As far back as I can remember my parents had Ebony magazine as part of our coffee table library. Mom usually kept a spread of at least eight months in front of the living room sofa. When I asked my mom why she subscribed to the magazine, she said she simply thought it was something that should be in our house. I interpreted that to mean she thought it was something that belonged in black family houses.
When I was little I thought Ebony magazine was to the black community what Life magazine was to the white community. Both magazines had a page size much larger than the other magazines. The only difference was that Life seemed to be focused on the happenings that pertain to the white community while Ebony was focused on the black community. That was back in the late sixties and early seventies when the vestiges of America’s institutionalized segregation was still very much evident everywhere. Black focused magazines like Ebony and Jet had their purpose and fulfilled a need for black people that no other magazines even bothered to try and fill.
Now that we are taking half-assed steps towards a more racially integrated society, black magazines like Ebony and Jet no longer have the market of black people to themselves. Most of the big magazine names have made cuts into the black market. Back in the day, the number of black people who appeared on the cover of the white community’s periodicals could probably be counted on one hand with a couple of missing fingers. If a black somebody was going to appear on the cover it was going to be through a black magazine.
Forty years later black magazines are struggling to survive. As the walls that kept the black community a more cohesive unit began to crumble under efforts for more racial integration, the magazines that once avoided black people like the plague now bend over backwards to embraces top notch black talent and popularity as well as any black magazine. Now, Ebony and Jet have to compete with Cosmopolitan and Harpers Bazaar to get an interview with a Jada Pinkett Smith or a Denzel Washington. And while many high profile black entertainers, celebrities, politicians, and business people are regularly found in high demand from both sides of the magazine world’s former racial divide, black magazines don’t do too much business with high profile white entertainers, celebrities, politicians, and business people.
Now that many mainstream publications have broadened their racial scope, they enjoy a loyal following from a well racially mixed audience. Walk into many homes of black people who like to read magazines and you’ll see any number of mainstream periodicals that may feature an occasional black person on the cover or through the pages. Unfortunately, it’s a better than fair bet that many white households have no interest in subscribing to a magazine that primarily focuses on issues of major concern to the black community, no matter how closely they may mirror mainstream concerns. So while the black community may endorse more mainstream publications, generally speaking such support is not reciprocated to the black publications.
Now it is well known that a lot of people outside the black community subscribe to Oprah Winfrey’s “O” Magazine. But in all honesty that monthly could hardly be described as primarily focused on the black community. I thumbed through an issue of “O” Magazine and didn’t see a single article about a single person relevant to the black community. The only black person in the book was in a single advertisement. As far as mainstream goes, “O” Magazine ranks right up there with the best of them.
Consequently, the market share for black periodicals is shrinking. They no longer offer that unique perspective on the upper crust of the black community. And as more black people distance themselves from the black community the less relevance black magazines have for these people. The only thing some black people need to know from a magazine is what Beyonce thinks about black hair. What most people in the black community might think is important for the black community isn’t even close to being important for a lot of black people. Who’s got time or a need for such things as informative social commentary?
The black community will cheer and celebrate Vogue when it creates an issue that features nothing but black models in front of the camera, but continues to be put together by the same people who have been excluding black people behind the camera. Many will think that we have arrived and will do what we can to buy the latest manifestation of a post racism era. At the same time, many in the black community will let black magazines with a long of history of promoting most things important to the black community, magazines that employ black people in front as well as behind the camera or the story, fall by the wayside. Black magazines might have been important back in the day when black people didn’t have the chance of a snowball in hell of being the subject of a mainstream periodical.
These days, a handful of black people enjoy superstar recognition from the major publications. Now, we have to ask, if we can see Beyonce everywhere who needs to see her on any of those old black magazines? It’s pretty unfortunate that the black community starts to fall apart as soon as some of us get some kind of acceptance from the majority. My mom told me that she simply thought a black magazine belonged in our black house. I interpret what’s happening to those magazines now as just more proof that people in the black community needs to reset our focus on the black community.