Ebony magazine, the African-American monthly, has been a beloved institution in black America for more than sixty years. These days the love is still there, but the luster has faded. One of the few African-American-owned magazines in the country, Ebony is like a once-beautiful, stylish elderly relative, desperately searching for the fountain of youth. Born November 1, 1945, Ebony showed off her glamour and vitality for decades. But she is tired now, debt-ridden and seriously ill, her once crystalline voice a raspy whisper. The black celebrities who once courted her now have other media suitors, thanks in no small part to the trail Ebony blazed. Too many readers and advertisers have followed them.
Some say her condition is critical and that she could soon die without an infusion of new ideas and the cash to back them up. Others say—sadly, always sadly—that it is too late. Those who love her should say their farewells.
Nonsense, says the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. He can never say goodbye. “It will not shut down,’’ he vows. “Its form might change. But that tree will not fall. We will not let it fall. It’s beyond my imagination.’’
“It’s unique to us emotionally,’’ he continues. “Everything the white culture said we couldn’t do, Ebony said we could do and do it better. You’d have Frank Sinatra. Then Ebony would display four pictures of Nat King Cole. You had an all-white basketball league. We had the Globetrotters. We could play basketball and entertain at the same time.’’
Back in the day, Ebony was the best way to keep up with the latest happenings in black America. The African-American elite—the movie stars, the singers, the ball players, the politicians, the preachers, the scholars—were all part of her flock. They were eager to talk to her about their trials and triumphs and then, if they were lucky, grace her cover for the whole nation to see. They weren’t appreciated—celebrated—anywhere else this way. To white magazines, they were invisible. Ebony, they knew, would treat them with R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
She was good company. She was entertaining and informative while you waited at the dentist’s office or beauty shop. Each year she listed the most eligible black bachelors and bachelorettes in the country. If they got together, she had useful advice about marriage and décor. She was a role model, a mirror for the middle-class that reflected only dreams come true. On coffee tables across black America, Bibles and issues of Ebony lay side by side. After all, they had the same message: look here for the promise of paradise.
Lots of people made fun of her, though, especially when the 1960s rolled around and black patience with white racism had worn thin. Her critics said Ebony was too moderate and soft for such momentous times. They called her bourgeois and said her head was filled with fluff. There was some truth in their harsh words. There still is.
But don’t let the glamour fool you. Ebony has a tough side, too. She didn’t always wear flouncy ruffles and Yves St. Laurent shoes. When she had to, she’d pull on a pair of sturdy boots and hit the freedom trail, singing “We Shall Overcome.’’ During the civil rights movement, Ebony and its petite sister publication Jet, the pocket-sized weekly, marched along every step of the way. Moneta Sleet Jr., the first black man to win a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, worked for Ebony. He won the award for a photograph of Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, at the slain civil rights leader’s funeral in 1968.
For African Americans trapped in the segregated South, Ebony was a lifeline to the outside world. She was the chronicler of African-American firsts, source book of black pride and confidence. Growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, in the ’40s and ’50s, Jesse Jackson remembers how the magazine helped turn a dreamy black boy into the globetrotting man who twice ran for president in the 1980s, helping clear the path for Barack Obama’s history-shattering march to the White House twenty years later.
Jackson says his family had issues of Ebony “stacked up like furniture.’’ Many of his teachers, he says, “used Ebony to teach black history. Black history wasn’t in our textbooks.’’
In the 1960s, when the latest issue arrived in the Arizona mailbox of Dr. Clarence Laing and his wife, Laura, their young daughters, Mavis and Mercedes, would risk ripping the pages in their tug of war to see who would get to read it first. “There were just so few other black people in Phoenix in those days,’’ Mavis Laing says. “Ebony was the only way we learned what was happening with African Americans.’’