For many Black Americans, Ebony was Life. Or stated another way, the monthly Ebony magazine—which in 2020 celebrated its 75th year of publishing, and which founder John. H. Johnson (1918–2005) admittedly patterned on America’s most popular photo weekly (which, in turn, was influenced by England’s Picture Post)—was integral to the Black media experience.
As Lavaille Lavette writes in the introduction to the important new book Ebony: Covering Black America (Rizzoli), “The iconic Ebony magazine was conceived to show us (Black America) and the world that regardless of the larger society’s animosity and indifference, Black is Beautiful!”
So taut were the color lines when Ebony began in the postwar, Jim Crow 1940s, the magazine seemed like it was reporting from a parallel universe. Although neither Ebony nor Life magazines were off limits to anyone who wanted to subscribe, there was a clear division between the targeted audiences. Black Americans were much more likely to subscribe to Ebony and Life, while whites only to Life. Black people or events were, however, more frequent on Life’s covers than whites on Ebony, which almost always featured the heroes and celebrities of the Black American community. For the core demographic, “Ebony has been a breath of fresh air,” continues Lavette, “speaking on issues and events from a Black perspective, celebrating Black standards of beauty, and elevating … athletes, entertainers, activists, elected officials or some combination thereof.”
Ebony magazine was a photo chronicle of its times, and Ebony: Covering Black America is a testament to the inextricable place Black people have in the American mainstream (and counterculture, too). As you may have gleaned from the subtitle, the book is a time capsule of the magazine’s most important covers, organized according to “Civil Rights and Social Justice,” “Love and Family,” “Ebony Man,” “Ebony Woman,” each introduced by a famous guest essayist (also featuring an afterword by Venus Williams), and peppered with quotations about the heritage and pride that was the magazine’s guiding light.
Some of the covers are fascinating for who and what was considered newsworthy, with headlines like “Sarah Vaughn Adopts a Child,” “Family Life of the Jackson Five,” “Virginia’s First Negro Medical Grad.” Or the large number of covers with Muhammad Ali, and more with other Black boxing champs, or the multiples with singers Lena Horne and Aretha Franklin. Some covers are tinged with sadness, notably the issue devoted to the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for which his cover portrait partially covers the usually red Ebony nameplate, printed in funerary black.
As times changed and publications got smaller and more reliant on coverlines and other enticements to attract audience, the Ebony format became more contemporary, and the photoshoots more in sync with the mainstream; even so, that nagging sense of a parallel universe is what makes this book so compelling. It's about America, but another shade of America. This is made even more powerful with the 75-year overview of every cover from 1945 to 2020—an incredible record of history.