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Beyoncé, Vogue and historic blackness

Breaking through barriers: Beyoncé is only the second black woman to grace the cover of the September issue of Vogue, and the first for 29 years after Naomi Campbell, but even this achievement is trumped by 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell as the first black photographer entrusted to shoot the iconic magazine’s cover

When I saw Beyoncé on the cover of Vogue’s September issue, a different excellent black woman came to mind. “The times, they are a-changin’,” Nina Simone sang in 1969. The song was written by Bob Dylan, but no one sang it so well as Simone.

The image didn’t just feature a black model; it was captured by Tyler Mitchell, a black photographer, the first in the history of Vogue covers. It was thrilling to see that the times are a-changin’ still.

This image is history, and not just for the selection of Mitchell. The blackness of this art, art capable of being created only by a black photographer, pays historic tribute, too, to all the women of our community’s past who never could have dreamt of a cover.

It has been a long time coming, and it should be embraced, this unique moment 126 years into Vogue’s legacy.

Mitchell’s cover — a collaboration among him, Condé Nast’s corporate creative director Raúl Martínez, who suggested Mitchell to Beyoncé, and Vogue fashion director Tonne Goodman — brings a striking freshness to Vogue.

Beyoncé sits on a low stool in front of a crisp white sheet. On her head, there is a baroque flower arrangement. She poses in profile.

I so admire the photograph — shot out of doors, the white sheet serving as an al fresco studio.

How brilliant is this young man, at 23, to capture Beyoncé’s beauty in this way.

But as captivated as we are by our subject, we are equally drawn to the expanse behind her.

With that immaculate sheet, Mitchell suggests the laundress, the bygone station of so many black women, in their own confident beauty, delivering white linens to the white master’s big white house.

We witness a homage to the ancestry of slavery that Beyoncé explores within the magazine. I see the influence of Kara Walker, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, along with the unnamed armies of black mothers and maids working for whites to keep food on their own tables.

In all its elegance, the sheet symbolises so many black women who struggled until they became towers of their community, of their families — but rarely of the world. As Mitchell so aptly points out in a Vogue interview about the shoot: “For so long, black people have been considered things.”

I was considered a thing, too. I grew up in the segregated South. For so long, no one who had a position of prominence in the world of fashion magazines — in the world at large — was black, be they man or woman.

But in 1988, Anna Wintour started as Vogue’s editor-in-chief, and when she hired me, although I thought little of it at the time, I made history, too: I became the first African-American man named creative director of one of the premier fashion magazines in the world.

Suddenly, I had the opportunity to offer a point of view in my new role that was different from the tony, upscale and frequently affluent fashion editor’s.

My perspective was based on a vast cultural knowledge that the old guard just could not have tapped into. It had that quality so elusive in the world of fashion: it was new.

I quietly worked to bring more of that newness into the room: fashion editorials featuring young black models Naomi Campbell and Veronica Webb; a photo feature on the flamboyant ball culture of New York’s queer people of colour, members of the legendary House of LaBeija striking dance poses in broad daylight.

I sounded no bullhorn over diversity, but nurtured it where I could. But some areas — cover photography, for instance — were entirely in the hands of others.

Now, three decades later, Mitchell has broken through that barrier.

Just as Beverly Johnson changed fashion history for the better in 1974 as the first black model to appear on the cover — an elegant girl next door with a simple blue sweater, her neck wrapped in a chic double-twisted knot — so has Mitchell.

Every advancement shouts that we offer the unique gift of blackness that others cannot. Once we are chosen, we deliver.

We have delivered ourselves into a new era, too, for the times, they are a-changin’. Now a young black girl can dream of becoming literature’s next Toni Morrison, government’s next Susan Rice, the fashion world’s next cover model.

And a young black boy can at last, at last, dream of capturing that model’s unique blackness on film.

With Mitchell’s achievement on the September cover — the hallowed, most important issue of the Vogue year — we can rejoice.

We rejoice in Beyoncé and her blackness, in Mitchell and his blackness, and in all the generations behind them. I feel unspeakable joy in this landmark for the history, and the future, of fashion.

André Leon Talley is the former fashion news director, creative director and editor-at-large of Vogue