Dr Boyce Watkins: Let’s Face it, Essence Magazine has lost it’s “Essence”
by Dr. Boyce Watkins
The revelations by former Essence Magazine editor Constance White both intrigued and concerned me. Last year, White revealed that she was fired after battling the magazine’s corporate overseer, Time Warner Inc. According to White, Essence was being pushed in a direction that she felt was designed to dumb down the black woman in America, focusing more on fashion and beauty tips than more serious issues of the day. This is a far cry from what Essence used to be when black people were truly running the show.
Not to say that I was surprised, but I admittedly long for the days when my friend Susan Taylor stood at the helm of the magazine, and Essence represented something black, extraordinary and authentic. There was a time when we fully understood that the power of media wasn’t just for making money, it was also for shaping minds. In fact, Adolph Hitler once said that if you want to control a group of people, all you have to do is control what they read, watch and hear.
For much of my life, when I thought about Essence Magazine, I thought about black women. Now, when I think about Essence, I think about what white people want black women to become. The mind can be under occupation in the same way that one colonizes a foreign country, and in the space of African American media, it’s difficult to argue that we’re not a conquered and imperialized group of people.
The pressure to assimilate is overwhelming when I look at how most of the radio stations our kids listen to are owned by big corporations like Clear Channel, who don’t care that commercialized hip-hop music is teaching young boys how to grow up and become murderers and r*pists. Television Networks like BET seem to believe that it should once again be illegal for black people to learn how to read. Even TV One, the “good version” of BET (a network that most of us respect), is 49% owned by NBC Universal, implying that they remain officially black-owned by a mere technicality.
Essence is one of the latest victims of the perpetual paper chase that turns us into the kinds of economic addicts that are produced by a racially-oppressive capitalist society. As black kids, we grow up believing that our goal in life is to sell our soul to the highest bidder, and that it’s OK to be an asset on someone else’s plantation, as long as our overseers allow us to live in the big house. This opens the door to a life of fancy cars, giant homes and expensive meals at the finest restaurants, where we charge it to the game without realizing that there is a massive debt to be repaid.
Then, one day, you look in the mirror and the person you see no longer has a soul. Like the hooker on the corner who gave her baby away for another vile of crack cocaine, you realize that your worth in this world has been reduced to the size of your paycheck (which can be taken away as soon as they are finished with you). The community you love languishes and dies, while you sit in the warmth of your corporate office with a boss telling you that the plight of “those people” has nothing to do with you.
I understand this well, because I know capitalism. I’ve been teaching Finance at the college level for the last 20 years, and one thing I know for sure is that the powerful temptation of money can lead us to become something that we’re not, and it can literally reshape the structure of our psycho-sociological DNA, turning a righteous mission into an abandoned one. I believe this is what happened to Essence magazine, and quite frankly, it disgusts me.
I wasn’t surprised in the least to hear former Essence editor White say that the corporate captains who own Essence were pulling the strings and dressing the magazine up in black face. I could hear the voices of thousands of black women on our blogs who, through women’s intuition, could tell that something was wrong. I’ll keep things simple: If you want to understand why most corporations or politicians do anything that doesn’t make sense, just follow the money. Its much more profitable to sell beauty tips and relationship advice than it is to discuss controversial topics like racism, poverty or the prison industrial complex. Purely capitalist organizations are not designed to incur these kinds of risks.
I don’t hate Essence Magazine, but I think that we should not define the magazine by what it used to be. Instead, we should define it by what it is. Essence Magazine is NOT a publication designed for the empowerment and independence of African American women. It is a magazine that is run and owned by a big corporation with mostly white shareholders who have positioned the brand to get access to the spending power of African American women. Ladies, the magazine is certainly wired to SERVE you, but it is not wired to LIBERATE you. There is a very big difference between the two.
Susan Taylor left the building long ago and Essence has “evolved.” The painful truth that we must realize is that to truly create black-owned media that empowers the African American community, we must be able to think beyond the financial bottom line. Economic inequality is the last great hurdle of black civil rights, and overcoming starts with the power of OWNERSHIP.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of theYour Black World Coalition and author of the book, “Black American Money: How Black Power Can Thrive in a Capitalist Society.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. Please join Dr. Watkins and Min. Farrakhan in a forum on “Wealth, Education, Family and Community: A New Paradigm for Black America” at the University of Illinois at Chicago on March 30. Click here for more information.