Book Covers and the Publishing Industry

Recently, my husband brought home Sherman Jackson’s book, Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering. This book is a follow up to Islam and the Black American : The Third Resurrection. Both books are about Black American Muslims. So why did the publishers choose this picture?

It is a beautiful picture of a West African outside a mosque with a traditional architectural style found in parts of Niger, Mali, and Northern Nigeria. But what the heck does this have to do with Black American Muslims? Is this picture saying that all phenotypically sub-Saharan African Muslims have a problem with suffering? Somehow, we are all some homogenous group struggling with slavery and racial inequality? Honestly, I don’t think the publishers thought that deep. I think they just liked the picture and thought that all Black people are pretty much the same. I guess they didn’t think that this would raise an eyebrow. Maybe this was because they assumed that the book was not necessarily geared towards an academic audience. Perhaps they thought that the general audience would not be offended by a publisher would that refused to distinguish between West Africans and Black Americans as a distinct ethnic and cultural groups. This reminds me of a recent controversy about a book with a black protagonist, but a noticeably whitewashed cover which was discussed over at Racilicious, Lying on the cover. In some ways this brings me back to a conversation I had nearly two years ago with a friend of West African descent. As she bemoaned the terrible plight of “our people,” of how we suffered through slavery, colonialism, racial indignities, and oppression, I began to interrogate her concept of collective suffering. I asked her whether ALL Africans suffered from slavery, for surely there were African slaveholders. I also said that there were African collaborators to colonialism and some African elites who became insanely wealthy. I also noted that not all Africans experienced racism and argued that in some places the power of the colonial state was rather thin. I wasn’t necessarily saying this to demolish her pan-African worldview, but to say that maybe things weren’t so bad for everyone who descended from or live below the Sahara. I guess that’s what bothers me about the cover. In some ways it touches upon something that kind of bothers me about Tommie Shelby’s arguments against a positive Black cultural identity in his book, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. He argues for Black solidarity based on the premise of fighting against racial inequality, basically what he calls pragmatic nationalism. I have problems with a negative Black identity (and collective action) based on anti-Black racism and social inequality. While race is a social construction, nations are social constructions too. But nobody would deny that Americans have a real culture and a unique history that sets it apart from let’s say Canada or Guatemala. The international banking system is a social construction, and while the value of the dollar may change and the market may bottom up, we still participate in it. These things may be even more imaginary than the physical differences that we use to distinguish lineage and social background. I do agree with Shelby that there are problems with an essentialized Black identity where we are a monolithic group without class, regional, and even cultural differences. This is why I think it is important to celebrate the distinct cultural heritages of people in the Diaspora and the continent. Unfortunately, the publishers chose a book cover that fails in that regard.