Well-lit with its tall walls covered in LP covers, Wayne Norman’s East Campus office is basically a record museum. Norman, the archetype of the sharply dressed jazz cat, spins albums as he works. A Fender electric guitar leans on a little tube amp in one corner. Two walls of album art follow rotating themes. The third is a permanent display.
“[There was] an early Miles Davis record that had been singled out in more than one documentary as having this unusual cover because it had this white model and her child,” Norman explains. “[Davis] didn't like it and had asked to have it changed.”
“Back in the day you used to steal milk crates that were the perfect size for albums. Now you buy them at Target.”
– WAYNE NORMAN
Through his own crate-digging, Norman realized that not one, but hundreds of Black artists’ records from the ’50s and ’60s had white women on the covers. The display above Norman’s desk contrasts these covers with album art featuring the musicians themselves.
“It's a very vivid illustration of how an outrageous practice can hide in plain sight until it can't,” he says.
There are a few possible explanations – none of which justify the practice, says Norman. One is bleak, but straightforward: Record stores in segregated America might have had an easier time selling albums that coded as “white.” Another is a little more tangled: White teenagers may have an easier time getting a record with a white person on the cover past their parents, even if the kids knew who made the music.
Interestingly, Norman has found only one example of the phenomenon in reverse.
“I have a single album by André Previn and David Rose called ‘Like Blue,’” he says. “That is literally the only example of that category that I've ever found – namely, an elegantly presented attractive Black model on the cover of a white person's album.”
Wayne Norman is the Mike and Ruth Mackowski professor of ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics.