Farewell, Ebony. You Earned Your Retirement.

Let’s thank the magazine for its years of stellar service—and keep it moving.

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When word spread recently that the venerable magazines Ebony and Jet were up for sale, a palpable sense of depression could be felt throughout some segments of black America.

This sense of depression would generally reside among those born before 1960, or at least those whose sympathies lie with the pre-‘60 crowd. For a certain generation of African Americans, Ebony and Jet were as integral to blackness as Murray’s “Superior Hair Dressing Pomade,” a “Deuce and a Quarter” and funeral home hand-fans featuring the holy triumvirate of MLK, JFK and RFK. And now, once again, like Motown and BET before it, a black media empire is being put on the auction block. Considering that Ebony and Jet were in existence before Motown and well before BET, the depression is perhaps that much stronger this time around.

The depressed among us worry that the potential sale of another black media property to perhaps a large non-black corporate media conglomerate signals the continued erosion of black capitalism in the post-civil rights era. These economic black nationalists bemoan the loss of something they consider their own. While such feelings speak to a certain sense of racial pride, those who hold such ideas personify the definition of Old School in the worst possible way. The fact is, Ebony and Jet have not been relevant for a long time, and neither have their supporters.

For those with a contemporary mind-set who have grown up either mocking the datedness of Ebony and Jet or not even being particularly aware of them, the potential sale carries much less significance. If anything, some might have even breathed an it’s-about-time sigh of relief. I know I did.

Yet for those who grew up in an era either stuck in segregation or its immediate aftermath, Ebony and Jet were much-needed national publications that confirmed the humanity of black existence when other mainstream publications ignored it. Like black banks , black insurance companies and black colleges, Ebony and Jet served a vital purpose in an era quite unlike the present, spreading all the relevant black news that other publications deemed unfit to print.

There was no better proof of that role than in Jet’s publication of the infamous Emmett Till photos in 1955. Their publication brought attention to the racial terrorism that ruled the South and helped to bolster the burgeoning civil rights movement. I remember once going through a box of old Ebony and Jet magazines that my mother kept. This would have been in the ’70s. As I rummaged through this archive of black history, I became transfixed upon seeing for the first time the surreal photos of Till’s mutilated head. At the time, I was about the same age as he was when he was brutally murdered. Though I was not born when that occurred, the magazine photos helped connect me with the larger historical narrative around race and blackness that I was only starting to understand.

Ebony and Jet are most certainly cultural symbols of historical importance. The magazines represented the pioneering vision of John H. Johnson, who built a publishing empire out of thin air and who, along with Berry Gordy, came to embody the image of the black media mogul at a time when most black people couldn’t even get a drink of water in a public place. Johnson’s magazines served a mighty purpose, documenting the lives of people for whom invisibility had become the norm. The magazines often cast black life in a uniquely glamorous light that was very much ahead of its time, and they also featured news about everyday black people who would have never made anyone else’s pages. Where else could you read about black people who had won the local lottery and got buried in a coffin made to look like a Cadillac? Yet, as with many black institutions from that era, when the walls of segregation began crumbling and then falling, Ebony and Jet struggled to keep up with the new pace.

Like historically black colleges and universities that once had a lock on enrolling most of the best black athletes, desegregation meant that these perpetually underfunded institutions suddenly had to struggle to compete for talent that had been theirs by default. Many would complain about how desegregation robbed these schools of their own resources. But such whining undermined the massive gains that access to mainstream educational institutions afforded future generations.

While the old heads were still crying over what they lost because of desegregation, black culture was slowly seeping into previously hostile sectors of American culture. From the 1980s forward, black culture imposed itself on the mainstream in such a way that would make publications like Ebony and Jet obsolete.

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