Celebrating 50 Years of Essence as a Black Women’s Archive

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.

For instance, four years after Paula Giddings published her 1984 book, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race & Sex in America, she published a promotional piece in Essence underscoring the necessity and relevancy of Black Greek Letter organizations. Giddings made a direct appeal to Black readers in support of her mass market book, In Search of Sisterhood: Delta Sigma Theta & and the Challenge of the Black Sorority Movement. Both texts occupy critical space in the field of Black Women’s Studies. When and Where I Enter has become a staple on Black Women’s Studies syllabi and the women of Delta Sigma Theta, Sorority, Inc., have unwaveringly supported In Search of Sisterhood since its publication. Giddings joins the good company of other Black intellectuals like Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin, William Strickland, and Joan Morgan, who recurringly wrote for Essence in the late twentieth century.

In addition to providing a platform for researchers like Giddings to directly address Black audiences, Essence has unwaveringly supported Black creative writing. In the late 1980s, the magazine frequently published original works by notable poets like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Rita Dove. It also supported emerging artists by hosting writing competitions and publishing articles on how to live and thrive as a Black creative. In 1994, Essence reinvigorated its commitment to archiving Black print history by systematically ranking the most popular Black books every month until 2010.

After seeing the difficulty authors like Terry McMillan faced trying to secure book contracts with major American publishers, Essence began publishing a comprehensive bestsellers’ list that accurately depicted reading preferences in Black communities. The bestsellers’ list was the genius of a frustrated Black woman, Faye Childs. Childs, like many of her contemporaries, was unable to secure a book contract for her work due to gatekeeping practices in publishing, which dictate that only our Toni Morrisons and Alice Walkers—whose writing engage historical concerns like the hauntings of slavery and Black freedom dreams—could be Black popular fiction writers of significant import in American culture. With minimal overlap between the most popular entries on the Essence Bestsellers List and the few Black books to have registered on the New York Times Bestsellers List at the turn of the twenty-first century, Essence‘s list demonstrates that reading priorities in Black communities have historically and necessarily deviated from the rest of America.

The Essence list was compiled from sales data collected by Black-owned bookstores across the United States. It spans the concurrent rise of the digital age and the most significant decline in print publishing to date. In light of these seismic historical shifts, it logically follows that the Essence Bestsellers’ list archives a wide spectrum of Black thought; it ranges from religious works by Bishop T. D. Jakes, to same-sex romance novels by E. Lynn Harris, while still including the Black literary laureates who have the privilege to publish with the major houses. The bestsellers’ list unequivocally debunks unfounded fabrications from the mainstream about Black communities not investing enough in books to support diversity within Black literature.

When presented with racially motivated cultural norms that negatively impact Black people, Essence has consistently leveraged its position as one of the vital contemporary print organs in Black communities to enact change. The bestsellers’ list helps to demonstrate that even in a new millennium Black people have not wavered on reading and writing being inextricably linked to freedom.

In addition to establishing a bestsellers’ list in 1994, Essence hosted its first arts, music, and culture celebration in New Orleans, LA. The event was orginally billed as a three-day event to mark Essence‘s 25th anniversary. After tremendous success the first year, Essence decided to transform every 4th of July weekend in New Orleans into one of the largest contemporary convenings of all-things Black. Anchoring Essence Fest in New Orleans a decade before the aftershocks of hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, provided Essence a unique opportunity to become a culture partner in rebuilding the spirit of New Orleans. The magazine has redoubled its commitment to the Crescent City during the Covid-19 pandemic by migrating Essence Fest 2020 online and committing proceeds to support the people of New Orleans.

Essence’s shift to a virtual benefit festival is indicative of the magazine’s knack for innovation in the face of crisis. The same can be said of the magazine’s groundbreaking 2018 Back to Black campaign. Twelve years after Essence sold all of its assets to Time Inc., the magazine was acquired by Essence Ventures LLC—a company owned by Richelieu Dennis, the founder of SheaMoisture. Since moving back to being 100% Black owned, the magazine has done a major overhaul of their brand, namely by dramatically increasing the magazine’s social media presence and focusing on lifestyle events for Black people. These 21st century shifts all help to ensure the magazine’s relevance for a new generation of Black women who teach themselves how to do their hair on YouTube rather than sitting in beauty salons for hours flipping through magazines. They also ensure that Essence remains a premiere space for positive, rich images of Black women—whether in print or on social media.

While the magazine’s commitment to Black women remains strong, questions about how to maintain the synergy of Black intellectual thought and a wide, diverse readership abound. In addition to Essence‘s position among other contemporary lifestyle magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Oprah’s O Magazine, it also existed within a rich tapestry of Black print culture journals like Black Quarterly Review, Quarterly Black Review of Books, and the Black Book Review. The economic downturn of the early 2000s indelibly rocked the foundations of these journals, which has resulted in yet another barrier for Black intellectuals to reach Black audiences. As the Black community celebrates the hard-fought victories Essence Magazine has been able to achieve over the past 50 years, we must continue to push for the magazine to remain a connective tissue for all sectors of Black women’s lives. This will ensure that Essence remains a vital archive for Black women at the intersection of celebrity and Black intellectual thought.

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Jacinta R. Saffold

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.