Philadelphia Magazine, an unconscionable cover, and me
Nearly a month ago Joel Mathis of Philadelphia Magazine interviewed me for a Q & A to appear in the November edition of the magazine. We talked about my novel (Ink), the Latino communities of Philadelphia, immigration advocacy and the increasing visibility of AL DÍA as a dual language news media organization. Today, I asked for that interview to be killed.
Here's the backstory.
Philly Mag's most recent issue's cover was revealed Sept. 28. It immediately caused an uproar because in a majority minority city, the cover photo for a story that purported to show city parents "how to get your kid a great education without moving to the 'burbs" showed seven school age children, none of them Black.
A lot of people were incensed by it (me included) and rightfully so since the magazine had already once before run seriously afoul of the city's communities of color by running a fear-mongering cover story, "Being White in Philly." (Our editorial response to that cover story is here.) At that time the magazine's leadership made a commitment to the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists that it would diversify the newsroom and the PABJ offered to help them identify potential hires.
This time, the apologies were issued quickly by editor Tom McGrath, as well as other editors and writers at the magazine, but people were having none of it.
It was clear to all that the photograph would never have been published if the newsroom had included some editors of color, or if the magazine had a better history of routinely writing about people of color in the city. At AL DÍA we casually dipped into our photo archives and came up with a bunch of photos that show the diversity of students at Philadelphia schools in a mere five minutes. I made the content producer pare them down to a manageable eight (here is my favorite of the ones she chose).
Then, yesterday afternoon, the PABJ issued call for McGrath to be removed as the editor of Philadelphia Magazine, stating that "It is clear that Philadelphia Magazine will not change until it hires leadership that truly cares about diversity rather than leadership that apologizes for the lack of it whenever it is 'called out' by the community." We published a piece with the PABJ's full call as soon as we received it.
And that is what prompted me this morning to send McGrath an email asking to withdraw my Q & A scheduled to appear in the magazine in November. I include it here, in it's entirety:
Not too long ago I was interviewed by Joel Mathis for a Q & A to appear in the November issue of Philadelphia Magazine. I was also photographed by the very talented Claudia Gavin, who managed to get a great photo of this aging, cantankerous and decidedly bookish Latina. It was a good experience altogether, and I was gratified to think that by it more people might learn about the good work AL DÍA News Media is doing, about the growing Latino community in Philadelphia. And also, selfishly, about my novel (an immigration-based dystopia which is seeming less and less far-fetched).
In addition to those considerations, I agreed to be interviewed (despite the fact that AL DÍA has called out Philly Mag for your "Being White in Philly" story and for instances during the mayoral primary when we felt the one Latino candidate was slighted or treated differently than the other candidates) on the strength of the respect I have for many of the journalists that write for your magazine.
But I was appalled by the recent cover showing only white (or white-appearing) school kids in an issue about Philadelphia schools. I later heard that one of the children was Middle-Eastern and another one Latino, but that didn't mitigate the fact that in a city that is majority African American there wasn't one Black child depicted on the cover of the only magazine that has Philadelphia as its flag.
I am hyper aware that Latinos/as (especially light-skinned Latinas like me) are more frequently seen on TV, in magazines and in the media generally. There is colorism in the Latino community as well as in the Anglo community, and it is something we at AL DÍA work hard to address and challenge. I feel a strong sense of solidarity with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (our communities face many of the same challenges and the coverage we receive from media outside of our own is both one-note and mostly wanting) so much so, in fact, that when I learned that PABJ had long been asking the AP to change the stylebook to cap the B in Black, I preemptively made a change to AL DÍA's in-house stylebook.
While I might not, personally, call for your dismissal as editor (as the PABJ has) I understand perfectly the frustration and anger that has led to the call. I strongly support efforts of a community injured by actions, words and images (intentionally insulting or not) to define the terms on which redress can be made. This has been the genesis of our back and forth with Stu Bykofsky at the Daily News about his repeated choice to use the word illegal and illegals to describe the undocumented community, despite members of the undocumented and Latino communities repeatedly telling him it is a slur.
In any case, this is a long message to say I cannot, in good conscience, agree to appear in Philadelphia Magazine until PABJ's concerns are addressed in a way the organization and the community it represents finds satisfactory. I ask you to please withdraw the Q & A with me that had been scheduled to appear.
Thank you for your understanding about this decision.
Still with me after all that? (Yes, I'm as long-winded in my emails as in my columns.)
McGrath replied quickly and cordially, but said no, he wouldn't be pulling the Q & A ... because it wasn't by me, but about me. And I guess I get it, though not easily and not comfortably.
So. I'm here on the Saturday afternoon of the first weekend off work after the 24/7 craziness of the papal weekend, thinking about journalism instead of writing fiction (which is what weekends are for, folks). And I'm thinking about how heartbreaking each of these utterly dissimilar forms of writing can be — one because more often than not it calls on us to document the real wounds we human beings inflict on one another; the other because it cannot help but be fiction, and its trajectory is as easy to resolve as putting a period on a sentence and calling it done.
No matter how terrible the dystopia my novel describes, or how great the odds stacked against the protagonists in my short stories, what pulls the characters through is always community. There are no individual heroes, but people working together — across cultural, ethnic, racial and language divides — to rescue/hold onto/bring about what is decent and good, and so often imperiled or forgotten or neglected in their worlds.
Sometimes I even dare imagine it is that way in the real world. But not today. And not tomorrow. And I am reminded how so many of the Latinos I know in the city (documented and undocumented, struggling and more comfortable) answer the casual ¿Cómo está? (How are you?) with "Pues, aquí, en la lucha" (Well, here, in the fight).
Because it is a fight. Every day. And we're here. Let's be in it together.