By Rosalind Bentley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sept 20, 2019
Pecou’s work from “I Know Why the Caged Bird Blings” graces cover.
At the outset, Rion Amilcar Scott’s acclaimed new book “The World Doesn’t Require You,” is a dreamscape.
We meet David Sherman and his brother, Delante, the youngest and oldest sons of God, respectively. Another brother, Christopher, goes by the nickname Christ III, for he too is one of God's many sons. They live in fictional, present-day Cross River, Maryland, founded by survivors of the nation's only successful revolt of enslaved African Americans. (The revolt, by the way, never happened, but sets a reader to wonder, what if?)
Cross River is full of stories. There’s a man who presents as a feminist but whose misogyny would be as hard to shed as skin. Robots designed to be slaves but destined to lead their own rebellion, roam the town. Through emails and Power Points, two professors battle at historically black Freedman’s University. Even though the school exists only in Scott’s prose, the rivalry is absurdly familiar.
The book is an ambitious, engaging collection, suffused with magical realism. So, how to come up with cover art as formidable yet as exuberant as the stories; art as elastic in its portrayal of African-American life as it is grounded in its respect for it?
Enter one of Atlanta's most prominent visual artists, Fahamu Pecou. Pecou's work has been the subject of a 2015 show at the High Museum of Art and, mostly recently, a well-received solo show at the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, where he recently completed his Ph.D. The work centers on what it means to be black and, particularly, male in America, by taking preconceptions and judgments and twisting them on the canvas through self-portraits, to reveal or question truths and sometimes to make myths. It has been featured on television shows including "Black-ish" and "Empire." Editors at Liveright Publishing knew none of this when they tried to figure out a cover image for Scott's second book.
“Our editor said, ‘Look, I don’t know what to do, but it has to be awesome,’” said Steve Attardo, trade design director for Liveright. “There was a world building aspect to the book. And we were in a meeting and the question came up, ‘Do we try to create this world on the cover?’ It was polarizing. Some in the meeting were like, ‘Of course we have to show this world,’ and the other group was like, ‘No, no! Let’s let people imagine what the world looks like.’”
Scott’s first book, “Insurrections” (2016), which was also set in fictional Cross River, won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize. Editors were hopeful his sophomore effort would make a similar splash. Only one thing was clear: Like the author, the image for the cover had to be by an African American artist.
Laywan Kwan, a freelance graphic designer based in New York was commissioned to find the right visual. After reading Scott’s book she knew the image could not be stock art: literal, upfront, punchy, graphic. The book required the nuance and refinement of fine art. After about three weeks of considering dozens of black artists, including some of the nation’s most noted, Kwan stumbled on Pecou’s 2013, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Blings” series. The series was inspired by a quote from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Caged Bird.”
“But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing…”
In the painting, Pecou wears a shirt emblazoned with gold necklaces and mammoth diamonds. His boxer shorts, colorful and vaguely tribal in design, rise above the back of black, baggy pants. He is trapped in a box, with walls the viewer cannot see. Pecou is pushing against them. His expression suggests he doesn’t believe the walls will fall, but maybe it’s worth trying one last time.
“That really reflected the text,” Kwan said. “That there’s this specific group of black men defined by a certain experience and lifestyle and history and the book tells that story.”
Kwan felt the painting was so right, she wrapped it around the front and back cover of the book, capturing nearly the entire image.
While in Paris earlier this month for the opening of his latest show, “Of Crowns and Kings,” Pecou said in an email interview that the image expressed “limitations and frames that impose on blackness.”
“The figure in the painting is forced to conform in spaces that are too small, invoking a deep tension and discomfort,” Pecou said. “Scott’s stories echo of black people making their way in a world carved out for them but that doesn’t quite fit them.”
When Scott saw a picture of the piece he felt similarly, he said. He’d never met Pecou.
“My book attempts to present one view of the humanity of black folks, it’s often whimsical, weird and playful,” Scott said in an email interview. “This painting does a similar thing and in its uniquely black playfulness is very much in conversation with my book. I was not previously acquainted with Dr. Pecou’s work, but I can’t imagine another piece of art being so in sync with the vision of this book.”
The piece now lives in a private collection, Pecou said, though not Scott’s. The book has gotten solidly positive reviews from NPR, Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Post, among others. Though they have not met in person, the men follow each other on social media. As storytellers, their paths are kindred.
Rosalind Bentley is an award-winning feature writer focusing on culture, arts and sometimes food, as they are expressed and experienced in Atlanta. She is a two-time James Beard Award finalist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.