Many were shocked when news hit that Essence editor-in-chief Constance White was leaving her post at the helm of the magazine after less than two years in the position. It was widely reported that White’s departure was of her own volition, but a new interview with Richard Prince’s Journal-isms reveals that she was fired.
In her own words, White explains that her termination was the offset of several disagreements with Time Inc. Editor-in-Chief Martha Nelson about how black women should be represented by the monthly.
She tells Journal-isms:
“Essence, the nation’s leading magazine for black women, was originally black-owned but has not fared well under Time Inc. ownership, White maintained. Nelson vetoed such pieces as a look at African American art and culture, and “I was not able to make the creative hires that needed to be made,” White said.
She elaborated by email, “When was the last time you saw Essence in the community advocating for or talking with Black women? […] No more T-shirts with a male employee’s face on it being distributed at the [Essence] Festival.”
[…] “I had a certain point of view about black women being central to this magazine. The boss didn’t agree with me and the president didn’t agree with me,” she said, referring to Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications. “It became an untenable situation.”
“This is a magazine where the central DNA was laid down by Gordon Parks,” she said, referring to the famed African American photographer who helped found Essence and was its editorial director from 1970 to 1973. White intimated that her efforts to maintain Parks’ standards had been rebuffed.
“How is it that from 2000, when Susan [L. Taylor, longtime editor] left — she was pushed out — we have had about five editors, including two acting editors, yet Essence continues to decline? So where’s the problem? And the editors are the black women. ‘They are disposable. Let’s keep changing them.’
“The point is, it didn’t start with me,” White said of the conflicts between top Essence editors and Time Inc. management. “If I can make a difference, I’d like to. If no one speaks up, it’s possible it won’t end with me.”
She continued in an email, “Martha Nelson cannot shape the editorial [content] for the magazine, and it was a strange use of her time considering People, the cash cow of Time inc accounting for over $1 billion, was down 12-18 percent in the last two years and All You was down 38 percent.”
“There has to be a come-to-Jesus moment when people say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do and here are the right people to do it. We are a very valuable audience. In my farewell speech I asked my team to present to management what needs to happen at Essence to ensure its survival because they know.
“Essence needs stability and the brand needs a leader with a vision. Black women are social leaders, cultural leaders, we are aspirational and spiritual. Black women deserve the best. Essence is the last place where black women should be demeaned and diminished.”
She also gives a different version of her departure than the magazine’s February letter announcing that White left on her own accord:
The final “tug of war” came in January, White said. Referring to Nelson, White recalled, “My boss said, ‘you know what? It’s time to go.’ I was asked to leave my position. I asked, ‘Was it something we can discuss, or has the decision been made?’ She said, ‘The decision has been made.’
Constance White’s assertions don’t seem off base as both current and former Essence readers echo her sentiments that the magazine has lost its direction and strayed from the vision of its founders. Perhaps by speaking out, White can influence a change behind-the-scenes so that the magazine that many of us grew up loving is restored to its original glory.