacy.
Other commenters lambasted current editorial members of Ebony Magazine, including editor-in-chief Kierna Mayo, for using a cover image that reinforces the idea of the dysfunctional Black family.
Mayo welcomes the criticism, telling Colorlines: "We meant to provoke. We're tying to be conversation starters. This is quite deliberate. And it's the reason that we weren't leading in our language whatsoever. You can come to the image from where you are with what you have and come away from it with whatever you do."
What Ebony's Cosby cover does effectively is challenge Black American readers to question our allegiance to Cosby as well as how his legacy is intertwined with that of one of his greatest creations, The Cosby Show. None of this — asking difficult questions, gently prodding Black Americans to trudge through uncomfortable truths, poaching icons from their pedestals — is new for Ebony. In fact, it can be argued that the Cosby cover is simply an extension of its lineage.
There is no greater time than now for Ebony to be bold, courageous, and honest. Black Americans are under siege.
Ebony has been doing the difficult work of covering Black communities for 70 years. John H. Johnson, creator and founding editor of Ebony, started the magazine at the end of World War II. His initial goal was to create a publication for Black Americans that was similar to Life Magazine. In particular, Johnson wanted his magazine to reflect "the happier side of African-American life" because the impact of Jim Crow laws left Black Americans in needs of "positive images to fulfill their potential." His belief was that positive images of Black Americans could lead to legislative change, which would improve the lives of the very readership he was attempting to reach.
The inaugural issue of Ebony was published in November 1945 and sold for 25 cents. The 25,000 printed copies sold out in mere hours and soon became the most successful African-American magazine, with more than 500,000 subscribers.
From the beginning, Ebony was invested in exposing the interior lives of African-Americans, including actresses like Lena Horne, who was featured on the magazine's cover three times between November 1945 and October 1949. Scholar Megan E. Williams notes that more than 50 percent of Ebony covers featured black women during that time, which was designed to show how essential Black women were to their families.
Ebony also spent much time advocating for, documenting, and reporting on injustices committed against African-Americans. The magazine reported on the arrests of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and challenged the federal government to address grievances committed against members of the Civil Rights Movement.
In September 1963, Ebony unleashed their special issues, dedicated to exploring specific problems impacting Black communities. Ebony built its reputation on being unbowed in the face of backlash, even at the potential of its own peril. Even as the militant Black Power Movement of the 1970s arose, Ebony maintained its position by simply shifting its editorial choices to reflect the needs and desires of Black Americans during that time.
The 1980s and 1990s saw Ebony shift again, featuring rising Black singers, actresses, and politicians on their covers. For a while, there were a rotating number of Black female celebrities, like Halle Berry, Beyoncé, Gabrielle Union, Jill Scott, Queen Latifah, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson on cover after cover after cover.
Yet Ebony remains true to its mission, especially after the promotion of Mayo to Editor-in-Chief. Her second issue as editor featured yet another controversial cover. There was no image. Instead, the phrase "White America loves Black people" — with the word "people" crossed out and replaced with "culture" was written in purple and white ink. It was a gorgeous display of what EBONY has been doing since its creation: standing as a pillar of truth, regardless of the consequences.
Despite the anger about the current Cosby cover, Mayo refuses to back down. She knows it is her obligation to tell the truth, just as Johnson intended. "We won't stop being maverick because it makes some uncomfortable," she wrote. "The times are calling. Too much is at stake."
There is no greater time than now for Ebony to be bold, courageous, and honest. Black Americans are under siege. The Voting Rights Act of 1968 is being dismantled, and African-Americans are losing their lives in droves to members of law enforcement. Ebony must continue to call a spade a spade. And that is exactly what the "Cosby vs. Cliff" cover has done.