What's Not on My Coffee Table

By Amy Alexander
Sunday, August 28, 2005

Following the death earlier this month of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, his publications emerged as central symbols of African American life. "By the early1970s," wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Charles Sheehan, "it was common in thousands of African American homes . . . to have two choices of reading material on coffee tables: the Bible and Ebony magazine."

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. Why? An honest assessment should probably begin at home: Here's what you'd have found on my coffee table, should you have stopped by in mid-August:

· Three board books by the children's author Sandra Boynton.

· A Land's End clothing catalogue.

· The Aug. 22 New Yorker.

· The August Harper's.

No Ebony or Jet on the table, or anywhere else in my house. No copies of Vibe, the Source, Black Enterprise or Essence, either. No, with our time for reading so limited by life's exigencies -- also known as two children under6 -- our intake has been pared down in recent years to publications that meet a simple criterion: What do we need to know? I'm looking for that sort of general-interest magazine for the black reader and I'm not finding it.

While it is true that white American readers, especially parents, likely go through a similarly ruthless selection process, for black Americans that process is accompanied by a raft of cultural and historic factors, including a strong degree of pressure to remain loyal to "black brands." Moreover, the question of black Americans' identity -- most often framed in terms of whether one is "black enough" -- tosses an especially incendiary element into the mix.

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