The Difficulty And Drama Of Building A Top Black Magazine | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

NPR : Tell Me More

The Difficulty And Drama Of Building A Top Black Magazine

Play associated audio

This year marks the 50th anniversary of many pivotal events in the civil rights movement, and to commemorate "Freedom Summer," Tell Me More is diving into books that explore that theme.

Back in 1969 faces of color were few and far between doing any job in major media. But that was the year an unlikely group of business and salesmen decided to create a magazine specifically targeted to Black women: Essence.

Today, it's a reading staple in many African-American households, doctor's offices, hair salons and other places black women gather. While Essence has undergone several changes over the years — including a controversial sale to Time Inc. in 2005 — it is still a place where black women can turn to see diverse images of themselves, read about their most pressing concerns and see the latest trends in fashion and beauty.

But it turns out that the road to making Essence wasn't as smooth as the magazine's pages. Now, a new book written by magazine co-founder Edward Lewis and former executive editor Audrey Edwards tells many of those stories.


Interview Highlights

Why the magazine's first name, Sapphire, was scrapped...

Edward Lewis: We were looking at a variety of names and we thought that sapphire, the real meaning of a sapphire as a precious jewel and strong and we wanted to say to black women that you are precious and strong. And sapphire, you know, emanates from the old Amos 'n Andy show that was started in 1932 [it] had two black men and one black woman, the black woman was called, Sapphire. So anytime any black woman ...when she was called Sapphire that was a put down. She was uncouth, loud-mouthed, unfeminine. But as you know, we began to feel good about ourselves with the growth of the civil rights movement and black became beautiful, and we just thought that black women were a true jewel and very precious. We did hold some focus group discussions with a number of black women and they said, "have you lost your mind?" and "why don't you think about another name?" and fortunately we listened. And the third editor of the magazine, a wonderful woman by the name of Ruth Ross, we were bouncing names off the ceiling and she said, "essence," and collectively my partners and I said, "Ah! That's what we should call the magazine."

On Essence only hiring white staffers and photographers during the early days...

Audrey Edwards: There was not a large pool of black talent to choose from in 1970, and Ed is very clear about saying we wanted to put out the best product possible and to do that we needed to hire talent who could train black talent to put out the best product.

Edward Lewis: Please understand in those early days, we really thought that we would have an all-black staff, all-black everything. But the reality hit us quite quickly with regard to trying to find people to fulfill those positions, particularly back in 1970 and 1971.

The allure of working for Essence...

Audrey Edwards: When I first heard about Essence I was working at Redbook and I was a secretary in the fiction department, I was 22 years old. The editor-in-chief had heard that this magazine was coming out for black women, and he was worried that the black women working at Redbook were going to be recruited, and I distinctly remember him coming in to me and saying, "Audrey, has anyone from Essence called you?" and I said no and I said to myself, "They don't even know I'm here. But one day they will." And in 1981 I was working at Family Circle [and] I got a call — after Susan Taylor had been made editor-in-chief — I got a call from Ed Lewis asking me to come to lunch and I remember thinking, "Ed Lewis knows I'm here." And I think for any black journalist female, working at Essence is the height. I cannot imagine being black and being a journalist and not wanting to work at Essence.

Working at Redbook, where the editor-in-chief was very much into diversity and it was wonderful from an employment standpoint, but I was in editorial and rarely saw black models in Redbook. I was in the fiction department, we occasionally published black fiction writers, but for the most part I was editing a product for women who didn't look like me. There was a commitment to hiring, but you were working in these white settings where you did not see people in the product that you were editing. So, Essence was very important to me personally and to me professionally.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

6 Novelists Withdraw From Event Honoring 'Charlie Hebdo' For Free Speech

Peter Carey and Rachel Kushner are among those who are withdrawing in protest from the PEN American Center's annual gala. Kushner says she is uncomfortable with Charlie Hebdo's "cultural intolerance."
NPR

Drop-In Chefs Help Seniors Stay In Their Own Homes

As people age, cooking can become difficult or even physically impossible. It's one reason people move to assisted living. One company offers a chef to cook healthy, affordable meals at home.
NPR

Loretta Lynch Sworn In As U.S. Attorney General

Lynch's nomination was confirmed last week by the U.S. Senate, five months after President Obama nominated her to succeed Eric Holder.
NPR

Leave The Selfie Sticks At Home, Wimbledon Says

Taking the same stance as the Kentucky Derby and major music festivals, the All England Lawn Tennis Club reportedly cited the devices' "nuisance value."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.