Michael, Aretha, Beyoncé, and the Black Press

Johnson Publishing Company / Ebony Media Operations, Collage by Katie Kosma

Michael Jackson had special relationships with Ebony and Jet. Since their beginnings, the publications, founded by John H. Johnson in Chicago in 1945 and 1951, covered the lives of Black celebrities, professionals, and everyday people alongside a strong political undercurrent.

Jet was a weekly digest memorable to me for the Beauty of the Week centerfolds my uncles and cousins scattered around their homes and the Black music charts printed at the back of each issue. It’s perhaps best known for photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, published in 1955.

The lifestyle monthly Ebony was patterned after Life and Look. In its January 1960 issue, a remarkable story written by William B. Davis profiled several Black Americans living in Russia in the midst of the Cold War, asking, “Who are the Negroes in Russia? How did they get there? How are they treated? Are they really free?” A story on Miles Davis from December 1982 was mostly about his recovery from a stroke, but he also critiqued Rolling Stone. I like that magazine,” he said to Ebony, “but the last time I saw it, it had all white guys in it. How about Kool and the Gang? Earth, Wind, and Fire? They should write more about people like that.”

Throughout Michael’s 40 years in show business, Ebony published stories such as “The Michael Jackson Nobody Knows,” on important career milestones. In an interview from 1987, about the release of Bad, he utters a simple but heavy sentence: “I don’t remember not performing.” These stories humanize Michael and try to turn the narrative away from the spectacle and speculation growing around him. The coverage would become strategic when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote about discovering this phenomenon in his essay “Michael”:

It’s fascinating to read the interviews he gave to Ebony and Jet over the past thirty years. I confess myself disoriented by them, as a white person. During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted only them, would speak only to them. The articles make me realize that about the only Michael Jackson I’ve ever known, personality-wise, is a Michael Jackson who’s defending himself against white people who are passive-aggressively accusing him of child molestation. He spoke differently to black people, was more at ease. The language and grain of detail are different.

What a pleasure to find him listening to early ‘writing version demos of his own compositions and saying, ‘Listen to that, that’s at home, Janet, Randy, me…You’re hearing four basses on there…’

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Since Beyoncé’s fourth Vogue cover was announced, I’ve been thinking about how the Black press has always been where Black artists could have their work spoken about with integrity. Being Black could be simple matter of fact there, unencumbered by duty of explanation or self-defense. The burden of racism wasn’t the centerpiece or engine of every story. The humanity of subjects was not flattened, defanged, or made into spectacular monstrosity. Beyoncé hasn’t given a traditional magazine interview since 2013, presumably to get around some of these mainstream media tendencies. She has produced an increasingly complex body of visual, sound, and performance art, creating her own candid language. It made sense that the Vogue team would allow her “unprecedented control” of the editorial as reports claimed. The reports also let us know that for the first time in the magazine’s history, a Black photographer, Tyler Mitchell, would shoot its cover.

When the cover was revealed, however, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour told “Business of Fashion” that it was the Vogue team who’d been in control creatively. It had been their idea to initiate such a sea change for the magazine. Wintour, after all, was who’d made André Leon Talley the magazine’s first Black creative director in 1988. Writing about his tenure for the Washington Post, Talley said he “sounded no bullhorn over diversity.” Cover photography had been “entirely in the hands of others.” He takes a somewhat defensive position, but really, he doesn’t need to. Not even one Black photographer captivated the Vogue team enough in more than one hundred years. How could that have been mere oversight?

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beyonce-vogue

Condé Nast

In Mitchell’s finest image, Beyoncé is seated in a Southern Gothic tableau, in front of a plain white sheet, wearing a bridal gown and a crown of real flowers. It could be a still from Lemonade. I see the stare of a woman in refusal, though I’m not sure of what. Beyoncé’s artistry and vivacious attention to her own life is pregnant with history and memory — she’s at an apex of a long line of Black women in American entertainment. Dorothy Dandridge, whose singing voice was dubbed over in Carmen Jones. Lena Horne, whose work in musicals was sometimes deleted when the films screened in the South. Lauryn Hill, who disappeared from the spotlight at the height of her fame. The weight of all that is there, softly referenced in the images, directly in the cover story. But the critic Robin Givhan found an opaque, disappointing muteness in the cover image. “Nothing is divulged,” she wrote.

I think a lot about how journalists called Aretha Franklin a difficult person to interview. “Whatever you learn from Aretha when you sit down and talk to her, you’ve got to watch her onstage if you really want to know what she thinks and feels and agonizes about,” Ed Bradley said after speaking with her in 1990. In Respect, biographer David Ritz documented numerous times Franklin arranged interviews with Jet as counterpoint to an unfavorable report in another outlet.

Beyoncé’s Vogue photos are gorgeous, but I wonder what the editorial would have looked like if she’d truly trusted the publication’s creative team to support her. There’s still much to be desired in the way Black subjects, even the most distinguished and well-known, are portrayed in the mainstream. I’m fatigued by the hollow kind of diversity that tokenizes and the endless stories about racism and racial trauma. If I never again hear about how a Black or brown person has “taught” a white person something of moral value, I’d be pleased. In the not-so-distant past, glossies like Ebony, Jet, Vibe, The Source, and weekly papers like the Michigan Chronicle, and the Chicago Defender existed all at once. They had cachet and resources, and, importantly, a cauldron of Black editors and photographers and stylists who’d come up through the ranks. They created generative, textured counterpoints to mainstream narratives, and their teams were personally and institutionally invested in the growth, preservation, and rigorous interpretation of Black culture.

For better and for worse, and on the whole, they were trusted — to not denigrate, degrade, diminish, or exclude their subjects. To light them beautifully, to see, hear, and listen.

Ebony, Vibe, Essence and many local newspapers such as the Michigan Chronicle, the Chicago Defender, the St. Louis American and the Tri-State Defender are still publishing. Much of the archives of Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest are available digitally via Google Books. The Obsidian Collection is digitizing the archive of many legacy Black newspapers. Digital-first publications such as CASSIUSOkayplayer, the Grio, and the Root do excellent work. But the media landscape has contracted and consolidated. Some Black outlets have shut down. Many of those that remain are unable to publish with the cadence they once did. Much Black talent is scattered about. Diversity is universally in, at least in this moment. It has become a business imperative for mainstream publications. That’s a win and a progression. But it has come with a cost.