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August 10, 2005

Ebony & Jet

The last time I read Ebony was when one of the Johnson granddaughters had the most fabulous wedding in Chicago. I can't remember how long ago it was, but it had to be at least 15 years. It was probably around the same time that I started taking black literary fiction seriously, in the days just before Toni Morrison took over the American literary scene. But a long time before then I poo-poohed, but never missed, the maganize's annual list of the 100 most influential black Americans. Whenever I would see 'Grand Polemarch' of some fraternal order among the Ebony faces, I would suck my teeth in shame. Whenever I would see the ever-increasly grizzled old mug of the Hon. Elijah Muhammed, I would roll my eyes. These were the old guard, keepers of the flame. They were the leaders of the world that had failed to impress my generation. If they had power and influence, who was it over? Nothing quite got under my skin like the success of the Bronner Brothers, a couple of Jheri Curl twins in powder blue tracksuits who seemed, according to the editors of Ebony Magazine to be the embodiment of young, gifted and black. Their claim to fame? Jheri curl juice hair care products for African Americans.

Jet, on the other hand, managed to keep my attention longer. In their Speaking of People section, I could always count on seeing somebody who reminded me of the black detective on the Barney Miller Show. Respectable, smooth, solidly middle class, no nonsense. In this inverted sense, I always saw the future of the black nation as yet to become. The middle class had more class than the 'best' and the brightest on the top. Even figures like John H. Johnson himself never seemed to have the edge that seemed to be required in my America.

What ever can be said for the lack of depth of Ebony, it could never be faulted for being vulgar, cynical or pretentious. It was just the kind of magazine a rich dad would want his daughters to read. People forget, certainly I must have - or never knew, that Johnson also published Negro Digest. Negro Digest pulled from the ranks of the most thoughtful and provocative writers on the edge of black intellectual ferment in the 60s. Notables among them included LeRoi Jones, A. Phillip Randolph, Richard Wright and Ron Karenga. When it was time, Johnson clearly went there.

I've posted some of the Negro Digest covers from my father's library, and they show evidence of a consistent and clear concern and debate about serious issues. There are a lot of people who could learn from that. I'm convinced that Johnson himself understood very well the diversity of African America and in the end chose to highlight the bright side, not because he was afraid or ashamed but because he understood where the bulk of black America's hopes and dreams lay. Ebony and Jet were magazines for working class and lower middle class blackfolks and it reinforced their optimistic view of a middle class black America. Johnson did the right thing.

I suspect that upon his passing, Johnson might be remembered as the man who put too happy a face on black life. Let's not forget he was thoughtful too.

Posted by mbowen at August 10, 2005 12:48 PM

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I suspect that upon his passing, Johnson might be remembered as the man who put too happy a face on black life.

If true, that would be a damn shame.

Posted by: DarkStar [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2005 06:04 PM

Thanks for the link to the Bronner Brothers web site. There is some GREAT stuff on their site - some real pearls...and some serious historical retention. The Jheri juice is quite tangential.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2005 06:35 AM

Good to see Negro Digest remembered.

Posted by: danyel at August 11, 2005 09:19 PM

Black people don't want to read about misery and despair any more than anyone else does. People want to feel that life is okay and that they can overcome, whatever the thing to be overcome is. That's why people like Ebony. It presents black people as sensible, and decent, but not interested in intellectualism or post modernism or vulgarity. That's okay by me.

Posted by: anita at August 15, 2005 11:00 AM


As usual, you are on the money: Ebony/Jet did champion the Negro Middle Class. I must however disagree with Ebony/Jet being an important catalyst of the arrival of the Negro Middle Class.

You see Cobb, unlike the European Middle Class, the Negro Middle Class has yet to realize that "God is Dead". Until such time, there will be no real Negro Middle Class. Clearly, progress is a secular thing, and White Europeans have long ago broken the chains of Calvin, Luther, and St. Augustine.

Man, even the Negro, is all alone in the Universe--his status will evolve under no other terms---Middle Class or otherwise.

Keep on Blogging.


Posted by: DismalScientist at August 15, 2005 03:13 PM