Vanity Fair’s September issue is all about art, activism and power in 21st-century America, and a portrait of Breonna Taylor — by Amy Sherald, the artist who immortalized Michelle Obama — adorns the cover.
Inside, the cover story by guest editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, “A Beautiful Life,” retells the story of Taylor’s life and her death at the hands of local police in Louisville, Kentucky, through the eyes and voice of her mother, Tamika Palmer.
Taylor is the 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician who was asleep in her apartment in March when a gang of Louisville Metro Police broke down the door and charged in with a hail of gunfire.
Taylor was killed; her boyfriend, who thought he was protecting them in an armed home invasion, was not hurt but exchanged fire with the police. One police officer was shot with non-life-threatening injuries. Taylor was shot five times.
Taylor has since become one of the most well-known faces of the national outpouring of outrage and protests over continuing police violence, especially against African Americans and other people of color.
Taylor has already graced Oprah Winfrey’s O September cover, marking the first time in 20 years that Winfrey is not on the cover of the monthly. The special issue of O is focused on anti-racism and white privilege. The magazine also announced it will be erecting 26 billboards in Taylor’s honor across her hometown of Louisville.
This and the Vanity Fair cover has led to some pushback on Twitter from users worried about the “commodification” of her image.
“The Amy Sherald portrait is beautiful but I continue to be deeply deeply uncomfortable with the commodification of Breonna Taylor,” tweeted Laura McFadden.
“I love seeing #BreonnaTaylor highlighted on the cover of magazines. I just hope that America will love Black women just as much while we are living,” added Minda Harts.
“The aestheticization of #BreonnaTaylor is unacceptable,” tweeted Legacy Russell. “It is not radical to make her image decorative. There is a complex art/history re: decorative concealing violence. Are beautiful images dignity—or justice? Is her family being compensated for the use of her image?”
But plenty of tweets also supported the Taylor cover.
“People are condemning the Vanity Fair Breonna Taylor issue, and some people are saying it’s for clout, when her own mother is on there speaking about her life and death. Is that not them using their platform to amplify the cause for justice?,” asked Woke.
In a series of interviews with Coates, Palmer attempts to illuminate her daughter’s life by sharing intimate details about who Taylor was, and who she hoped to become.
The opening of Coates’ story sums up the case succinctly, contextualizing the rage in the community over what happened to Taylor and why no one has been charged to this day.
“Shortly after midnight March 13, strangers shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her own home. The strangers claimed to be investigating a drug case. The strangers found no drugs in Breonna Taylor’s home. The strangers left their incident report almost totally blank.”
Equally infuriating is what happened when Palmer rushed to her daughter’s apartment after learning of the shooting. She was misdirected to a hospital, she waited hours, she returned to the scene, she waits some more.
Authorities won’t tell her anything, won’t tell her where her daughter is, won’t let her in the apartment. Palmer was even led to believe that her daughter might still be alive.
“It’s about 11 in the morning when the officer comes over and says that they are about done and they are wrapping up, and we will be able to get in there once they are finished. I say, Where’s Breonna, why won’t anybody say where Breonna is? He says, Well, ma’am, she’s still in the apartment. And I know what that means.”
Sherald has become one of the best-known contemporary American artists by documenting the contemporary Black experience through what art lovers consider luscious, otherworldly paintings.
She vaulted to national fame in 2018 with her portrait of Obama, which now hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington and continues to delight and awe viewers young and old.
Sherald calls this cover portrait of Breonna Taylor a contribution to the “moment and to activism.” The image contains painstaking, heartbreaking details, including a gold cross chain necklace, and the engagement ring Taylor would never get to wear.
This latest Taylor cover comes as multiple major magazines, owned and staffed largely by white people, have moved to look more closely at the Black experience in America and at why they’ve alternately ignored it or appropriated it over the last 100 years.
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