Fahamu Pecou discovers the healing power of art after a childhood of loss and tragedy. (Video by Jason Getz, Edit by Ryon Horne/ AJC)
“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.
The cover of Rion Amilcar Scott’s latest book, “The World Doesn’t Require You,” which features the 2013 painting “Caged Bird 01” by Atlanta artist Fahamu Pecou
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.”
Author Rion Amilcar Scott
“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.