Monday, August 2, 2010

Essence and the Publishing Industry

So Essence Magazine has hired a white woman to be the Fashion Director. I, like a lot of black women am upset about this. So much so that I've objectified Elliana Placas by just calling her a white woman and moving on with whatever criticism of Essence I've felt like making. But the hiring of Ms. Placas is just part of the problem, the other problem is the dearth of Black women in powerful positions in publishing. matter who the Fashion Director is at Essence, if there's no editor, or editorial director to shape her sensibility there will be no African American aesthetic. Fashion Directors may put out ideas, but editors are the ones who put their visions into words. So at Essence, maybe this won't be as big a problem, but let's think about other magazines. Look at Vogue, even though Andre Talley was there (he's now a contributing editor), there was no editor or director to push his aesthetic and therefore introduce a fashion sense that had women of color as part of the overall ideology. Welcome to publishing....

Publishing is tricky. Career ascendancy is based on an internship system. While publishing may have changed in some ways, getting on to a career track in publishing has not. Internships start for many in college in their freshman years. Most are not paid. So many African American college students don't see the use in applying, and many are not steered in that direction by their career offices even if they are interested, (I was interested, and I was not steered in that direction). Once you're in the business, many assistants seem to find their "expert trainer" in their boss. Their boss introduces them to everyone, a huge email is sent to everyone heralding their accolades and after a year they are moved to the next step in their career track.

Well, let's just say that doesn't happen so easily for black women in publishing. The first problem is finding that "expert trainer."When I started my job, there were five production editors, two were black. No one wanted to train me. So I went to the black editors thinking I'd at least get tips on what to do. One was in her late 40s and another in her late 20s. The older more distinguished woman was wary of me the entire time and while she was very nice, never wanted to teach me anything outside of my position. "For fear", she told me one day, "of being labeled as the 'Black' production editor, and being denigrated amongst her peers." The younger production editor took me under her wing, and taught me how to produce books, without fear. Her philosophy was, "If I don't teach you, you'll be a production assistant forever!" Without her I wouldn't have advanced. And trust, I EARNED every advancement. I had bosses that put me through the fire, while I saw many of my white counterparts who had less experience and less ambition than I did be promoted. I had a boss tell me that my ambition was unsuitable for the business, because there weren't a lot people like me in the industry. He concluded that I'd never be a production director.

My story is not unique. This is a story that is told time, and time again at black women publishing seminars and forums. And while my story is in book publishing, black women in magazines and newspapers have similar (if not worse stories than mine). And trust me, this is only PART of my story. I could go on all day. But not having positions of power in the media only helps to reinforce the stereotypes that black women endure and suffer through on a daily basis. The problem with the hiring at Essence is that Essence was the one place where the racial indignities of publishing were not supposed to happen (yet I have a sneaking suspicion there are other indignities...but that's for another time). It was a haven of sorts, to see a product that was developed by African Americans and showed African Americans. Those opportunities are too few and far between.

The time now is for more internships that pay, for college advisors to see us as media material and for our community as a whole to inspire black women to write, create and express their unique perspective to the world. I also think it's high time for another magazine, that is owned and focused on us. While more black book publishers are great, the focus should also be on black owned book distributors. And of course the Internet is where you can do and say it all.

And as much pain as I've felt being a part of the media game, I'm still in it. I'm going to take it in a different direction in the next few years (combining media knowledge with the creation of social programs for African American women and young girls) but I'm still here. I'm definitely not as idealistic as I was 15 years ago, but I've survived, ready to pass on my knowledge to the next generation.

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