Why Breonna Taylor on the cover of O is a big deal

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BY CHRISTEN A. JOHNSON
CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

For the first time in 20 years, O, the Oprah Magazine is having someone other than Oprah Winfrey on the cover.

It’s Breonna Taylor, the young Black woman who was killed in her Louisville home by police as she was sleeping alongside her boyfriend in the middle of the night on March 13. She was 26.

The Louisville Metro Police Department fired Brett Hankison, one of the officers involved in Taylor’s death, on June 23, saying his “actions displayed an extreme indifference to the value of human life when (he) wantonly and blindly fired 10 rounds into the apartment of Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020,” according to its Twitter account.

None of the officers have been charged for Taylor’s death.

Sharing that power

The platform Oprah Winfrey has is undeniable, all of which she created herself. Using one of those mediums to fight for Taylor keeps the young woman’s story a part of the larger social justice narrative, a space where Black women can often be excluded, erased and forgotten.

“Before Beyonce and Michelle Obama, Oprah was the most visible Black woman in the world,” said Salamishah Tillet, co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a national organization based in Chicago that fights against violence to Black girls and women.

“To take this moment and share that iconicity and share that power with Breonna Taylor not only speaks to the ways in which she’s actively trying to help us remember why everyday Black women are important, but she’s also a part of a groundswell movement that is slowly, but consistently, recognizing Black women’s life, labor and legacy.”

#SayHerName

Unlike past deaths of Black women who have died at the hands of police, like Atatiana Jefferson, Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland — and countless others that haven’t made it to the mainstream — there is still a lot of organizing around Taylor, and a lot of momentum still to find justice for her, explained Tillet.

There have been at least two petitions with millions of signatures; many emails and phone calls made and written to Kentucky officials; and a bail fund set up to help the protesters fighting in Taylor’s name.

“I think that’s unusual given how the recent movement has really centered around the brutal murders of Black boys and men, and so I feel like Breonna Taylor is a really propelling tipping point with people on the ground,” Tillet said.

“And in the case of Oprah, people with the biggest stage possible are refusing to let her death be unremembered and also not have justice found for her.”

Social media has played a significant role as well, with users often accompanying their cries for Black women’s justice with #SayHerName, a movement born out of Chicago activism after the 2014 death of 19-year-old Boyd in Douglas Park by a police officer.

“It took a lot of work to re-center the Black Lives Matter movement to acknowledge Black women and girls’ stories,” said Scheherazade Tillet, co-founder and executive director of ALWH, and Salamishah’s sister.

“So now you’ll see a re-centering, hopefully, with someone using their power and privilege to then re-shift and keep Breonna’s name centered.”

Speaks to others

Having Winfrey on the cover of her magazine month after month for the last two decades was revolutionary in itself.

Being a Black woman of such power and prominence is part of that, yes, but also because Winfrey’s aesthetics are counter to an industry that notoriously favors fair skin, sleek hair and tiny hips, and has been known for excluding Black women.

“I just really remember that moment because during the time, Black women weren’t really on the cover,” said Scheherazade Tillet, who is also an artist.

“But (because of Oprah’s) body image, her skin tone, that was a radical move. I remember when O came out and buying the magazine because I was seeing the iconic Oprah, but also who Oprah is as a Black woman. So, to put Breonna Taylor on the cover for the first time, for her to do that shift, speaks volumes not only to the movement, but to the ones who feel like Breonna Taylor is them.

Scheherazade also said the cover of Taylor is a game changer.“We need people who have positional power also to use whatever they can to make those who don’t have as much — the voiceless — to be front and center as well,” she said.

Her sister underscored the sentiment.

“This is what happens when that organizing begins not to just shift the narrative on the ground, but also impact the dominant media narrative.”

The September issue of O, the Oprah Magazine will be on stands Aug. 11. To learn more on how to help bring justice to Breonna Taylor, go to StandWithBre.com.

Christen A. Johnson is a features reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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