American Legacy

Precisely a year into my Magazine Rack tenure, I don't think I'm an enigma in terms of my tastes. I like publications that shoot high and inside. I loathe publications (not to mention people, places and kitchen appliances... I'm looking at you, Mr. Solar-Powered Corkscrew) that are stupid.

Which is why I'd happily waive my ignore-all-publicists policy for anybody who'd steer more magazines like American Legacy my way. There's not a whole lot to it--a mere four features and three smaller stories populate the spring 2006 issue--but each item brims with intelligence and depth. See, the magazine form can serve a purpose beyond pre-haircut companionship.

Billed plainly as "the magazine of African-American history & culture," American Legacy makes its living with scholarly pieces that straddle the line between essay and personal recollection. Tonally, the title also pulls off a delicate balancing act: it's didactic but not overly dry, brainy but never abstruse. Its writers know how to tell stories, even ones buried beneath layers of historical arcana.

Take a look at any of the spring issue features. "The Bransfords of Mammoth Cave" does a stalwart job of conveying a sense of place ("None but the doughtiest cavers venture down it, and when they do, they lie on their bellies as they inch past cruel shards of crystalline rock and carefully navigate around the 20-foot pit at its center"), even while the story's central focus remains the family that has long led tours through it. The piece on early black cartoonists, on the other hand, deftly chronicles the evolution of their work and frames it within a larger societal context.

As a centerpiece, the spring American Legacy offers a lengthy excerpt from the memoir of quadruple threat (photographer/artist/novelist/poet... what, can't the guy sing or cha-cha?) Gordon Parks. No, it doesn't take a lot of skill to reproduce chunks of a preexisting text; what elevates the lengthy feature are the economical paragraphs that connect the selections, which provide welcome background and help elucidate just what a pivotal figure Parks was.

It goes without saying that the Parks feature is lavishly illustrated with some of his best-known photographs, but American Legacy scores on the graphic front elsewhere by doing the unthinkable: completely eschewing that ubiquitous cockroach of American magazine design, the sidebar. That's right--there's nary a single one to be found, and the publication still looks as classy as Saturday night. Stick that in your beloved "multiple entry points" and smoke it, or something.

American Legacy loses a few points on the ad/edit front, owing to the inclusion of several tacky advertorial features. The most egregious inclusion, a Florida-travel supplement, is so tonally and graphically out of whack with the rest of the issue as to make one wonder whether there was some kind of printer's screwup. On the plus side, the "Women of Strength & Courage" special advertising feature (their description, not ours) presents better-written profiles than one usually finds in any number of gal-oriented titles.

So yeah, I've pretty much bought everything American Legacy is selling (except the Florida pitch--thanks, but give me a snowdrift and a knish anyday). It may get lost on the newsstand, which is the price you pay for placing Gordon Parks instead of Beyonce on your cover, but it deserves shortlist placement from anybody with even a passing interest in American history and culture.

Next story loading loading..