From The Grio

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!

(Check out more stories @ The Grio…)

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  • mytrickywand

    The hiring of a white Fashion editor is hardly the problem with Essence. Ellianna Placas was probably the best fit for the role and thats why she got the job. The real problem with Essence is its Editor in Chief who green-lights irrelevant story’s and insulting covers that really dont appeal to the audience of “black” women that Essence wants to go out and purchase its magazine. I cancelled my subscription long ago. Angela Burt Murry continues to insult the intelligence of her readers and people on this website by insinuating that “real” issues are not import to us (They are when there timely). She clearly does not recognize or appreciate the intelligence of her readers because if she did the “real” issues she claims she never gets responses from her readers on would be plastered on the cover instead of ignorant men like Reggie Bush who has said on more than one occasion that he does not date/like black women. As a woman of color why would I read/purchase a magazine with someone on it telling me and the world that I don’t interest them because of the color of my skin???? Essence needs to deal with its REAL ISSUE the self hatred that it spreads monthly! One little white woman being hired by this magazine should not surprise anyone. And I agree with another comment, there are 100’s of positive black female celebs and role models, WHY do you keep recycling the same women on your mag month after month????

  • Myra Howard

    I will no longer read Essence. The fashion has been terrible over the last few years, and Placas has not changed this in the last 6 months. The idea that the best person to represent, package, mirror and interpret the fashion ideals of the black woman is in fact a white woman is insulting and ridiculous. What other changes will Essence make to the magazine. This is just as stupid as having Reggie Bush and Kim Kardashian representing Black Love. Essence has lost its calling, lost its voice, and will lose its subscribers. Get your resume ready Burt-Murray. Hopefully another fashion mag will be as “generous” with you in their “race blind” hiring.

  • RM

    My heart feels heavy, because I will never forget the day when former fashion editor of Essence magazine cried at my booth during Accessories the Show in New York at the Jacob Javits Convention Center. It was her first time ever seeing a Black Owned exhibitor at a major fashion accessories trade show. I was later featured in the December 2002 issue with an article headlined “A Furrier Takes Flight”.

    My booth had more buzz than other exhibitor at the show, so much so that the CEO of the show stopped to introduce himself and congratulate me. Even with all the excitement surrounding my collection none of the other editors/freelancers from the white fashion magazines bothered to enter my booth.

    I also befriended someone very dear to me at the show a year later. This vivacious woman enthusiastically entered my booth with a press badge that read Essence. I was so delighted to have ESSENCE stop by my booth. In exchange for one of my fuchsia Tibetan Lamb scarves (like my coat featured in the Motion’s Hair Care Ad), she signed and handed me five original copies of The Cheetah Girls….the one’s with the Colored Girls on the cover, not the ambiguous sunglass clad character.

    Black women in the fashion industry were my keeper and I was an entity that they were proud to show off.

    Angela Burt Murry, you cannot explain yourself out of this one.

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