Should Essence, one of very few magazines exclusively for black women, have hired a white fashion editor? After debate on this question recently simmered online, Editor In Chief Angela Burt-Murray defended her decision as a color-blind merit pick. She also noted that when the mag covers issues possibly more substantive than an editor's race, the public reaction is generally "crickets" (or, as translated by my people, "bupkes").
"Black Girls For Sale," in the October issue, is an example of the meatier journalism Burt-Murray references: a case history of how police and prosecutors worked to bring a pimp in Oakland, Calif. (known for a thriving sex trade that targets young black women) to justice.
It's a powerful investigative piece, matched in its seriousness by last February issue's report on black men's sexual tourism in the Dominican Republic, and a March package on education, which includes case histories of top teachers and a cover interview with President Obama,
Surrounding these thoughtful articles are many features standard to garden-variety women's magazines. So, yes, you'll find "55 Makeup Tips To Beat The Heat" and other perfectly competent beauty, fashion and celeb pieces. It can make for a jarring juxtaposition, with "10 Of the Sexiest Men You've Ever Seen" followed by a profile of "The Toughest Woman In Detroit," prosecutor Kym Worthy. Is Essence perhaps trying to do too many things at once -- to be Cosmo as well as The Atlantic?
I'd say that the mag's real strength lies in serving its target market with subjects covered almost nowhere else, like a "Single Mom's Money Guide" and a piece on preventing serious health conditions that affect African-American women more than others. July's six-page pictorial, "Why I [heart] being a black woman," celebrates happy facts that include "we have so many different hues and have so many different hair textures" and "we're in the White House." Nicely empowering, that.
My favorite article was July's "My Blind Date Diary," because I appreciated author Demetria Lucas' hard-headed and yet still vulnerable voice: excellent qualities for anyone looking for romance. She sets clear boundaries, like "a one kid max rule for anyone I date," yet is willing to give a guy a second chance even if there's little initial chemistry.
The Essence issues I read could have used a bit more of Lucas' personal, compelling tone. I found a surprising source of that voice, geared to African-American topics, in a stunning 2008 New York magazine article, "All I Want Is Foundation That Matches." Here, writer Aja Mangum reports that her mostly unsuccessful quest for department store makeup for her dark skin produces a "crying fit." She writes, "Makeup shopping is supposed to be fun, but getting rejected time after time made this the most emotionally draining story I've ever done." Instead of merely blaming corporate racism, she then asks cosmetics companies some hard questions.
OK, so maybe Essence, like most women's mags, has too many cosmetics advertisers and can't go that deep into this particular issue. But Magnum's hit-you-in-the-guts blend of the personal and investigative could be a good direction for the pub to consider -- a way to bridge the gap between fluff and serious journalism. That might even bring more visibility for Essence -- and defeat the "crickets" reaction bemoaned by its editor.
Published By: Time Inc.'s Essence Communications Inc.