After 63 years, Wednesday’s announcement that Jet magazine is moving to an online-only format in June is prompting collective cries of loss and word associations in the black community. Beauty shops, barber shops, “Beauty of the Week!”
The Chicago-based publication with a circulation of more than 700,000 predictably chronicled famous blacks, beginning at a time when the black press was the only place they could get some confetti. But it also served as a ticker tape, a news crawl, providing a reliably tactile, even granular sense of black life in America. And for decades, it has been the signature piece of pass-around literature in places where black people congregate.
“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” says Desiree Rogers, CEO of Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company, which publishes Jet and Ebony magazines. “We have not taken this lightly at all.” The move to a digital app for tablets and mobile devices will allow the magazine to return to a weekly format (it currently publishes every three weeks) and to feature daily updates. “It’s really important in this day and age that you get information to people right away, that it doesn’t become stale.” The online version will still have all the familiar features of Jet, including its signature beauty centerfold, Rogers assures.
But Jet has always been among the blackest places in black culture, and for many, including me, the loss of paper Jet feels personal. My wedding and my story on my cousin (headline: “Light-Skinned Cousins In Maryland Pick Different Racial Paths”) was in Jet; my mamma, and her family of educators, was a Jet cover story in 1959. And I personally know at least two former centerfolds. So many others have similar connections.
Jet was the first mass media publication to reach the black working and middle class alike, says Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“It didn’t matter that you weren’t living in the South, you learned what was going on in the South,” says Bunch. “It didn’t matter that you weren’t living in Boston, you learned about what was going on in Boston. It was a beacon for all that was possible for the race and a searchlight for all the horrible moments that tend to be hidden.”
One of those moments included the 1955 pictures of the lynched Emmett Till.
Jet carried the story and pictures of Till’s battered body around the nation, galvanizing attention and outrage and making Till a totem for Southern racial predations. Post-civil rights, it featured the acendance of the black middle and political class. The magazine is all about the celebrations of black life as well. It featured wedding announcements, awards, achievements, and a weekly list of when and where blacks would appear on television — a throwback to a time when such appearances were rare and to be noted.
“I’ll tell you what I will miss,” says Bunch. “It’s the wonderful moment that always happened in the barbershop when you would sit there waiting your turn as a teen. You’d grab a Jet, learn about what was going on and look at the ‘Beauty of the Week.’ Because Jet was there, it stimulated conversation and really made the barbershop a place of community because we all would have read that same Jet and talked about whatever the issues were.”
It’s difficult to overstate how much of that conversation and community coming together was around that “Beauty of the Week.” I went to college with a guy who had his entire dorm room papered with pictures of Jet centerfolds. Beauties came cocoa-colored, cream-colored and cafe au lait, pretty in the face and largely thick in the thighs, with their measurements listed right next to their names. The feature has unselfconsciously been a decades-long celebration of a lush black beauty aesthetic run with the tacit understanding: little bitty sisters need not apply.
Katrina Meares-Garland, a government IT specialist from Bowie, wore an orange and yellow bikini in a December of 2000 “Beauty of the Week.”
The reaction “was definitely all positive,” says Meares-Garland. “The first person who called me was my dad. Then people I worked with called to tell me I was in there. I took the shots and they do inform you, but by the time I got the letter and the free publication, it was already on the newsstand.” She was 34 at the time and says it was an honor to be chosen.
Everybody knows about the Jet “Beauty of the Week,” she says. “Even today, I’m sure that’s still the first thing people turn to when they pick up Jet.” And while no one recognized her on the street, her friends told everyone they met and people ran out to pick up a copy and ask her to autograph it. “I did have five minutes of fame,” Meares-Garland says, but “I’ve had other members of my family be in Jet for other reasons, and it almost felt like a family tradition.”
Rogers says she gets the attachment to the Jet that always fit inside people’s back pocket or purse but insists it will all work out. Think about reading the playlist, being able to touch the screen and actually hear the music, she says. “Wouldn’t it be great to see beauty of the week in 360?” They’re not changing what people love about Jet, says Rogers. “We’re just going to bring it alive.”
Of course, for those of us who grew up on Jet, who passed the long hours of black beauty and barbershop time passing around that small pocket-sized version, it was already alive.