In 1969, four African American men came together with the idea to build a magazine for women; despite having no previous publishing experience, these men, who possessed different individual strengths, drew from their collective vision and conceived what would become the legendary Essence magazine.
When it comes to magazines, Essence, which officially hit newsstands in 1970, long ago established its iconic place in American culture. In the book The Man from Essence: Creating A Magazine for Black Women, Edward Lewis, one of the magazine’s four founders, details the birth of the magazine as well as the ups and downs along the way, including some behind the scenes tales involving sexism, racism, egos and much more.
SoulTrain.com spoke with Lewis to discuss his book, the magazine’s business relationship with Soul Train, and the importance of Essence’s relationship with black women and the black community at large.
SoulTrain.com: During the magazine’s infancy, it is understandable why the black female market was a tough sell to advertisers; however, many remained skeptical well after it was up and running. Why do you think this was?
Edward Lewis: I think it’s how black women are perceived within our society. Just remember, in 1970 when Essence came out, black women were thought of as uncouth, loud-mouthed, unfeminine, on welfare, unkempt, and poor. We had to overcome and change that perception of how black women are viewed. I’m happy to say today, for example, that the young lady Lupita [Nyong’o] who won the Academy Award last year, is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. And then I look at Beyoncé, who is considered one of the most influential women in the world. Of course, we have Oprah and then with Michelle Obama in the White House, the perception and change of beauty as to how black women are viewed has been one of the wonderful things I’ve witnessed over these 45 years of Essence being out here. But it’s still a tough sell; you still have black women who are not, in terms of modeling, seen on fashion pages, and they still aren’t exhibited on fashion pages in the ways we would like to see.
SoulTrain.com: Other magazines aimed at black women just weren’t successful at commanding the market the way Essence has. What would you attribute to the magazine cornering the market the way it has, for so long, even amid the current climate of print media?
Edward Lewis: It was always about content and trying to reach the needs of what the audience wanted, more specifically, what black women wanted. And we had tried to provide a wealth of information to black women in terms of dealing with her needs in regards to beauty, health, fashion, careers, education and taking care of family, and knowing that she not only has to deal with being black but also being a woman. Essence has been able to, editorially, strike a nerve with black women and black women have said to themselves, “There’s a publication that I can look at that I know cares about me.” I thank all the editors-in-chief who have been at Essence, as well as the current editor-in-chief, Vanessa Bush [De Luca] who’s there now, who understand and appreciate what the mission is and how to serve black women. That’s always going to be the test in terms of the sustainability of the magazine as long as we are able to editorially give black women what they want.
SoulTrain.com: The early 70s ushered in a new era of what would become iconic black entrepreneurship—for example, Essence, George Johnson and Johnson Products, John H. Johnson and Johnson Publications (Ebony and Jet), and of course Don Cornelius and Soul Train. In the book, you talk about Essence’s business relationship with Soul Train. Could you tell us more about this?
Edward Lewis: We owe a great deal to Don Cornelius because we didn’t have a vehicle to advertise in television. Also, the importance of Soul Train and the decision that Don made to have us advertise and also be supportive of Johnson Products, was very instrumental in getting our name out there in the marketplace among our audience. It showed the black women who were connected to Essence that it was a magazine that cared about them and they should be supporting it. I just want to say thank you to all of Soul Train fans, and thank you to Don Cornelius.
SoulTrain.com: The book details your strong conviction about black businesses’ responsibility to speak out on sociopolitical issues; in fact, Essence has garnered mainstream attention with its current issue being entirely devoted to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What are your thoughts?
Edward Lewis: Our lives do matter. In terms of what’s happened in Ferguson and New York and also what’s happened in Cleveland, those kinds of things, when they happen, make you very angry and upset. And that’s why it’s very important for us to speak out and make sure that those in government who have responsibilities for providing safety and oversight be put on notice that how they interact with our community is going to be watched and not tolerated. We want safety in our communities, too, but we don’t want to be mishandled in terms of what’s happened to us in the past.
SoulTrain.com: Was there ever an issue that wasn’t covered during your tenure that you wish the magazine had addressed?
Edward Lewis: Well, Essence was at the forefront of dealing with apartheid in its early years, and also with dealing with international issues like what was going on in Nicaragua. People would say, “Why would you deal with issues like that?” We don’t condescend to our audience; we think black women want to know about all these issues. We dealt with AIDS—we had a black woman on the cover who had AIDS. We also dealt with domestic abuse. We tried to cover all the issues related to what’s going on our community and do it with an understanding and hopefully a fairness that black women can appreciate. Essence is now at 45 years of celebrating the beauty and intelligence of black women; if we can continue to do that, I think black women will continue to be supportive of us.
SoulTrain.com: While reading the book and noting all the classism, colorism, sexism, racism, and behind the scenes action, there is definitely a potential movie in the making. Has there been any talk of this at all?
Edward Lewis: [Laughs] Well, I think so! But it’ll take people like you who can speak up and talk about it and encourage people to read my book and see what they think about that—hey—put the word of mouth out there!
SoulTrain.com: Many black men are also regular readers of Essence. At any point, was a companion magazine for them ever considered?
Edward Lewis: One of the things I feel very good about is that we used to devote the entire November issue to men. And we’ve had a wonderful interaction and relationship because we wanted black men and black women to have an understanding of each other. One of the reasons why I wrote The Man from Essence was to let black women know that, with all these issues we had to deal with, it was four bodacious and bold black men who came together to start Essence to celebrate their beauty, their intelligence and their history.
SoulTrain.com: For the business or entrepreneurial-minded person, there are lots of great tips and lessons in the book. What do you hope resonates with readers the most?
Edward Lewis: I want people to understand that business is about taking risks. It’s about identifying issues or needs that need to be addressed where you think you can do things differently and that will enable you to have an advantage. It’s also important to know that cash is “King, Queen, Jack” and everything else with respect to how you run your business. You need to hire the best people you can find and you also need to be able to listen, because listening is very important with regard to having an appreciation for what others are saying. Running a business is tough. It’s not for everybody. You have to have a different kind of mindset; actually, you have to be a little bit crazy to step out here and decide you’re going to go out and do something on your own. But if you have that desire and that capability and want to do something, understand that it requires hard work. It’s not easy at all. It is 24/7, but it’s worth it in terms of the outcome and results that would take place if you decide to get out there and want to start your own business.
The Man from Essence: Creating A Magazine for Black Women is available on Amazon.com.
LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and editor from Chicago, Illinois. She is an arts and entertainment enthusiast who has a serious thing for stand-up comedy, music and dance. Follow her on Twitter: @MsWilliamsWorld.