Celebrating 50 Years of Essence as a Black Women’s ArchiveRoundup
tags: books, African American history, publishing, archives, magazines
Jacinta R. Saffold is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Orleans. She received her Ph.D. from the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst with certificates in African Diaspora Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her research interests coalesce around 20th and 21st century African American literature, Hip Hop Studies, and the Digital Humanities. Currently, she is working on her first manuscript, "Books & Beats: The Cultural Kinship of Street Lit and Hip Hop."
Essence Magazine occupies a distinct position within the continuum of Black culture as an aspirational lifestyle magazine, grounded by a simple but radical ethos; “Black women come first.” Historically, the magazine has been the meeting point for celebrity and Black intellectual thought, with some of the most prolific Black writers, actors, professors, and singers filling its pages. Essence has necessarily brokered introductions between Black ideas and Black people. For the last 50 years, Essence Magazine has consistently found innovative approaches to archiving Black women’s lives by immortalizing our intellect, literature, and culture on glossy pages.
Essence, as an archive of Black life, is also a cornerstone in the evolving field of contemporary Black print culture. New manuscripts like Radical Intellect: Liberator Magazine and Black Activism in the 1960s by Christopher M. Tinson, Pleasure in the News: African American Readership and Sexuality in the Black Press by Kim Gallon, Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print edited by Brigitte Fielder and Jonathan Senchyne, and others rest on the shoulders of periodicals like Essence.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Essence emphasized the importance of Black health and wealth through columns like “Just Between Us,” which primarily addressed issues disproportionately impacting Black people like diabetes, the crack-cocaine epidemic, and police brutality. The magazine published extensive articles on how Black people could build, manage, and pass down wealth while making space for ongoing Black concerns like the Black vote, the utility (and potential dangers) of Hip Hop, and how Black folks should react collectively to racially charged events like the Clarence Thomas confirmation scandal and the verdict following the vicious Rodney King beating.
The circulation practices of the magazine, and those that govern Black communal reading practices more generally, mean that Black intellectual concerns easily became the topics of casual discourse while Black folks waited too long for new ‘dos in barbershops and hair salons. Adjacent to the magazine’s emphasis on Black thought is a deep-seated commitment to Black books. The magazine has consistently included a robust section featuring new and classic Black print material. Essence not only publishes book reviews and author interviews, it also includes excerpts from new works of fiction, letters written to readers from authors, and reader responses to featured texts.