Book Review: The Essence Of Convergence

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The Man From Essence: Creating A Magazine For Black Women.
Edward Lewis with Audrey Edwards.
New York: Atria Books.
295 pp., $25 (hardcover).

This book is an in-your-face victory lap for Edward Lewis, who wants to be known as the last man standing when Essence magazine, that bold, highly educated, hooped-earring-ed soul sister, sold itself to Time Warner ten years ago. This work is a great story of how one “gets over,” in all the ways that implies. It is a tale of Black American success: of how Civil Rights Movement-era Black capitalism converged with elite white liberal guilt and embryonic Black feminism (and, whether the author acknowledges it enough, the Black Power movement and all that radical movement entailed) to birth a powerful vehicle that spoke to, and for, Black women.

It’s in the tradition of books such as Reginald F. Lewis’ “Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun?” and John H. Johnson’s “Succeeding Against The Odds.” Lewis, with help from Audrey Edwards, a former Essence executive editor, explains how the magazine idea was birthed in 1969 by four Black male business partners and ended its Black-owned reign with just him, the quiet, cold, calculating survivor.

Essence and Black Enterprise both exploded onto the scene in 1970—new Black magazines for a new Black Baby Boomer generation of conscious but ambitious young people. Lewis recounts the days when his allies were white liberals who were more liberal and felt guiltier about white supremacy than they do in 2015, and when doors were opening for new people to try ideas and build new institutions. These young Black people watched new television shows such as “Soul Train,” wore new clothes, rode new cars, and thought anew about how to reconcile the Black with the American. This new, emerging, African-American middle class was no longer taking its cue from, say, The Crisis magazine: it had to learn new roles on the fly while always looking cool and in control.

Although Lewis is a few years in front of the Baby Boomers, he understood the incoming tide well. “By the time we started raising capital for the magazine, a race and a gender had been transformed,” Lewis writes. “We were on the cusp of the revolutionary seventies, a decade in which Negro became Black; Black became uppercased; women publicly burned their bras; sex became liberated; and Black is Beautiful became the new anthem for a race that seemed to be on the verge of winning the struggle for civil rights. The civil rights movement was cresting just as the women’s movement was gaining momentum, empowering a new generation of Black women to ride on the tide of both, and a new magazine to be in the vanguard of marketing to them.”

This was also a period in American history in which magazines engaged in narrative journalism that television and radio did not yet know how to match, when weekly and monthly magazines had personal, passionate relationships with millions of readers. Essence was tailor-made to join that elite white magazine club, using the finest African-American literary and visual fabric that could be created. By 1980, its tenth year, that relationship of Essence to consumer was, to use a word in the exclamation of the times, solid.

The central relationships in the book, however, are all turbulent: those between the partners themselves and their individual relationships, in turn, with the editorial staff. The drama’s early players range from Playboy magazine to Gordon Parks to Black magazine pioneers such as Ida Lewis (no relation to the author), one of the many early Essence editors-in-chief who the male partners fought to rein in, to manage. There is enough one-upmanship and public and private maneuvers among the Essence Communications Inc. family to keep the readers’ attention throughout, as Black people struggled with how they treated each other, what they expected from each other, and their meaning to each other in this capitalistic enterprise.

(Humming in the background are these questions: What do the other Essence founding partners and editors think about the critical way they are portrayed here: as admirable losers who, in the end, just couldn’t, or wouldn’t cut it? And how do they see the cunning victor? Perhaps one day soon we will find out.)

Essence’s stupendous growth under Marcia Gillespie and, subsequently, Susan Taylor is recounted in detail, moles and all. Their editorial strength, consciousness and courage made Essence required reading in the Black community. Lewis spares no story in how Gillespie and Taylor, during their tenures as editors-in-chief, became culture heroes in the public eye and divas in the editorial office.

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The narrative almost seems quaint in the soon-to-be mid-21st century, the social media “buzz” age, a time where millions of Black women (including emerging LGBT leaders) have video, audio, 140-character and 500-word voices that they use for their empowerment. (Jamilah Lemieux, in 2015 the rising feminist star and resident firebrand of a much-more-female-focused Ebony.com, for example, is almost young enough to be Taylor’s granddaughter.) Black intellectual Melissa Harris-Perry has her own program on MSNBC. Black women celebrities participate with feminist-ish fervor on broadcast network chat shows such as ABC’s “The View,” CBS’ “The Talk” and FOX’s syndicated “The Real.” All of this does not even take into account the staying power of longtime Essence reader Oprah Winfrey, her O magazine and her cable television channel OWN. Essence visionary leaders Gillespie and Taylor deserve their bows as the Sojourner Truth of post-segregated American mass media, creating the comfort Black women feel today speaking their truths out loud.

Meanwhile, the traditional substance that used to resonate in the pre-Time Warner Essence and elsewhere—the detail, the intellectual grounding, the lyric—is returning to the literary “little magazine” genre, sadly. Once upon a people, Essence was a mass-market lifestyle magazine that, at its root, could be just as serious in some of its content as, say, Black World and Freedomways, those half-remembered intellectual period(ical) pieces. It’s now just another Time Warner vehicle, reflecting the post-modern marketplace. Ultimately, “The Man From Essence” is more Lewis’ triumph than those of the audience he said he protected by closing the deal.

 

AN IMPORTANT P.S.: I think the first time I ever heard of Essence was through its television program.

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