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IS THIS THE ‘ESSENCE’ OF OUR BLACKNESS?


 

By Mark Anthony Neal, PhD.

 Friday, August 6, 2010.

I first started reading Essence Magazine as a 16-year-old living in the Bronx. Of course I was initially drawn to the magazine because of the pretty black women within its pages, but the magazine, then under the direction of Susan Taylor, offered so much more for my burgeoning political sensibilities. Building on an editorial foundation laid out by Marcia Ann Gillespie—who would later edit Ms. Magazine--the Essence Magazine that existed in the early 1980s was where I would be first introduced to Audre Lorde, via a published conversation between Lorde and James Baldwin.

 

It was in the pages of that Essence that I got updated on the political exploits of Kwame Toure (Stokley Carmichael) and provided a portrait of Louis Farrakhan before the controversies associated with Jessie Jackson’s first presidential campaign in 1984. I came of age thinking that Essence Magazine in contrast to Ebony magazine, was my magazine—Black America’s magazine. That the magazine was black owned and black directed only added to its allure. That Essence magazine hasn’t existed for a long, long time.

Essence Magazine has been in the news recently because of its decision to hire the magazine’s first white fashion editor. Former Essence fashion editor Michaela Angela Davis perhaps captured initial emotions best, telling
Clutch Magazine “I feel like a girlfriend has died.” But beyond this sense of loss, what really is at stake when a “black” magazine, no longer black-owned, but still critically representative to our communities’ sense of themselves, simply becomes another periodical. Is there a response beyond simply decrying an editorial decision, which more or less is fully in-line with the magazine’s general editorial direction for the last decade?

One of the by-products of the Obama era is that there has been added pressure on black institutions to show that they are as progressive as the whites, who broke racial ranks to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election. Part of the initial response to the Shirley Sherrod controversy was rooted in this idea that Black America was to hold themselves as accountable for racist behavior as they hold whites accountable. It is in this context that CNN and TVOne contributor Roland Martin has suggested that Essence Magazine’s decision to hire Ellianna Placas as fashion editor is evidence of their “progressive” racial politics.

 

But there is nothing progressive about whites directing or overseeing black intellectual and cultural production. Historically, as journalist Esther Armah has suggested, whites have always been in position to sign off on how Blackness would enter the marketplaces of consumption and public opinion. Indeed what generated pride within Black America when Essence Magazine was launched in 1971 was the idea that this it offered an opportunity for black control of black imagery. As such the idea of a white fashion editor at Essence or a black themed magazine owned by a white owned global corporation seems too much like a long established status-quo, as opposed to anything that needs to be celebrated or worse still, labeled as progressive.

But the decision by Essence Magazine also speaks volumes about a general trend that challenges the professional capabilities of black women. When Honoree Fanonne Jeffers
laments that “Essence started using any excuse to erode Black women’s sense of strength” she captures the sense of betrayal that black women have experienced, in relation to their partnerships with black men and the broader professional world. In the backdrop of a solitary white woman serving as fashion editor for a formerly black owned magazine, is the fact that black women are marginalized in the editorial leadership of mainstream journals and magazines, a state that is far more deserving of public outrage than the hiring of said solitary white woman at Essence Magazine.

To echo Jeffers’s point, in the decade since Time Warner acquired 49% of Essence Magazine, purchasing the remaining 51% in 2005, the magazine’s editorial direction seems intent on damaging the emotional psyches of black women and girls, if only present itself as the self-help haven for those same black women and girls, in an attempt to increase the magazine’s circulation. This is a time tested strategy in magazine culture, which in concert with the advertising industry, have actively sought to sell magazines to women by highlighting their imperfections—literally from the highlights in their hair to the shade of their toe-nails. All magazines have concerns about circulation, but what made Essence Magazine so special is that it was always above simply selling magazines.

Now Essence is just another magazine (like BET is just another television network) and our response to its on-going editorial direction, should reflect just that. The glossy colorful print gems that so many of us read, even a decade ago, reflect an industry trying to hold on to its past. The future has long been in social media and the blogosphere, where black women have been able—more than in any historical period—to fashion a view of themselves that they can take ownership of. This a point that commentator Felicia Pride recently made at
theLoop21.com where she wrote, “I turned to the Internet and found online publications like Clutch…the online magazine is focused on ‘ushering in the new era for young, contemporary women of color.’ Visually appealing. Wide-ranging. Multicultural. Forward-moving. Me. And so many others like me.

“Girlfriend” has died—we can mourn her, lament her passing, but now we must move on.

 

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, NC, USA. He is the author of five books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (New York University Press). Neal is also the co-editor with Murray Forman of That’s The Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (2nd Edition) which will be published by Routledge in January of 2011.

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