by Angela Burt Murry, Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine.
This summer much of the country and cable news has been consumed with a discussion about race in America. From the media trial-by-fire of Shirley Sherrod to Maureen Dowd’s New York Times op-ed questioning whether President Obama had enough African-Americans in his administration, folks really are talking. And clearly, despite how far we like to think we’ve come as a nation, the hot-button topic of race always has the ability to set people off and illustrate just how far we haven’t come. It’s something I see quite a bit in my own work.
As Editor-in-Chief of Essence magazine I sometimes find myself in the unenviable position of ticking people off when it comes to matters of race. Whether it’s a profile on P. Diddy and longtime girlfriend Kim Porter discussing their controversial relationship (“You’re promoting having children out of wedlock and a negative image of black couples!” wrote one disgruntled reader) or assigning a guest column to singer Jill Scott to voice her opinion about black men who date outside their race, “The Wince” (“Reverse racism!” was a common critique). Or the February cover with a shirtless Reggie Bush (“He doesn’t date black women–this is a betrayal of the highest order.” Many readers shared that particular sentiment). And most recently my hiring of Ellianna Placas, who happens to be a white woman, to head our fashion department has stirred the passions of a small but vocal group in the blogosphere (“I feel like a girlfriend has died,” stated one devastated African-American writer who not long ago wrote about coming to terms with her daughter pledging a white sorority for the magazine). Really?
Now don’t get me wrong. I read and digested many of the heartfelt and poignant posts on this topic and I sincerely respect everyone’s thoughts and sentiments. I also share their concerns and frustrations about the lack of visibility of African-American women throughout the ranks of the fashion industry, which is overwhelmingly white. I, too, want to see more of us on the mastheads of all the magazines, seated in the front rows of the shows, designing our own fashion lines, and contributing our special flavor and flyness to the world of style.
And when I set out to hire a new fashion director I certainly had no idea I would end up making this decision. I first got to know and came to respect Ellianna when she came to work with us nearly six months ago. We were conducting a search for a new director when she was hired to run the department on a freelance basis. I got to see firsthand her creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand. As such, I thought she’d make an excellent addition to our team. And I still do. This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights. I am listening and I do take the concerns to heart.
But interestingly enough, the things I think should most upset people and inspire boycotts and Facebook protests, often seem to go relatively unnoticed. Like when Essence conducted a three-part education series this year on the plight of black children falling through the cracks in under-performing schools. Crickets. When we reported on the increase in sex trafficking of young black girls in urban communities? Silence. When our writers investigated the inequities in the health care services black women receive? Deadly silence. When our editors highlighted data from the Closing the Gap Initiative report “Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future” that showed that the median net worth of single black women was $5? There went those darn crickets again. When we run pieces on how unemployment is devastating black men? Nada. When we run story after story on how HIV is the leading cause of death for black women age 18-34? Zilch. The things that really are the end of our world apparently aren’t.
While the response to these important stories may not always be as strong as we would like or lead to immediate change, Essence remains committed to telling these stories. Forty years ago Essence was founded to empower, celebrate, and inspire black women to climb higher, go further and break down barriers. Our commitment to black women remains unchanged as we continue to stay laser-focused on those principles–no matter who works with us.
I’m incredibly proud to have the opportunity to be the Editor-in-Chief of this award-winning magazine. I tell people that I have the best job in the world because all I do every day is think about what black women want and what black women need to live the lives they so richly deserve. And the way that I’m able to do that effectively is by valuing and listening to the direct and passionate dialogue I have with our 8.3 million readers and finding constructive ways that we can work together to continue to support and uplift black women. Thankfully, these sisters never steer me wrong!