Aug 11, 2005
Anybody talking about John H. Johnson? Why not?
Wednesday night is a church night so if you get an entry on a Wednesday, you better know it means something to me. I'm tired and sleepy and just got back from church but there's something that's bothered me all week.
Did you know that Peter Jennings died? I guess you did. I guess you couldn't listen to the radio or the TV without knowing about it. I guess you think he's the only one who died in the last few days. There were actually quite a few people who died.
One of them was John H. Johnson.
He started and published Jet
. Now I'm guessing if you never heard of them you don't get that those were important magazines. They helped fight stereotypes and they also helped people see what blacks could be and were. Back in the day, you didn't have Dr. Huxtable and the Huxtable clan. You didn't have a Denzel or anyone like that. If you saw a black person on your TV set they were usually a criminal or a maid or some servent. Now maybe they were a guest star on a musical special. That's about the most that could be hoped for.
My grandparents can tell you about it, my mother can tell you about it. (My father could tell you about it if he were still alive.)
You know when you pick up People Magazine
and all the people in the ads are white? That's pretty common. Ebony
were important enough that Johnson could get advertisers to use black people in the ads.
And not only did they uplift a people and inspire by offering something other than the usual stereotypes, the magazines could also address politics and civil rights. All of this was dreamed up by John H. Johnson. He knew we could support a magazine, support more than one magazine.
Nobody opened the doors and said, "Man, let me give you some money to start up." He had to take out a long using his mother's furniture. That's how he started out. How he ended up was as the owner of two important magazines. In my community, his death is a big topic. He was a major businessman. He was a success story.
Having suffered through constant press of Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant, you might think we could get some good TV exposure for a man who wasn't accused of a crime, for a man who made something out of his life and inspired people.
But that's not what's happened.
I've been busy but my preacher's daughter told me tonight that she'd been all over the net and could find very little about John H. Johnson. He apparently doesn't matter in the white, white world of blogs.
I mentioned The Common Ills
and how Johnson got mentioned Monday and Tuesday. She told me about an entry today and I hadn't read it yet. But she said, "That's about all I'm seeing." She also said she went to the Atlanta Journal Constitution online today thinking they would cover this because Atlanta has a large black population. All she found was his obiturary. She checked the columnists thinking for sure that Cynthia Tuker (aka Stab Cynthia McKinnon) in the back would have written about him. No big surprise that Cynthia Tucker hasn't found the time. Today, Cynthia Tucker was wasting everyone's time with another column cobbled together, covering a lot of things, but not saying much of anything. (She's fond of "just last week" and "that was then" as she glides all over the surface and never lands anywhere. Unless she's attacking Cynthia McKinney.)
The mainstream's doing a lousy job of explaining why this man mattered and I guess the tokens in the mainstream don't want to shake things up or look "too black." So we're left with a lot of people ignoring the death of a man who did a lot and who had a life story that didn't involve charges of rape or child molestation.
At church I heard C.I. compared it to the way the little girls with blonde hair that turn up missing get a lot of press but when it's a child of color, the press just ain't interested. People thought that was pretty dead on right.
I think it's pretty dead on sick that John H. Johnson's death has been so little noted. I'm glad that The Common Ills
could be counted on to note it. When our needs and issues are ignored and we complain, we're told "don't attack Democrats!" We're told "it's a big tent and everyone's welcome."
When a man who accomplished a great deal and led a life that doesn't embarrass us dies and no one wants to take the time to note it, don't think we don't notice. Don't think we're not aware that once again the big tent doesn't include us.
I'm copying and pasting from C.I.'s entry today
but just including the part about John H. Johnson.
Hopefully you already know about him. If you don't, hopefully you will learn something.
Back when black folk were Colored, pretty was light skin and "good hair." Rarely was it dark skin and nappy hair. Pretty was thin lips and a keen nose. Rarely was it thick lips and a much more ample nose.
Pretty was a look so filtered through a white lens and sensibility that many black folk couldn't achieve it no matter how they hot-combed their hair trying to look like a Lena Horne or used Nadinola to bleach their skin to resemble a Dorothy Dandridge.
But, of course, pretty was by far not our only hang-up in terms of our identity. The negative mass media images of what it meant to be Negro, Colored and/or black in America seemed boundless and touched everything, not least the psyche.
John H. Johnson believed he could hold up a different mirror. And that became his mission years ago when he began publishing Ebony and Jet magazines, among others. Johnson, 87, who died Monday of heart failure, understood so deeply that black people needed to see the success stories within the black community if they were going to move beyond the stereotypes connected with second-class citizenry.
That didn't mean telling half-stories or half-truths. It did mean making sure that the positive segments of the community would be illuminated and given breadth. Within the pages of Ebony and Jet we saw black doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs. We saw marriages that spanned decades. Movie stars and athletes who were positive role models. Urban communities that were thriving.
e-mails to note Julianne Malveaux's "Johnson's vision in his legacy
" (Chicago Defender
The story of how Johnson started his magazine is now legend when African American entrepreneurs chafe about access to capital. A bank rejected his business plan, so he went back and asked for a loan to take a vacation. With his mother's furniture as collateral, Johnson took the $500 he was loaned and turned it into an empire. When Johnson started publishing in 1945, there were few Black athletes or actors, and even fewer visible entrepreneurs. Still, he gambled that the ones out there could inspire others, and he featured them on his pages. Many of us chafed at the rank materialism that seemed to ooze from Ebony, the photographs of this lush house and that high-rise office. Years later, I can see the logic in profiling the African American rich and famous. There was a message - if she can do it, so can you.
Black folks have come a long way since 1945. Then, more than two-thirds of us lived in poverty, but now just a quarter of us do (compared to 12 percent of whites). Then, most of us worked in menial jobs, and just 2 or 3 percent had college educations. Now, nearly half work in white-collar jobs, and more than 10 percent of us over age 25 have graduated from college. Despite all of that, we are barraged by negative images - of the thugs, hustlers and half-nude sisters that seem to grate their way through cable television videos. Ebony magazine often offers a respite from that swarm of swirling negative images, reporting, simply, on a promotion, a book published, a record produced, or the opulent lifestyle of someone successful. If a young Black man or woman can't get solace from the numbers - and who buries themselves in statistics - they can get solace from the notion that a little Black boy or girl who grew up without much managed to find some measure of success by making it into the pages of Ebony.
This issue dedicated to Mr. Johnson is important - and definitely a keepsake - because he was more than a Black publisher. He ranks alongside the names of media titans such as David Sarnoff, the founder of NBC; William Paley, the builder of CBS; Ted Turner, who brought us CNN; and Henry Luce, who established Time Inc. into a world power.
The body of John H. Johnson will lie in state Sunday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Johnson Publishing Company, 820 S. Michigan Ave.
His funeral will be held Monday at 11 a.m. at the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 South Woodlawn.
Johnson's burial will be private.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the John H. Johnson School of Communications, Howard University, 525 Bryant Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20059, (202) 806-7690, or the United Negro College Fund, 8260 Willow Corp. Dr., Fairfax, Va., 22031-4511, (703) 205-3400.
So with that being the case, why have our nations political leaders been so silent and slow on the draw in response to Johnsons death?
We waited until 3:30 p.m. Tuesday before placing a call to the office of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to find out why he had not said anything publicly about the loss of a giant. After getting the run around on the phone, I called and emailed his press spokeswoman, Angela Benander, who said that it was coming shortly. One hour later, it arrived. I wonder if that statement would have been issued had we not placed a phone call asking why (keep in mind, Durbin has still yet to make a public statement on the racial profiling of state Sen. James Meeks (I-15th), who is also pastor of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago).
Yet he isn't the only Democrat who has been silent.
Mr. Johnson was a favorite son of Arkansas, and his childhood home was recently converted into a museum. Yet with all of the wonderful things he has accomplished, the state's two Democratic senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor have not issued formal statements.
A spokeswoman told me Tuesday that Lincoln was aware of Johnson's death and made mention of it on a radio show, but thats about it. Zip from Pryor's office. Normally, politicians are always looking to heap praises on those who hail from their state. I guess Mr. Johnson just didn't make the cut.
To black Americans of my generation, Johnson's publications Ebony, Jet and Negro Digest were indispensable reading matter, offering a brighter and more prosperous vision of black America than most of the mainstream--also known as "white-owned"--media provided.
To advertisers, Johnson's pioneering publications broke through the myth that the black consumer market was not worth targeting through black-owned media.
Today the newsstands are filled with magazines niche-marketed to blacks or Hispanics, but that really began with Johnson back in the 1940s.
And to journalists, particularly black journalists, Johnson's publications provided employment, a training ground and a model for how people of color might be covered in a more complete fashion than simply crime, sports or show business stories.
His 1989 autobiography "Succeeding Against the Odds" reads almost like a business-school series of case studies in how to solve whatever problems life throws at you.
When Arkansas refused to educate black children in his area past the 8th grade, his mother, Gertrude Johnson Williams, a cook and domestic worker, saved for two years to move her family to Chicago in the 1930s.
Young Johnnie was working days at a black-owned life insurance company and studying at night at Northwestern University when he started up Negro Digest in 1942 with $500 that his mother raised by borrowing against the family furniture.
When its circulation stalled at 50,000 a few months later, he persisted in requesting a guest column from Eleanor Roosevelt until she agreed, immediately boosting circulation to 100,000.
In 1945, Johnson launched Ebony, a picture magazine for blacks. Its initial press run of 25,000 copies was completely sold out. Pocket-size Jet magazine began in 1951. Jet helped launch the modern civil rights movement in 1955 when it published open-casket funeral photos of the mangled body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who was savagely murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi.
For generations of black Americans, Ebony and Jet were much more than magazines. The publishing empire founded by John H. Johnson in 1942, which made him both rich and one of the most powerful black Americans, chronicled black possibilities, achievements and positive images. They fed a hunger for information and good feelings during the many decades when black people seldom saw themselves reflected in the larger culture except in the most stereotypical ways.
Mr. Johnson, who died two days ago in Chicago at 87, was an iconic figure among black Americans, not only because of his business success but also because of his ability to showcase the sweeping range of black America, said business executives, academics and journalists interviewed yesterday. Many recalled sitting down with an issue of Ebony and thumbing through the photographs of movie stars, sports figures and ordinary black Americans and being thrilled finally to see people who looked like themselves.
"John Johnson's genius was that he could define the collective unconscious of the African-American people and put it into print," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.
Ellis Cose, a black former Chicagoan who is a contributing editor at Newsweek and the author of several books on social issues, said he was even thrilled when walking past the Ebony building on South Michigan Avenue, a high-rise emblem of black entrepreneurship. "The whole enterprise was astounding," he said. And years later, when he interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Mr. Cose said that Mr. Tutu told him that he, too, had been inspired by Ebony during the dark years of apartheid.
We've noted Johnson twice this week already. But since it appears that there is a feeding frenzy over a "pretty, blond gone missing" (who knew Jennings was blond?) means Johnson gets overlooked. Now maybe there's not footage of Johnson yucking it up while fully dressed above the waist and just wearing boxers below, but Johnson did accomplish a great deal. So we'll take the time to again note his passing.