Essence Mag, Apparently, No Longer Needs A Black Perspective

July 27, 2010  |  

by Charing Ball

There is definitely a shake up happening at the headquarters for the black communities longest running fashion magazine.

First Susan Taylor left than Mikki Taylor followed suite. Then there was the sustainable layoffs reported in November 09, which had folks speculating if Essence was on its last pages. But now it appears that the publishers are looking forward in a universal way with the hiring of Ellianna Placas, former editor of O Magazine and US Weekly, who will now begin her tenure as the new fashion editor at the magazine. Oh, one more thing: Placas is white.

Yes, in this post-racial America, Placas will cross the cultural divide in fashion to take the helm of presenting what’s new, what’s hot and what’s next in the world of Sista-girl style. But not everyone is taking the news harmoniously.

On Friday evening, cultural critic and writer Michaela angela Davis tweeted: “It is with a heavy, heavy heart I have learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director, this hurts, literally, spiritually.” Her feelings were followed by a series of trending topics throughout the blogosphere of both outrage and indifference about the decision.

First, let me say that I haven’t had a subscription for Essence magazine since the earlier part of this decade, so I don’t really have a horse in this race.  However, from the few issues that I had skimmed through during my monthly visits to the hair salon, I can tell you that I don’t think I am missing much. Unlike its history of uplifting and honoring the holistic experiences of the black woman, I began to find much of the magazine trite and full of regressive articles much inline with the Cosmo woman of the 18th Century (think Celia advising Harpo on how to handle his Sophia problem).  And with the exception of a few featured articles, great covers editorials, and the recipes in the back, I find Essence to hold little relevance to this 21st Century woman of color.

Like the rest of Essence’s faithful flock, I do wonder how a non woman-of-color will handle the responsibility of communicating and interpreting beauty to a racial group, which has been historically marginalized in the fashion industry.

While Vogue may skirt away from the dark and the curvy, one thing I give Essence’s credit for was its ability to present true body diversity on its covers and in its editorials. Which is what most faithful readers feared would be sidelined when the magazine officially became part of the family of Time Warner in 2005. Since then, the magazine has experienced a series of cultural missteps and faux pas including the infamous Black Love issue, which featured Reggie Bush, former beau of Kim Kardashian and chronic interracial dater, on the cover.

Unfortunately, Essence is not alone in this irrelevancy and it’s not just about a white-ownership thing either. I have the same criticism of Ebony and Jet magazines, whose subscription comes courtesy of my grandmother, who reasoned that it would make a great Christmas gift. Like Essence, I always felt that Ebony/Jet was the quintessential go-to guides for anything related to and about black life.  However, today the magazine is mostly fluff pieces about how much we adore the First Black Family and offers very little in the way of critical thinking and in-depth analysis on real issues facing the millions of black families outside of the White House.

Now Johnson Publishing is finding itself in the position that Essence once was in 2005 and desperately trying to rebrand its flagship publications. Part of the reason cited was that advertising sales were lagging but I also suspect that the magazine realizes that it is failing to reach the newest generation of Blacks, who have evolved past glossy cover pictures of Prince and Ibris Elba and Jet’s Beauties of the Week.

Thanks in part to the digital revolution, younger blacks now consume information differently and have a full range of thoughts in opinions from the likes of The Root, The Grio, Black Snob, Jack and Jill, Racialious, Clutch, What about Our daughter and dare I be self-serving to say, The Atlanta Post. Most of these publications still manage to speak from a black perspective yet also are impartial and thoughtful in both its critique and praise of black life.

Despite all its flaws and shortcomings, I would hate to see Ebony or Jet fall victims to the same perils as Essence, or for that matter, the other long standing Black institutions.  However, wistfulness of the good ole’ days alone cannot fully account for why these publications failed to keep up with the changing times.

And as to the issue of Placas, I will take a wait and see attitude on how this change in guards will affect the quality of a magazine. In my honest opinion, it can’t get any worse.

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