The story behind TIME’s Isabel Wilkerson cover

For a corresponding visual narrative to accompany a new piece by Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: the origins of our discontents, TIME turned to artist Lavett Ballard to create a cover that, like Wilkerson’s work, would present a challenge to the reader and to America: how did we get to this moment, a moment when barriers to equality in America are so clear? And what is the way forward?

Ballard, who created the cover for TIME’s 100 Women of the Year project in recognition of the women who led the civil rights bus boycotts of the 1950s, collected images evoking themes such as the history of American slavery, book banning and January 1st. 6 attack on the United States Capitol. But she also searched for images of people who show another positive side to American history, from Martin Luther King Jr. to lesser-known figures such as Viola Liuzzo.

Read the cover story: From January 6 to Tire Nichols, American life is still defined by caste

Ballard’s visual practice involves layering images, primarily of ordinary African Americans, to create visual connections from the past to the present. The artist’s use of palisades is powerfully symbolic of an idyllic life, but also of exclusion, and of the idea that on the other side of this fence lies inclusion and security. It is a call for viewers to expand their ideas about who is worthy of protection and safety and whose stories are told.

For this piece, Lavett says she wanted to portray a multiracial group of ordinary people who stood up against powerful forces of caste-based oppression throughout history, people who could serve as our guides and inspiration. to find a way forward.

The story of how ordinary people can and do deal with the injustice of the caste-enforced social order, at great personal risk, is too often forgotten, says Lavett. This piece is his visual manifestation of that history, in the hope that acknowledging that past will allow us all to find a path forward – a path that may not be easy, but one that can lead to a world better and fairer.

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