Has Essence Lost its Appeal for Black Women’s Issues?

by Raynard Jackson

Essence Magazine used to be the preeminent magazine for Black women in the U.S.  They, like many Black publications, have lost their relevance; and in the process become an embarrassment to the very group they claim to target.

Essence was founded in 1968 by Ed Lewis, Clarence Smith, Cecil Hollingworth, Jonathan Blount, and Denise Clark.  Their initial circulation began at around 50,000 per month and now is estimated to be over 1 million per month.  It is a monthly publication focusing on Black women between the ages of 18 and 49.  Essence was bought out by Time Inc. in 2005, thus no longer being a Black owned publication (similar to B.E.T.).

The impetus behind the founding of Essence was to show a side of Black women that was never portrayed in the mainstream media.  Images of Black women were controlled by white media outlets that had little to no knowledge of the Black community.  Most of these images were very stereotypical and lacking substance.

There were unique issues relevant to Black women that other publications were totally ignorant of.  Black women could not wear the same makeup that white women could—there are differences in skin type.  Black women have unique issues when it comes to styling their hair—there were no mainstream publications that dealt with these differences.

So, initially, Essence met a very real need and provided a venue for Black women to share common experiences with each other (remember, this was pre-internet days when you didn’t have all the instant communication we have today).

Essence portrayed Black women in the most positive of lights.  They made Black women feel proud to be Black and female!  That was then, this is now.

Now, Essence is just another Hollywood rag (focused on Black women), sprinkled with a few substantive, positive stories; but, that is no longer their focus!

I looked at the cover picture for the past year and each cover featured an entertainer.  Isn’t this the same stereotyping that we have accused white media of—showing Blacks as only entertainers?  There is nothing wrong with having entertainers on the cover, but is that all there is to offer Black women?

I can guarantee that most Black women have never heard of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Alicia Jillian Hardy, or Katie Washington.

When I went on Essence Music Festival’s website and looked at the speakers listed under “Empowerment”I was stunned and quite embarrassed!

The Essence Music Festival is the nation’s largest annual gathering of Black musical talent in the U.S.  It is a 3 day event filled with cultural celebrations, empowerment panels, and nightly entertainment by some of the biggest names in music.  It is held in New Orleans, LA every July.  The event attracts more than 200,000 people.

One of the speakers listed under “Empowerment” is “NeNe” Leakes.  She is one of the main characters of the reality TV show, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.  The show is about the private lives of women who are dating or is married to successful men in the Atlanta area.

Leakes is a foul mouth, angry, nasty person on the show and from media accounts in real life also.  She is also the founder of Twisted Hearts Foundation (which focuses on domestic violence against women).  They were forced to close down last year after being suspected of money laundering.  Leakes is also a former stripper.

One of the other speakers listed under “Empowerment” is Shaunie O’Neal, former wife of N.B.A. great Shaquille O’Neal.  She is the executive producer of “Basketball Wives.”  The women’s only claim to fame is that they either dated or were married to a pro basketball player.  They have nor had no identity outside the athletes they were involved with.

Both shows portray women in the worst light imaginable—using high profile men to get fame and fortune.  These women then try to exploit their former relationships to get their own TV show.  They are paid to tell the most intimate details of their former relationships.

Essence, could you please tell me how these two women fit into your mission of uplifting the Black woman?  What can they teach women about “empowerment?”  Is this really the image of Black women Essence wants to promote?  There are many women who could fit into your mission statement.

By the way, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in America (1921).  Alicia Jillian Hardy is the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D from M.I.T. in mechanical engineering (2007).  Katie Washington, a 21 year old, became the first Black female valedictorian in the history of  Notre Dame University (2010).  She gave a wonderful speech (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaouUZrn2vI).

One would think that Ms. Hardy and Washington deserved to be on the cover for their achievements; and most assuredly know a little something about empowerment!  Oh, I forgot, they are not entertainers, so they don’t qualify.

In times past, Black women used to look forward to reading Essence Magazine for upliftment.  That was then, this is now.  Black women no longer have the Essence of their mother and grandmother.

In Essence, there is no essence!

Raynard Jackson is president & CEO of Raynard Jackson & Associates, LLC., a D.C.-public relations/government affairs firm.  He is also a contributing editor for ExcellStyle Magazine (www.excellstyle.com


  • Gilda Rogers

    Brother Raynard Jackson could not have been more poignant in his assessment of Essence Magazine. It is a hoax. I don’t even subscribe to it anymore or purchase it when I see it at the newstands. As a community we have fallen to a celebrity driven world because I guess it sells more issues to the superficial sect with little regard to substance. Substance is what Essence used to stand for. It may as well be any other rag Magazine. As far as the women from the two reality shows Basbetball Wives and Houswives of Atlanta, I detest both of these shows and this is proof perfect to what Essence has succumb to. There is no way in hell that either of these women can empower anyone, when they represent one big bitch-fest on their shows. These shows are an embarrassment to all Black women who  are indeed Sisterfriends to one another.  I went to the very first Essence Music Festival and haven’t returned and never will.  They basically showcase the same musical acts and the seminars designed to help are well NeNe Leakes . . . need I say more. Peace. Gilda Rogers     

  • bajookie

    Wow, I don’t know what to say. I don’t get to read Essence until I’m the hair salon, so I’m not too terribly familiar with it’s regular content. I did believe, however, that it was meant for empowering black women. 

    From reading this piece, it looks like Essence needs to pick up the slack and get back to showcasing more of positive images of black women beyond entertainers. The next time I pick up an issue of Essence, I’ll be reading more closely.

  • Willenamiller

    Basically I enjoy doing the cross word puzzle while doing my laundry as well as checking out the recipes.  Other than that I “flip through the pages” until I see an interesting article.
    For those reasons I will probably keep my subscription.


  • MW

    Thanks for your comments on Essence magazine.  I too no longer suscribe to the magazine due to its format that changed some years ago.  Some years ago I attended the festival in NOLA for at least four to six years.  The speakers and presenters were phenomenal. The shows were also great.  (I remember the one time when R Kelly tried to get raunchy and bring a bed on stage, they straight went to black, turned on the lights and ended for the evening.  No one complained.  We were quite happy about this.) The author’s assessment of NeNe and Shaunie are also on point.  What a crock of junk these women bring to us.  Although this is how they make their living, so I am not going to hate on them too much.  Just as long as they don’t take themselves to seriously, they need to make their money and either step up their game or keep it moving. Maybe some of the women going to hear this will bring it to their attention by asking them “thier vision for the future.”  It may take a few sisters to get them to really focus on their futures.

  • Geraldine Bivens

    I once enjoyed reading my Essence magazines as soon as it arrived in the mail. However, I began to notice that the cover of only showed black entertaines and many ot them over and over again. I eventually stopped my subscription. I miss the true essence I once enjoyed.

  • http://twitter.com/pastorofplur pastorofplur

    You applaud black women who received Ph.D’s and other such acknowledgments that are GIVEN BY WHITE PEOPLE, and scorn women who have risen to money and status by winning the approval and love of their fellow black people. How racist of you.

    While you encourage black women to keep trying to be like white women (who have family support networks and financial resources that black women do not)…black children are left without their mothers OR their fathers. Good job. Why don’t black people just give up on trying to be free and black, and dedicate themselves to aping the ways of the whites.

  • Mccga909

    I too long for the day when we STOP celebrating ignorance. Certain people in the media will always exploit the worst of the black community. It is up to us to find new innovative ways to uplift the best of who we are.

  • Kindred2x

    Since Susan L. Taylor left Essence Magazine.  It has been down hill ever since.  Plus it is no longer a black-owned publication.  This is pschological warefare people celebrate ignorance will help destroy young minds.

  • Saab91

    I totally agree with the article.