Black and White and Read All Over
August 11, 2005
By John McWhorter
WHEN I was growing up in the 70's, Ebony and Jet were always on the coffee table, along with the late, great Ebony Jr. for children. There always seemed to be a party going on in all three of them, which is just the way their creator John H. Johnson wanted it. He created Ebony in 1945 to show that ''Negroes got married, had beauty contests, gave parties, ran successful businesses, and did all the other normal things of life.''
Ebony was still at it 60 years later when Mr. Johnson died this week -- its 717th issue is on the newsstands now. But while Ebony and Jet remain cherished in the black community, for a long time their upbeat tone has carried a certain whiff of another time -- namely, black America before the black power era in the late 60's.
As a matter of fact, it was on this day in 1965 that the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles marked a turning point in civil rights philosophy in black America. The old way focused on assimilation and paving the way to it by celebrating blacks who excelled in the ''normal things of life'' that whites did. The new way elevated separatism and supporting that argument by showing whites the plight of blacks who had it the worst.
Many saw the Watts riots and the ones that occurred nationwide in its wake over the next few years as eloquent, if chaotic, statements from blacks who had been suffering for too long. Under this mentality, black success was often treated as an inconvenient sideshow, best publicized as little as possible.
So while in the 50's the N.A.A.C.P. decried ''Amos 'n' Andy'' for not paying enough attention to successful blacks, in the late 60's black pundits ganged up on Diahann Carroll's sitcom ''Julia'' for not paying enough attention to poor blacks. Today many writers celebrate even the nastiest gangsta rap as a vibrant reflection of black culture. The new idea was that the blackest was the lowest. For those of this inclination, chirpy Ebony articles like ''Three Legal Eagles Who Just Happen to Be Triplets'' may not seem exactly like the dead center of black ''authenticity.''
Yet the fact remains that since the 60's, blacks have found that some assimilation and striving in the mainstream is usually a surer path to success than embracing angry separatism. Ebony and Jet have covered this triumph lovingly, and this becomes another reason that they can seem a tad quaint, given the eternal static in the air claiming that the scowling poses of the likes of Vibe magazine are the essence of ''real'' for black people.
But this quaintness is a victory: it shows that blacks hitting the heights in the mainstream arena are no longer extraordinary. In the 70's on its television page, Jet could point readers to almost every black performer with a regular gig. Today, blacks are so common on the tube that Jet can list only a few scattered highlights. That is something to celebrate.
However, Mr. Johnson was no Pollyanna. The cover story of the Ebony issue on the stands when the Watts riots broke out happened to be ''The White Problem in America,'' and the magazine's photographers were at the forefront in documenting the violence that civil rights workers encountered.
Mr. Johnson was, then, a Race Man to his core, well aware of the lows but not afraid to sing of the highs. And while for most of the people in his pages, success has meant leaving some black identity at the door, Mr. Johnson made himself one of the richest men in the country with an enterprise that was run by, and all about, black people -- and he did all this without being a comedian, a professional rabblerouser or playing the thug.
This is even the kind of thing that helps me forgive the staff of Ebony Jr. for not giving me a prize for the short story I sent in to their writing contest in 1974. In the end, like most blacks of his generation, Mr. Johnson knew that while racism was unpardonable, black America could achieve despite it. Having grown up poor, he was living proof of that message and under no illusion that putting it into the pages of his magazines every month was racial treason.
Legions of black people know, as Mr. Johnson did, that it is not progress for a race to treat victories as family secrets. Ebony and Jet, thriving at the newsstand and now on line as well, are an ongoing certification that black success does not require rebellion and resentment; and because of that, they will live on in black America as oldies but goodies.
©2005 The New York Times
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