A photo in our September issue spurred a lot of criticism of Milwaukee Magazine. In a fashion story titled “A Cut Above,” a white model posed in front of Adam Stoner’s mural “Devontay,” which portrays an incarcerated black man. We overlooked the message that the juxtaposition of the model against a painting that deals with such serious subject matter would send out. Our mistake is exacerbated by the fact that Wisconsin’s incarceration rate for African American men is the highest in the country, according to the 2010 U.S. census, and double the national average. Our aim was to showcase the best fashion of Milwaukee artists and art, but we failed. We are deeply sorry and embarrassed.
Many important points and opinions came to light in the conversation that ensued. To help further the discussion, we invited a group of people to discuss the issue. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Racial justice director, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
Corry Joe Biddle
Executive director, FUEL Milwaukee
Statewide lead organizer and director of EXPO (Ex-Prisoners Organizing)
Radio host, WRRD
Milwaukee Magazine: What was your reaction when you first saw the photo?
CJB: I was shocked. I was just shocked, you know? To see the image [in Milwaukee Magazine], it just looked deliberate and flippant to me, and I had a very strong reaction to that. Like a slap in the face. That’s how I felt when I saw it.
MB: It’s tone-deaf. If you’re trying to put a model in front of a mural, there are a million murals in Milwaukee. Why pick this one unless you’re prepared to have the conversation? I think it sort of juxtaposes the white community against communities of color in a very visceral way that makes a statement that I don’t know that the magazine intended to make, but it certainly made.
EI: I heard people raising their concerns and mobilizing and organizing behind it. But I wonder, why this? When the conditions that African-Americans live in in this city and across the nation are so outlandish and outrageous, [why is it] that we can organize and come together to address something like this? I mean, it’s an issue, but is it the issue that we should galvanize and mobilize to bring attention to, as far as things that happen to African-Americans? I’m 63 years old, and I’ve lived through the civil rights struggle, and I’ve seen a lot more egregious things than this. That’s not excusing this, but I would like to see our energies and efforts mobilized and focused together to address issues far more important than this. But I do know that this was a major issue with millennials, and if they can come together and do that on social media, I would love to see us use that same platform and that energy to address and fix some of the issues in our own community.
JD: When [the mural was first painted], the artist contacted me and sent me a picture of it, and my opinion was that this imaging is something that’s a continuation that has been done throughout our history in this nation. When you think of a criminal, you think of someone of color, and this is furthering that narrative. Tens of thousands of young men were taken out of communities over a 20-year period of time, and that’s traumatizing. Those who are returning to those communities, when they see this, this further perpetuates the image of hopelessness.
CJB: There’s an insensitivity around issues that affect people of color in general, but in particular, black people. If this was a scene from the Holocaust, it would have never happened. I don’t think we would ever see that as a mural, and you certainly wouldn’t see someone posed celebrating Fashion Week in front of it. It’s just so white-privilege-y. … just the juxtaposition. I could kind of see how this would be like, ”OK, that would be interesting to do,” but you don’t do it. There are a lot of things that could be interesting to do and that could spark conversation, but we have enough respect for certain populations and certain people not to do it. But for some reason, when we do something to black people, they’re not going to say anything, or if they do say something, they don’t have enough money to really do anything. I just feel like there’s an underlying lack of human respect. Like, ”We can do this to you, because what y’all gonna do about it?”
EI: I like the magazine, but I would say the magazine deals with a segment of our population that is disconnected from the segment of our population that is struggling the most. It’s great that there’s a handful of black people who are doing fine in the city of Milwaukee, but that’s not acceptable when you see 70 percent or the majority of our community in the conditions that we are in. There needs to be more attention paid to those disparities. When you live in a war zone, I know people don’t want to hear about it; this is for upbeat people. Come on. The reality of what’s going on, sometimes people want to hear that, too. If this magazine is for everybody, then that part of it should certainly be reflected in there.
MB: It’s very white! So the perspective of white people looking at this magazine would think, “All is well in Milwaukee.” It’s not just about incarceration. When our young people are not educated with the best resources in Milwaukee, how do we expect to change any of those outcomes? How do we expect our young people to graduate – if they even graduate, because many of them, they get hopeless and give up on a system that has given up on them. And when you ask the question, “What can the magazine do?,” it’s a tall order when I’m not sure that the magazine is connected in the communities that most need to have a voice and be able to say, “Here’s what’s going on.”
JD: Start by putting some things in there of cultural significance or some of the injustices that you may have heard about or that you went out and investigated, and shed a light on some of that. Our communities are high stress. That’s what got a response to this photograph. You have people who are not getting treatment for their traumas, you have people who are returning back to the community and they’re getting younger and younger. Coming out of prison or jail, being told you can’t live with your mother because she has subsidized housing. And you’re 17 years old. It’s the only place you’ve known. And these are not rare cases that I’m speaking of. I work with these individuals returning to the community and we need to make it a more welcoming community for our citizens.
EI: I looked at the writers you have at your magazine, and they’re not exactly people who know what’s going on in the central city. There’s some great writers in our community, right? Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of them who can do some writing about our community?
CJB: I think diversity would just bring a fuller perspective. I think part of the response from young black professionals is that they do read this magazine, and that in general, we are all taking a different kind of ownership of Milwaukee. We were born and raised here. If you didn’t get this reaction from millennials or black millennials, I would be more concerned, because that means they don’t care, they’re not looking. But people reacted to it because they’re taking ownership of the city and the charge that’s been put upon us to stay here and make a difference, so we’re doing that. And everything that says Milwaukee on it, MKE, is ours, and we want to have a say in what that looks like. I think that’s where all of this is coming from. If we’re going to change things, it can’t be okay for us to have stuff like this. It happened, it’s over, I get it, but just the thinking behind it, the reason why this was able to cross so many desks and not alarm anyone, that’s the diversity piece. If you had Hispanics and blacks [working] here, it would have never happened.
MB: White people have to understand that when they read an article like this, they should be outraged, but they don’t even know what they should be outraged about. Like they might look at that picture and see it’s pretty or whatever, like that was a great contrasting photo or whatever.
EI: There was a time that we almost saw some change. We were headed toward a direction where you thought that maybe things would get better. But then, all of a sudden, the bottom dropped out and we’re starting to revert back to the way things were. So, to me, I’m glad that I had the opportunity to be a part of this and share some views that I think are hard to swallow. These are hard pills to swallow. But at least you’ve given us an opportunity and given yourself an opportunity to hear it.
CJB: There’s a lot of crap that we deal with in Milwaukee. But a lot of amazing people have been birthed out of what other people have fled from. We have some good people, some good writers who still live here, [who] I think could bring a lot of depth and understanding. ◆