Sunday, September 25, 2005

Ebony, not Ivory

I originally started this post on 8/16/2005, and I've been adding to it over the past week.

Leonard Pitts has an interesting reflection on John Johnson's media empire. In response to the typical question from whites about why there is a magazine named Ebony:
Why is there an Ebony? The short answer is that Johnson created it, taking out a $500 loan secured by his mother's furniture to start his publishing company in 1942. Ebony came out in '45 with an initial press run of 25,000. Sixty years later, it claims monthly circulation of 1.6 million.

As I said, that's the short answer. To understand the long answer, you have to understand 1945. A black man named Jesse James Payne was lynched that year in Florida. A thousand white students walked out of schools in Gary, Ind., rather than integrate. Jackie Robinson joined a Brooklyn Dodgers farm team.

It was, in other words, just another year in that strange half-life between free and not-free where African-Americans had existed since the Civil War--a little progress, a little pain and a whole lot of invisibility. Black life, black striving and black aspiration were conspicuous by their absence from the nation's newspapers and magazines. As far as mainstream media were concerned, the only blacks who existed were "hulking negro brutes" (they were always hulking, and "Negro" was always lowercase) who were forever preying on virginal white women.

For black people, mainstream media were mind poison. Ebony--and the newsweekly Jet, which came along in '51--was an antidote. It emphasized black upward mobility and mainstream success, its stories always illustrated by carefully posed photos of Negroes Doing Well.

Not that the magazine's own success came easily. Johnson had to fight to convince skeptical advertisers that Negroes did, indeed, buy mayonnaise, Cheerios and the occasional automobile. The company likes to say that he invented the black consumer market, and that's pretty much true.

So, beyond the media empire that Johnson created, he also expanded the black consumer market and created a mindset of success amongst African-Americans. Not bad.

Now, if only he could have gotten more white people to read it.


There are few images of successful African-Americans for white people to see, and as Dr. King noted, racism affects the oppressor as much as the oppressed, albeit, in a different way. I would go so far as to conjecture that the injustices surrounding the institution of slavery reinforced and extended the latent bigotry of Europeans and Americans towards non-Europeans. My point is that the dehumanizing effects of slavery and the brutality of its enforcers greatly outmoded the initial prejudices that defined the relationships between Europeans and Africans. The brutality of the Jim Crow period in American history, and the extent to which Southerners went to protect their "way of life" (firehoses and police dogs turned on children who were marching), perfectly exhibit the extent to which many white Americans had come to see African-Americans as less than human. I've also read that lynchings were treated as community events by whites, where families often picnicked. So, while mainstream media may have been "mind poison" for African-Americans, that media affected whites just as much. Depictions of black men both reflected and reinforced the bigotry of white Americans.

In recent memory, the media have not changed too much. There have been few television shows or movies that reflect the upward mobility of African-Americans that have been "crossover" successes with white audiences. The persistent images are of the dangerous "angry black man" or the fool. Think Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Tucker. I'm also reminded of Spike Lee's Bamboozled. It is this sort of inexperience that leads a white person to tell a black person, "you're different." I've seen and heard this type of interaction a lot. How silly is it for a white person to claim to know that this one black person is "different". The first response to such a claim should be: "based on what?" The most likely scenario is that the white person is basing their opinion on their very limited outlook that has been defined by other ignorant white Americans. It's probable that dealing with media will only do so much since ignorance seems to breed more ignorance and an ingorant person is not likely to seek knowledge in any form.

Anyway, why would there need to be an Ivory magazine when there are the magazines People, Us, and even niche market magazines like Seventeen? This same argument can be made in defense of African-American history month since the majority of American history is about white people and their stories. There is a need for more emphasis on minority stories to breed better understanding of issues that remain unresolved. Poverty quickly comes to mind as an issue in need of more understanding.

By the way, I found it kind of funny that "Negroes did, indeed, buy mayonnaise" considering that the movie Undercover Brother made a running joke of the fact that African-Americans hate mayonnaise.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find your article very refreshing.It indeed reflect the historical view of society's mindset regarding the African American. I am proud as an African American Man to know that my validation is not up to another group but the very nature of my ability to stand.
Thank for your openness as a white brother to reflect in this blog.

11:29 PM  
Blogger Cyrus said...

Yeah Mike!

4:58 PM