Books | Glenn Ligon: A People on the Cover

Photo: Ted Joans, The Hipsters (back cover). Published by Corinth Books, New York, 1961. 

While doing a residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, artist Glenn Ligon began collaborating with the Givens Collection of African American Literature at the University of Minnesota. Without a clear plan for the partnership, Ligon began wandering the stacks, perusing their holdings, and looking at books he randomly pulled off the shelves. As he did so he discovered the project he would create, the telling of the history of black people in the United States as represented on the covers of books. The result is an intimate white paperback quietly titled A People on the Cover (Ridinghouse).

CoverThe book begins with an introduction by Ligon, in which he recounts a brief history of his readings from 1960-1978. He begins with the formative memory of the day a white man came to his South Bronx home, going door-to-door trying to sell the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the housing projects. Ligon’s mother, who worked as a nurse’s aide at a psychiatric hospital, purchased that set of books that was the equivalent of almost an entire month’s rent, believing that education was the best way to get her children out of the hood.

Ligon, who was subsequently transferred to a private school, remembers the way that books became status symbols of white culture, and reinforced their ideals, and found himself in a precarious position of being a young teenage boy living in two worlds. In his earlier years, he recounts an interest in the pretenses of white culture, but grew out of that pose on his first trip to the Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village. He spotted James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in the store window, and became transfixed by the red, black, and orange cover of the book. As Ligon writes, “I felt, in that moment, that in those four words on the cover, I had found myself.”

Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Published by Lancer Books, New York, 1971.

Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Published by Lancer Books, New York, 1971.

Ligon brings that spirit of self-discovery to A People on the Cover, which is a beautifully executed meditation on the lasting influence and authority of book covers. Featuring over 50 book covers by authors including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Dick Gregory, Malcolm X, Chester Himes, Gordon Parks, LeRoi Jones, Toni Morrison, and Hilton Als, A People on the Cover is a history of literature through the physical images it creates. Beginning with a chapter called “Beauty”, Ligon writes, “With the rise of the civil rights and black power movements, beauty was seen as an arena in which the battle for equality could be fought.”

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Lorrie Davis with Rachel Gallagher, Letting Down My Hair: Two Years with the Love Rock Tribe – From Dawning to Downing of Aquarius. Published by Arthur Fields Books, New York, 1973.

And what better way than with the human face, which, much like a book cover, reveals as much as it hides, preparing us for a rich and densely layered understanding of the medium. As we watch A People on the Cover unfold, we begin to trace not only the history of Black America, but we begin to see Ligon himself emerge, making this an incredibly intimate portrait of one man’s inner world, of the souls that have impressed themselves upon one another through power of the written word.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.