ESSENCE over 50 years celebrating Black women

After the 2020 election, phrases like “listen to Black women” were oft repeated, but not a reality for Black women in politics or business.

The Women’s Right movement in America has been tied to the emancipation of Blacks and civil rights. To defeat talks of emancipation or dismantling “separate but equal” policies, politicians would tack on a women’s right provision as a prerequisite or negotiating point.

Therefore, it typically pitted women’s rights against equality for Blacks. Unfortunately, equality for women did not necessarily translate into equality for women of color, especially Black women.

Black women make $.67 to every dollar a white man makes, less than the $.78 a white woman makes. Venture capitalists invest only 2% in female founders and even less than that for women of color. And now, Black women owned businesses, like the Fearless Fund, are being targeted for investing in Black women entrepreneurs.

Fortunately, Black women have never waited on mainstream America to celebrate them.

“There’s an African proverb that says when you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” Jonathan Blount, one of the founders of ESSENCE, said. “The vision was for Black women and we still believe the Black woman is the essence and transference of culture.”

In 1968, four Black men — Edward Lewis, Clarence O. Smith, Cecil Hollingsworth and Jonathan Blount — founded ESSENCE Communications Inc. to celebrate the beauty of the Black woman.

“ESSENCE made its debut in 1970 when Black women were [portrayed] as uncouth, foul-mouth and on welfare,” Edward Lewis, a co-founder said. “It brings me great joy to be part of this history, this journey that made ESSENCE the continuing friend that Black women have come to appreciate.”

ESSENCE is celebrating 50 years of Black ownership and partnered with Oprah’s OWN for a five part docu-series, Time of Essence, highlighting the company’s history and global impact to make sure Black women were seen and heard.

Representation matters

ESSENCE’s origin story is a Black man’s love letter to the Black woman. At a time when Black women were not seen nor celebrated, ESSENCE embraced “Black is beautiful” throughout its pages.

“The founding of ESSENCE was about illuminating the Black Woman — celebrating her, placing her where she belonged,” Caroline Wanga, president and CEO of ESSENCE Ventures, said. “ESSENCE did its job and Black women are now the CEO of home, culture, and community — leading from the forefront of the culture that she defines with the equity that she already understands she needs, and with unapologetic celebration for the way that she’s changing the world. So that we can have the right economic positioning we deserve as a black community as a part of what we do out here.”

From its early beginnings as ESSENCE magazine to the annual ESSENCE festival in New Orleans, ESSENCE has blossomed into ESSENCE Ventures which includes the acquisition of AfroPunk.

ESSENCE is the place where we were always celebrated and not tolerated,” Mikki Taylor, a former ESSENCE beauty and cover director, said. “There was a demand and hunger for it because [ESSENCE] had the role of affirming, inspiring, and empowering Black women and there was no woman of African descent that didn’t need that.”

“Everyday we live by the mantra of the magazine that says we put this magazine out for and about ourselves [and] when that’s the standard, there is no part of ourselves that could not be part of our truth,” Taylor said.

When women magazines refused to put Black women on their pages, ESSENCE had Black models grace every page and made sure advertisers used Black models, helping to launch careers of famous supermodels like Beverly Johnson and Iman.

ESSENCE embraced and celebrated the various shades, shapes, and curves of the woman, hiring a plus size model for its swimsuit issue.

“Pamela Macklin made me the first plus size model to shoot their swimsuit issue,” Liris Crosse said. “Thank you for allowing me to be seen because that allowed so many other women to be seen and a lot of times …we just need to be seen and heard.”

Representing all facets of the Black woman is a mandate at ESSENCE.

ESSENCE addressed topics about Black women that others shied away from like coming out as queer or lesbian.

“ESSENCE was a place where I was so happy to be in my blackness, but wasn’t living my full truth as a lesbian,” Linda Villarosa, a former ESSENCE writer, said. “It turned out everyone in the magazine convinced me that it was a safe place to tell my story [and] was one of the largest most responded to articles in the history of the magazine.”

Ownership turmoil and the making of the documentary

ESSENCE’s story is not without turmoil. As the magazine thrived, trouble among the founding partners threatened its existence with a hostile takeover attempt in the late 1970s.

By 2005, ESSENCE was no longer Black-owned when TIME Inc. bought a 49% stake in the company.

In 2018, it returned to Black ownership when Richelieu Dennis, founder of Sundial Brands which owns Shea Moisture, formed ESSENCE Ventures and bought back the company from TIME Inc.

The Dennis family’s success with the Shea Moisture brand, celebrating Black hair — kinky, curly, straight, or Afro — aligns with the vision that started ESSENCE.

“The building of the Shea Moisture brand learned how to out-punch its weight class because it completely dedicated itself to Black women, unapologetically — understanding the impact and the influence of serving Black women because she is the epicenter,” Emmet Dennis said.

Emmet spearheaded the effort to get the documentary on the screen.

“We have a great opportunity to steward this brand and 51 Minds Entertainment understood that done well this would be not just a television show, but a cathartic experience,” Dennis said. “We pitched to networks and as fate would have it, Oprah and OWN picked us up. That’s destiny.”

The future of ESSENCE

ESSENCE is more than a magazine or festival — it’s a reflection of Black women and the culture.

“We now talk about ESSENCE as a platform, opposed to a magazine, where everybody can be represented and feel safe,” Richelieu Dennis said. “The way we focus on culture, on every generation, and the opportunities that we build across the platform that every generation has its home, place, and is celebrated. That for us is what the future will be.”

The documentary, Time of Essence, will become its own cultural artifact in American history chronicling the contributions of Black women.

“After you see the five episodes of this documentary, understand that you’re now the sixth episode,” Wanga said. “The power and passion of you as individuals is what will continue for another five decades. Find your place and move further ahead than where you picked it up. Do not leave it where you found it. Start writing the sixth episode because now it’s on you.”

Time of Essence airs every Friday on OWN starting August 18th.

Originally published by MAKERS Women for Yahoo Life.

Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.