Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Amy Alexander on Black Mass Market Idea Mags

In a Sunday, August 28, 2005 Washington Post column, "Not on My Coffee Table," author and former African.com editor Amy Alexander poses a question I've been mulling for some time: where are the contemporary Black idea magazines? By which she and I both mean, where are the mass-market magazines that present discussions of ideas and issues that might be relevant to Black Americans written by Black Americans (and other Black people)?
Alexander begins by talking about the tributes accorded to publishing visionary John H. Johnson when he passed away last month. She says:

Johnson's death got me thinking about the void that exists in the world of black-oriented publishing these days. There's the feel-good, middle-class black mirror most vividly embodied by Ebony and Jet, and the post-modern, hyper-acquisitive "bling" aesthetic found in hip-hop magazines such as Vibe and XXL. But there's no idea-driven publication aimed at black Americans -- at least none that has achieved equivalent success.

She considers what's sitting on her coffee table and what isn't. (Hint: neither the Johnson publications nor the bling ones are, though the former once did.) Alexander then gives some background history about herself and about Black mass magazines in general, and bemoans the fact that since Emerge went off the market a few years ago, no Black idea-driven magazines have appeared to replace it. (I subscribed to Emerge for a little while.) She also points out that Africana.com, for which she once wrote, is now offline as well, having been sold to the highest bidder, who didn't see enough dollars in it and unsurprisingly also didn't see its social, political or cultural indispensibility. (I had an Africana.com e-mail account till it was taken offline.)

EmergeAlexander concludes her article with the following statements: "Yet, as we experienced with the death of Africana.com, not even in the comparatively wide-open, low-overhead realm of the Internet has a serious black-oriented publication managed to find broad commercial success. So I ponder the spot once occupied by Ebony on the coffee table and realize it speaks volumes about me, about black Americans and about Americans in general." I think she's extrapolating a bit too much from her own experience, but she makes a good point: where are the magazines to fill the void left by the loss not of Ebony on her table, but of Emerge from the newsstands? Alexander mentions the NAACP's The Crisis, which despite its miniscule readership could potentially reach far more people, but it is affiliated with a private organization. Another publication that comes to mind is American Visions, which has excellent arts coverage but is seen by relatively few people.

American VisionsAre the potential Black middle class subscribers to such a publication Alexander highlights too focused on other things, too fragmented in their interests, too lacking in the kinds of racial solidarity that once drew their predecessors to Johnson's publications, too uninterested in an idea-driven periodical given all the other media out there, or is it that that the right publication or publications have yet to appear? What about poor and working-class readers? Might not such publication serve as a intellectual bridge between divergent classes? What would such a publication look like? What sorts of issues would it cover? How fully and deeply would it engage with ideas qua ideas, and would it cover the political and ideological spectrum or, like Emerge, lean toward the left? What would constitute a Black intellectual mainstream nowadays? Is this mainstream conterminous with the Black bourgeoisie Alexander describes (many Black intellectuals are members of this bourgeoisie.) Would traditional ideological terms apply?

Could this new publication get away with not celebrating celebrity, which is the main focus of so many American publications, and the global media in general? (Focusing on celebrities means not focusing on the news, which of course might get people thinking and talking....) Would it only focus on Blacks in the US, or would it range more widely to cover Africans in African and throughout the Diaspora? Some issues it could start with: Black troops in Iraq and the lack of Black support for W's war in general, Hurricane Katrina's devastation not only of Black lives but of Black history and material culture in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast, global Black women's issues, the Black American male job crisis, the situation in Darfur, the political and social turmoil in Haiti, the situation of Black pro-democracy dissenters and Assata Shakur in Castro's Cuba, and on and on. Would it be mostly journalistic, or would it also include the arts, fine and popular? So many questions...who's going to step and create a periodical that might address some--or many--of them?


  1. great post - there are many of us missing in publishing ... it is something that we really dont think about

  2. thanks for your post on my blog - i responded to you - check it out when you can.

  3. Unforunately, much of Black-American culture is highly suspect of intellectuals, or, as Susan Sontag says, "the serious."

    This is most unfortunate, because for we've had to fight so long for basic educational opportunities. Today's celebrity-driven African-American culture makes even the bourgeois and educated "play down" their accomplishments and "try to keep it real." ??

  4. Cane, thanks for posting. And Rod, I agree to some extent, though there is another side to Black American culture that encourages intellectual inquiry--which might not be viewed as serious by some--on an autodidact level.

    I'm thinking of all the folks I know who have taught themselves Afrocentric, Kemetic, Muslim, 10 percenter, etc. principles, who are knowledgeable about Africa, Black American history, and so on. Now there are publications that address some of these ideas, but you're right that in mainstream, bourgeois Black American discourse, and in particular in magazine form, there appears to be little place either for the kind of esoteric thought (or at least public engagement with it) or other kinds of public intellectual engagement, except when put forward by a very few people, like Cornel West, bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, etc., all of whom have had to play the authenticity card, to "keep it real," in part to maintain their educated, middle-class audiences.

    The sad thing is that we as Black Americans have a long tradition of intellectual and artistic inquiry, whether you go back to Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, or Benjamin Banneker, on through any number of figures in the 19th and early 20th century, like W.E.DuBois and Alain Locke. It's really, really sad that we've come to this place, but I think it's possible to turn it around. But it will require a "fight"--for those basic educational opportunities AND for a recognition of what we've accomplished on our own in the past.