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?

islamandproblemof
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.

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7 thoughts on “Book Covers and the Publishing Industry

  1. Marc may be you should contact Sherman, and ask him his thoughts on the cover.I agree with you Marc I don’t understand it either.

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  2. Salaam alaikum dear sister,

    Your observation is an interesting one. My brother and I had this same discussion. I considered the cover may have reflected the fact that much of what the professor is discussing is the employment of the classical Muslim intellectual tradition in the cause of Black Americans. In this case suffering is the focus but in general a type of mastery of and ownership of this tradition has been a theme of his lectures and writings. One historic example of this type of mastery and employment was Songhay(present day Mali)as I am sure your well aware of.

    After the western academic rediscovery of this tradition in the form of thousands of manuscripts, images such as these have been used to denote the very education and Arabic literacy that has been part of the professor’s discourse regarding Black American Muslims. I think the publisher realized that there is an interest in and appreciation for the intellectual contributions of ancient Songhay (the photograph looks like the Masjid of Djenne),and that Black American Muslims and the academy’s interest in Islamic West Africa has grown in recent years. I also think the book is geared toward the university audience, hence Oxford University Press. Most university press books are geared toward the academy although the general public may have an interest in them. Allah knows best. As a side note, Luca Belis is an excellent photographer and has done some amazing shots if your unaware of his work. (Hubby might be interested too). Peace my sister.

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  3. I agree with Sami. I believe the cover image may be related to West Africa scholarship and the book from reading a few pages on google books is definitely geared towards academia.

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  4. Salams sis,

    I agree with you about how blackness is universalized under the banner of racial oppression. But I noticed that your examples could be said of AA as far as the extent to which certain groups benefitted or did not benefit from racialized/racially oppressive systems.

    The class distinctions in the AA community run deep as well and certainly cut into the racial solidarity under oppression mantra.(I think this has been the core of some people’s contention with the NAACP) At least that’s how I see it.

    AA culture is definitely something uniquely American, and to paraphrase Prof. Jackson something that arises out of the particular situation of the American tradition/history.

    At the same time, there are definitely issues that collaboration needs to be sought. On a practical level, I think it’s just particularly difficult to push for (racial) progress/equality on a wide scale without combining groups under a wider banner.

    Sorry for the length of the post. Just my two cents.

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  5. Hamza 21, you are 100% right. This is a heavy academic book. Even though it should be of interest to the public, most will struggle with it.
    Sami, so far I haven’t seen any references about the Songhay in the text, so I don’t see the linkages. I think they picked the picture because it is a stunning photo. I look forward to looking at more of his work.
    Thanks for your two cents Gazelle!

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  6. Hello all. I have not read this entire blog, but i am in dire straits. I was raised a christian. I am caucasian (irish and french). I grew up going to a Presbyterian church but would like to know more about the Islamic faith. I did not know where to turn besides the internet. Please, help me find my way. Anyone who can share a word of advice, email me at mercurianqueen@aim.com.

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