For decades, Ebony magazine provided something unique: a high-gloss, high-profile magazine focused solely on black America. While other magazines offered occasional glimpses into their lives, their heroes and their challenges, Ebony put African Americans and their stories on the cover and on every page that followed.
As a result, the magazine became much more than a black version of mainstream publications. It became a vital fount of cultural identity. And while John H. Johnson, the man who founded Ebony in 1945, certainly was the primary creator of the magazine, it was, in many ways, Lerone Bennett Jr. who turned it into a cultural touchstone through his emphasis on teaching his readers about their history.
“You can make the case for Bennett being the most widely read black historian of the 20th century because of the number of people who read the magazine,” said E. James West, author of “Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett Jr.: Popular Black History in Postwar America” (University of Illinois Press). “That reach gives him a really powerful position.”
West could seem an unlikely candidate for writing a book about Ebony’s editorial anchor. A white Brit, he developed his interest in the magazine while researching performers such as James Brown, on whom he did his undergraduate dissertation. When he discovered the magazine digitized on Google, his fascination grew.
“Ebony is like a very bougie consumer-oriented, oddly problematic magazine in many ways,” West said. Recently, though, he added, scholars are increasingly recognizing what has been described as “the radical blackness of Ebony.”
We recently talked with West as he prepares for the publication of his next book, a biography of Lerone Bennett Jr.
Why was Bennett so dedicated to writing about black history?
Bennett is part of this longer tradition of the black press being an outlet for black history. You had popular historians before Bennett who wrote serialized black history and articles in black publications, but what I think Bennett does particularly well is that he, really, he is able to insert these quite radical – not always, but often quite radical – ideas and arguments into this ostensibly superficial and consumer-oriented magazine. There is this very strong history of black history as a living history, this kind of relationship between black history and activism. He understood black history as a political project, and he very much sees the writing of black history as part of the ongoing civil rights struggle.
Who was the audience for Bennett’s work?
Bennett was not ever confused about who his audience is. Bennett is writing for the liberation of black people, and that is sort of the North Star of his writing, from the beginning of his career to the end of his career.
He and Johnson didn’t always have the same mission for covering black history, did they?
I think it was a shared mission, but they had kind of different reasons for it. In his autobiography – which was written by Bennett and Johnson – Johnson has this line where he said, “I wasn’t interested in making history. I was interested in making money.” That’s not to say he didn’t care about the educational component, but it was secondary to the bottom line.
Bennett had a lot of autonomy, didn’t he?
Bennett has this kind of degree of editorial autonomy because he has this relationship with Johnson, and he works for a black-owned publication. There were certainly things that are published that he would not have gotten published anywhere else. All of his books are published through the Johnson Publishing books division. I can think of one or two of his books that I think he would have struggled to have a mainstream publisher publish, because he’s not trained as a historian. He doesn’t have a PhD. He didn’t do history at university. He’s like a popular historian. So, it’s unlikely that another publisher would have given him financial backing.
What lessons can we take from this story?
I think the first thing is just a reminder of the historical significance and diversity of the black press in America. Particularly for people of younger generations today, the black press is not something that figures in their imagination. But for the majority of public, the black press was once a key to access and expression for black America.
Also, I think it would be very difficult to see a figure like Bennett today. Like, the platform isn’t there. I also think it’s a lot easier now for people to consume black history in a more democratic way. A good example of that is Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society. It’s not like a single author is producing that content. You get a lot of different perspectives in that kind of curation of black history in the way you didn’t get with Bennet.
Even with his relationship with Johnson, you saw some of the classic advertising vs. editorial tensions in Bennett’s career.
The tensions that journalists have with balancing editorial perspectives with the demands of advertising and demands of publishing? Those are consistent. Bennett is a really powerful example of a journalist who has a clear ideological position and he finds a way to project or disseminate that position and he does it through the pragmatism of aligning himself with someone that doesn’t share the same perspective that he does … But he has that kind of understanding that, “To do the work that I have to do as a journalist, I will have to make concessions to get my message out to the people that I want to hear it.”