'Memphis' Magazine Apologizes for Racist Caricature of Mayoral Candidate Tami Sawyer

A magazine in Memphis has pulled its September issue from shelves after receiving backlash for its illustrated caricatures of mayoral candidates.

Memphis magazine issued an apology on August 31 after many deemed its caricature of mayoral candidate Tami Sawyer offensive. Sawyer, who is Black, is pictured with exaggerated and offensive features, along with fellow Black mayoral candidate Willie Herenton and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, the Commercial Appeal reported.

“We have received negative responses from several readers regarding the political caricature of the three major 2019 mayoral candidates which appears on the cover of our September issue. In publishing that cover, we were following a long-standing satirical tradition,” a statement from the editorial board read. “It was not our intention to demean any of the candidates or to satirize one more than the others, but we are sympathetic to the perceptions our readers have shared. We regret and apologize for any pain this caricature of public figures has caused.”

Following the apology from the editorial board, Anna Traverse, CEO of Memphis magazine’s parent company Contemporary Media, released a statement titled “We Failed Memphis,” calling the apology “inadequate.”

“This is not about that history, or about our attempts to explain why our team approved the cover,” Traverse wrote. “This is about the fact that we published a magazine whose cover image was taken, justifiably, as playing into a long history of racist, demeaning tropes, a history of marginalizing African American women in particular.”

Traverse said the company has stopped newsstand distribution of the September issue and has collected any copies that have been delivered to stores in the Memphis area. Traverse also said she had known Sawyer for many years since high school and “[respects] her deeply.”

“New to the role of CEO, following a leadership transition at Contemporary Media earlier this summer, I am eager to make changes within our company, including diversifying both our staff and our coverage,” Traverse wrote. “We aren’t where we should be in terms of representation and inclusion. We are committed, now and going forward, to being better.”

In a statement to The North Star, Sawyer said she was “shocked, disappointed, and disgusted” by the drawing, which she said “is both insulting and hurtful and represents a false view of how I am seen by my community.”

“The writing by Jackson Baker [author of the article profiling the mayoral candidates], and imagery used to support advancing racial narratives, reflects [a] clear bias against women and Black people, and is simply irresponsible,” Sawyer said. “The article is an obvious attempt to elevate the stature of the incumbent Mayor. While I am portrayed as outlandish, militant, confrontational, and combative, my opponent is portrayed as thoughtful and cautious. We will not stand for the continued, willful misrepresentation of, and attacks on, my womanhood and candidacy.”

On August 31, Deirdre Malone, president of the Memphis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Branch, wrote in a statement posted to the branch’s Facebook page that she is “deeply upset and saddened that we must still contend with blatant racism, sexism, body shaming, and an overall abysmal disrespect from some of our most trusted media outlets in this century and climate.” Malone said the “grotesque” caricature “perverts the importance and sanctity of this upcoming race.”

“The current mayor appears bloated; the former mayor is shown throwing-up gang signs, which speaks to corruption, and the current county commissioner is depicted with no hands at all, which suggests that she is powerless,” Malone wrote. “She also is shown to be unattractive, overweight and the depiction of her hair reminds the African-American community, specifically women, of the years of intentional buffoonery and ‘darky iconography’ that long plagued people of color in American advertising.”

“We don’t need to let this slide as art or journalism; we need to let the leadership of Memphis magazine know that as a city we are not pleased with this offensive symbolism at all!” the statement continued.

Sawyer, whose campaign slogan is “We Can’t Wait,” previously spoke to The North Star in an interview, where she shared her plans on what she plans to accomplish if she is elected into office. During the interview, Sawyer said that the city of Memphis continues to struggle with the impacts of intergenerational poverty and segregation. The mayoral candidate noted the widening racial wealth gap in the city and how many families of color are having a hard time making ends meet. She also mentioned that predatory businesses in the city have severely impacted living wages.

“Most of the poverty and financial challenges stem directly from families that made it through slavery and Jim Crow. Because we won’t address these issues and we won’t address the racism — explicit and implicit, especially in our policies and how we spend money in our city — it’s only going to get worse if we don’t get honest about it now,” Sawyer previously told The North Star.

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.