Essence as Archive on the Occasion of its Golden Anniversary

The Glamorous Sarah Vaughan in 1955 (Wikimedia Commons)

Writer and image activist Michaela Angela Davis argues that the creation of Vibe magazine represented the serious documentation of hip-hop culture; that they were the first to ceremoniously and with reach into the mainstream (drawing from the vast resources and influence of people like Quincy Jones and media giants like Time, Inc.) “make record of a thing.” I argue that this notion aligns with the work carried out by Essence in documenting the collective lives of Black women.

Where do I start? At its founding in 1968? The publishing of its first issue two years later, in May 1970? My initial engagement with it as a little girl in my mother’s house in the 1980s? My own first subscription in college during the early 2000s, where I used its issues to decorate the top of a plastic stackable shelf that doubled as a television stand in the living room of my tiny apartment? Or do I begin in Spring 2008, in graduate school, where I first entered its archive as a researcher; where I first imagined that it might hold the key to questions that I engaged while defending an overly ambitious dissertation proposal? None of that seems right.

I could begin with the sheer scope of the publication. It possesses over 1,800 library holdings in well over forty countries spread over six continents, including fifteen African, Caribbean and South American nations and territories, seven of ten Canadian provinces, all fifty states and numerous military outposts of the U.S. But while physical range and number of volumes might indicate impact it doesn’t justify it, so beginning here is a nonstarter.

Maybe I’ll lead with non-research related themes that captured my special attention, with subjects and titles—many of them rooted in the kinds of polarizing issues that express the intersections of the Black cultural nationalism and second and third-wave feminism that define my period of study—as varied as Black women ourselves. In the 1970s: “Changing Our Name to Reflect our Heritage,” “Birth Control and the Black Woman,” “Black Christmas, Black Church.” Later, in the 1980s: “Coping with Inflation: The Hard 1980s,” “In Appreciation of My Husband,” “Why I Deserve Welfare,” “Have What it Takes to be a Manager?,” “What Turns You On?”

I think I will open with how whimsical it seems, at certain moments writing this, to spend time pondering the existence of a magazine in the midst of a global pandemic and the continued state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies as my children play video games, pretending to do school work in the other room. But then I consider that this is the perfect time to write such an essay as this. How decidedly essential it is for me to make record of a thing (that made record of a thing) during a time of uncertainty. That my own contemplation of the meaning of commemorating an organ that chronicled Black woman/femme life over the course of fifty years is its own act of resistance against my mortality. Or more generally, maybe this simple act is rooted in the Black academic’s sense of hope for the future, based in our notion that our work and words live on after our deaths, and that even if this virus buries each or any of us that we, indeed, are seeds. That folks like Dr. Jacinta Saffold and myself desperately need someone to remember that we remember how important it is to remember. That milestones such as this have meaning within and beyond the ways that we conventionally measure time.

This ode to Essence is an attempt to form an understanding of how it functions as an archive for those of us interested in the lived experiences of Black women. The quintessential inverse, perhaps, of the archive referenced by Dr. Marisa Fuentes. Where she must write to help govern what can be known about her subjects, Essence strove to be intentional and downright aggressive in engaging the “‘complex personhood’ and the minute details of [sometimes] fragmentary lives” of its subjects. While Essence is a deliberate compiling of image and thought crafted to shape and document the goings-on of Black women, her eighteenth century Bajan assemblage of property and probate records requires her to read between the lines in ways that must have been haunting. An archive of plenty and an archive of naught, occupied by researchers to give voice to mothers and their daughters’ daughters.

Many scholars have, to some degree or another, utilized Essence as a source within their work. Among them Noliwe Rooks, who uses Essence‘s origin story and its first thirty years of life to place it within the larger frameworks of Black women’s publications that came before and after, and Tanisha Ford, who explores style and the soul aesthetic with the magazine in full view. None of the uses of the magazine indicate agreement of its value for what it tells us about Black women, but it does demonstrate that the longevity of Essence puts it in a unique position to serve our needs as scholars of the Black [American] women’s post-Civil Rights breadth of being across disciplines.

Essence has and does meet me, a cultural historian, in the junctures of race, class, and gender. I poured over its service articles, editor’s notes, profiles and interviews, narratives, editorials, short stories, covers, fashion spreads, advertisements, and letters to the editor—twenty-four years’ worth—gripped by every bit that proposed some consideration of the meaning of clothing and corporeal presentation to Black women. Supported by the remaining ninety-and-some-odd magazines that I work with in determining how racial uplift has been negotiated by both accommodationist and cultural nationalist tendencies in fashion and in dressing the Black body, Essence is the most ubiquitous. It is the only magazine that runs the duration of my era of study and is the only one meeting that criteria that is still publishing. For this reason, Essence informs my work by offering a baseline for how other magazines engage with the issues addressed in my work. Its editors in my years of study also allowed just enough discord to provide some insight into the prevailing tensions amongst Black women on how to physically present ourselves to the world.

For instance, its sartorial expression was not met with unified reactions in the early years, both in terms of the prices of fashions featured and the bodies used to present them. Its first issue featured on its inside cover a Bergdorf Goodman advertisement that was characteristic of the types of marketing aimed at women with the disposable income to purchase goods from high-end department stores. Readers chided the editors to stay true to their mission to serve the Black woman and that doing so does not include “showing clothes that cost fifty and sixty dollars.”1 Some wrote in that they saw no reason for the financially secure to be deprived of having access to designer fashions simply because other readers could not afford them, while others believed that the publication did a great job of balancing both high-priced and budget fashions. 2 Likewise, after several fashion spreads featuring rail thin models had been published, and the then-editor responded to concerns that they were not representative of the physiques of Black women, the following was published:

Regarding your editor’s note in the October issue, “Slim is usually healthy… slim can get more reasonable priced clothes and look better in them…” I strongly disagree… I have what is called “the soul-sister build”—big hips and big legs… since this is one facet of Blackness, can’t Essence center on that in an article or fashion section?”

3

The magazine went on to feature budget fashions for readers and presented fashions spreads with voluptuous women, but some of its style presentation was less contentious and in line with prevailing African American style norms. Whether it was bridal fashions attuned to the flows (early 1970s and late 1980s/early 1990s) and ebbs (in the intermediary periods) in African-inspired looks, its slow and ambivalent embrace of hip-hop culture, or conversations about hair extensions and the width of braids deemed appropriate for corporate spaces, Essence kept pace with the complex strains between our women-ness, our Blackness, and our desire to retain a sense of cultural sovereignty while engaging in economic exchanges as earners, producers, and consumers.

In some ways, Essence is the “gift that keeps on giving.” My research and writing brought me through Essence in at least one unintentional way. Its pages ripe with the “stuff” of Black women’s lives in the 1970s pushed me into publishing on Essence‘s exploration of Black women and travel, the travel guides and fictional accounts initially a byproduct of my fashion interests. But it doesn’t just “keep on giving” in an academic sense. Essence as a brand has grown so many versions of itself over the years, including but not limited to clothing, makeup, and hosiery lines, a television show, and the influence of at least one beloved former editor. In the last twenty five years another manifestations of the brand, Essence Fest, developed a relevance that will provide fodder for a “looking back” for years to come. Evident in film, literature, collective memory, scholarship, and even rap lyrics ], we ought to give serious reflection on how Essence has been “making recording of a thing” for fifty years and initiate new ways to glean more from this wealth of an archive.

  1. Diane Wilson, “‘Write On! – ‘Please Keep Your Promises!’,” Essence, January 1971, 59.
  2. See Chris Williams, “Write On!’ – ‘Back Pats’,” Essence, October 1974, 4.
  3. Judith Fernander, “Write On! (‘Potpourri’),” Essence, January 1975, 4.
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Siobhan Carter-David

Siobhan Carter-David is Associate Professor in the Department of History and affiliate faculty in Women's and Gender Studies at Southern Connecticut State University, teaching in the areas of fashion studies and African American/African Diasporic and contemporary United States histories. Her research focuses are dress and racial uplift as presented in black print media and migration and public housing in New York City. She has worked with museum and special collection curators on projects involving various facets of African American and broad-based United States cultural histories. She is author of several journal articles, and chapters in edited volumes and exhibition catalogues. She is completing her book manuscript, Issuing the Black Wardrobe: Fashion, Magazines, and Uplift Post-Soul.

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