Since 1970, Essence has been the leading magazine for Black women in America. Though there have been loads of glossies dedicated to Black women that have emerged throughout the years on lifestyle and fashion, Essence remains a coveted source of representation for Black women and men throughout the nation.
After three decades in business, the book seemingly met every new challenge with grace and style. When the title was acquired by Time Inc. in 2005, Essence went under what many considered to be a microscope—scrutinized for its every move, cover story, and feature, particularly the peculiar exit of it’s long-time face and anchor Susan L. Taylor. People’s concern was that the venerable title, now cherished by scores of Black people across the globe, was losing its grip on the intricacies of an ever-evolving community—more specifically, young Black women in the 18-35 demographic. The print’s 2005 transition occurred nearly simultaneously with its hiring of former executive editor of Teen People, and Honey magazines, Angela Burt-Murray.
Burt-Murray, like most leaders of the magazine, was undoubtedly poised for the esteemed post. A Hampton University alum, married with two children, novelist with a professional background firmed in managing and shaping print brands, the under-40 new editor was credited for increasing readership by eight percent, and reshaping the targeted Essence reader by increasing the household income and decreasing the median age, which is said to have “positioned the brand strongly to its target advertisers.” Moreover, Burt-Murray, a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and the American Society of Magazine Editors, was noted for steering wide coverage of the Hurricane Katrina, and exclusive interviews with dignitaries like President Barack Obama, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Of course, Burt-Murray’s successes at the largest niche women’s print, didn’t go without its set of criticisms. The print was constantly dismissed for its recycled cover subjects—featuring the same circle of Black celebrities and offering what some would consider diluted content on race relations and concerns of Black women in America—far from the hard-hitting works a brand born out of the Black Liberation movement came to be known for. Perhaps the more formal challenges of an editor-in-chief at Essence were stiffened for Burt-Murray, the first Essence leader post-Time Inc. But after the hire of a White Fashion Director, a first for the magazine, those challenges significantly heightened.
In July of 2010, we broke the news that Burt-Murray hired Ellianna Placas, a former editor at O Magazine, to lead the brand’s fashion department. The hire was met with a strong tide of contention from the Black community, most notably Michaela angela Davis, who was quoted as stating, “I feel like a girlfriend has died.” But Davis didn’t stand alone in her criticisms of the largest Black women’s brand hire of a White woman. Former editors like Harriette Cole, and writers such as Joan Morgan, also argued publicly against Placas’ hire. Although it’s rumored that Time Inc., and the brand’s president, Michelle Ebanks, were against the decision, Burt-Murray quickly defended her choice, stating, “This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to Black women, our issues, our fights.”
Four months later, the news broke that Burt-Murray had resigned from Essence as Editor-in-Chief after serving in the position for five years. Reports confirmed that Burt-Murray alerted her staff on the afternoon of Friday, November 5, 2010, that she was moving to Atlanta to be with her family. But, according to insiders at the company, Burt-Murray laid the foundation for her resignation in July, the same time the brand went under fire for its hire of Placas as its fashion director.
Twitter and Facebook went aflame with buzzing tweets and wall comments—everyone wants to know who Essence will next have at the helm. And while we can’t confirm who John Huey, Editor-in-Chief of Time Inc. and Martha Nelson, Editor of Style and Entertainment Group at Time Inc. has in mind to steer the brand into the second decade of the millennium, a few good women are in consideration for Black America’s hot seat.
Unsurprising to many, Harriette Cole is one of the picks for Essence editor-in-chief. Cole got her start at Essence as an assistant lifestyle editor, shortly after graduating from Howard University, and a tenure as a runway model. Since then, Cole went on to become a fashion director at the brand, presiding over several of the magazine’s most iconic covers. Holding leading titles at Ebony, Uptown, Savoy, and lending her sartorial eye and PR advice to a slew of starlets, Cole is a media maven over her own company, Harriette Cole Media. With decades in the business, Cole is a natural choice.
Considered the wild card for some, and the best choice for many young Black women, Michaela angela Davis is also a possibility for the next editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. While many considered her public response to Placas’ hire as racist and dismissive of the brand, Davis has maintained that her outspoken remarks over social media sites, and on CNN and “The Today Show,” were an extension of her love for Essence. Davis is no stranger at the print, having been trained at Essence under the tutelage of Susan L. Taylor as the associate fashion editor, and, later, in a post above the fashion director as the executive fashion and beauty editor. A founding fashion director for Vibe magazine, and the final editor-in-chief of the print version of Honey who also penned her own column at Vanity Fair, Davis is an urbanista beloved by loads of young Black women across the nation. Seemingly, Davis would help restore the hard-to-get 18-35 demo.
Perhaps less known to publishing laypersons—not all women claiming fashionista know how to properly pronounce Givenchy—Kierna Mayo is a force in print, known by girls who know glossies. Largely known as the co-creator and founding editor of Honey magazine—Mayo, and partners Karen Adisson and Joicelyn Dingle, developed Honey to create an uncharted space for Black women in Hip Hop generation to explore fashion, beauty and critical conversations. Championed for her work as one of the first female editors at The Source, and her writings in Vibe, XXL, Emerge, and Essence, the Hampton University alum also held the post of senior editor of Cosmogirl. While at Honey, Mayo anchored the print as one of the largest women’s brands on newstands for six years until its untimely closing. If Time Inc. wants a Honey flavor, Mayo is the right pick.
Another rumored pick under consideration is former Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith. Known for her witty cultural commentary on VH1, BET, and other media channels, Smith has a strong grip on the Hip Hop generation. Her former editor-at-large position at Time Inc. gives Smith a rare insider’s view not shared by other contenders. Her work for mass market prints like the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, Spin and The New Yorker is also likely to give her an edge.
Perhaps the dark horse in the running is Rebecca Carroll. The former managing editor for Paper and Uptown magazines, Carroll is culture writer and author of five books including Black Studies favorites, I Know What the Red Clay Looks Like: The Voice and Vision of Black Women Writers and Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America (introduction by Ntozake Shange). The Hampshire College alum has written for just about everyone including Essence. Carroll brings a wealth of print and scholarly experience firmed in an doubtless love for Black women.
Whoever the position goes to, we hope it’s a veteran with an unswerving love for Black America. A Black woman who will rock out the seat, even when it comes to a broil.
Who do you think should be next to lead Essence? Sound off!