Ebony helped create a different world

By Leonard Pitts: CNJ columnist

“Why is there an Ebony? If some white guy started a magazine called Ivory, you blacks would riot in protest.”

Give me a dollar for every white guy who ever asked me that and I’d be too rich to write columns for a living. The point of the question, of course, is that white folk are oppressed by pernicious double standards. It’s a silly argument and I’ve explained why many times in this space.

But today, rather than answer the issue behind the question, I’d like to answer the question itself. That seems fitting, given that the publisher of Ebony died last week. John Johnson was 87.

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 Madison County, Fla. 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.

When I was a boy, it was rare to see a coffee table in a black home without two or three issues of Ebony on proud display, a sure sign that one had reached middle class or simply wanted to give that impression to others. Even today, if you go into a black barbershop, you will invariably find, among the Sports Illustrateds and the Car and Drivers, a year’s worth of well-thumbed Jet and Ebony magazines.

They have become part of the wallpaper of African-American life, something you don’t think about much, something that was always there. Until you look across a media landscape where an Oprah, a Cosby, a Bryant Gumbel, a Clarence Page and even a guy like me ply their trades and realize they weren’t always there, that we have come into a different world.

John Johnson helped found that world because he made black mainstream, because he told stories this newspaper and others disdained to tell, because he codified African-American dreams between glossy four-color covers. And because he showed us ourselves as doers, achievers and people of worth.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a white media baron of whom white people would make the same claim. Did People invent the white consumer market? Did Newsweek help white kids see that they, too, had value?

Of course not.

So the answer to the question is simple. There is an Ebony because there was a need. And, thank goodness, for a man who saw that need and refused to let it go unfilled.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com