Books

Lerone Bennett, Jr. Wrote Black History into Modern America at Ebony Magazine

E. James West's new book explores Lerone Bennett, Jr.'s impact as a popular Black historian. It's a gateway to a body of work that still speaks to Black rage, struggle and hope, yesterday and today.

Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett Jr.: Popular Black History in Postwar America
E. James West

University of Illinois Press

February 2020

Other

It was a raw, dreary Saturday morning in April 2018 when a few dozen or so of us made a pilgrimage to a Hyde Park condo along South Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.

The domicile itself was not remarkable, save for its deceptive spaciousness. Several rooms spooled off from the central hallway: four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and an office space and entertainment area which both overlooked the lake. It had a small kitchenette, better for quick meals and entertaining guests than preparing extravagant feasts. There was also a large living room, which wrapped around into a small dining area, all with magnificent views.

We were drawn there by the chance to see, and perhaps acquire, evidence of a life well lived. And there was much of that: magnificent sculpture; framed pictures and certificates; a sound system of old-school stereo components; a wardrobe with items you'd snag immediately if you saw them at a thrift shop, for their quality and taste.

That well-lived life belonged to Lerone Bennett, Jr., the esteemed senior editor of Ebony magazine. He had passed a few short weeks before this estate sale, a body blow to Black Chicagoans who had read his deeply considered, impassioned Black history texts in Ebony's pages for years. We visited his home to see what fueled his spirit, his passion, his focused intellect.

Alas, in some respects we were disappointed. We'd hoped to see the books he read and used to research his articles, but most of them were already gone (I seem to recall a lonely copy of Alex Haley's Roots on one of the office's shelves). His music collection was still mostly intact: lots of classical music, and jazz from the '50s (lots of Miles Davis, but none from the '60s or later). Nothing stuck me as Rosetta Stone-like in terms of unlocking his genius, but nonetheless many who visited went away with something to remember him by, be it a necktie or a set of cocktail glasses; one person bought his old manual typewriter, as if to touch the hem of his garment.

Singing Birds by Dieter_G (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

It's not surprising that the estate sales of esteemed writers and public figures attract onlookers; we always want to know a little something extra about what made them tick. Bennett was probably not someone many would include in such company. But for generations of Black Americans, for whom Ebony had been a staple of life, Bennett was the introduction to a complicated, enduring heritage many had never imagined.

Born in Chicago in 1945, Ebony quickly became the first voice of modern Black America. Its glossy, photo-heavy presence (inspired by Life magazine down to the logo) announced Black achievement and aspiration to thousands of readers (and, crucially, corporate advertisers) each month. Bennett's contributions served as a counterpoint to the fawning celebrity profiles featured on Ebony's covers. He wrote deeply researched historical articles, tracing Black American life to, as the title of his first book states, Before the Mayflower (1993). For the better part of 30 years, his work told a story of Black struggle and progress with a combination of learned rigor and relatable immediacy.

One hopes all who visited that estate sale will find their way to E. James West's quasi-biography, Ebony Magazine and Lerone Bennett, Jr.: Popular Black History in Postwar America if they want to get a fuller sense of his life's work. There's much about Bennett that West, an American History Fellow at Northumbria University, was not able to include for various reasons. But what is here helps us understand how Bennett, in the pages of a general-market magazine, became one of the most widely read, and beloved, Black historians.

The timing of this book's publication, as it happens, may be especially fortuitous. People seeking a historical grounding to process this season of Black anger and protest would do well to seek out Bennett's work. West provides a gateway to appreciating a fierce, progressive intellect who did much to popularize the study of Black history. But to take Bennett's full measure and impact, consider reading one of the several books compiled from his Ebony articles (if possible, get it from a Black-owned bookstore, which would probably greatly appreciate your patronage these days). It's more than likely that several of the authors on those anti-racist reading lists currently making the rounds pored through Bennett's authoritative essays at one point or another themselves.

The roots of Ebony lie in Negro Digest, a monthly compilation of articles from other publications launched in 1942 by John H. Johnson, who was then working for Supreme Life Insurance in Chicago. The success of Negro Digest inspired Johnson to become a full-time publisher, a goal that came to fruition in 1945 with the premiere of Ebony. Its focus was less on the serious issues covered in Negro Digest than on showcasing the best and brightest of the emerging Black middle class, with young, light-skinned Black women routinely featured on its covers as eye candy.

Not all Ebony readers thought such a marketing tactic best served the community's information needs, and many were dismayed when Johnson started using such covers on the previously staid Negro Digest. But Johnson won his bet on providing an underserved community with a product that featured aspirational stories by and about people who looked like them.

Inside those cheesecake covers, Johnson often published articles about Black history, as had various Black newspaper publishers down through the years. By the early '50s, West suggests, the nascent mood of what would become the Civil Rights Era drove Johnson to become more intentional about articles grounded in historical research and discussion. Enter Bennett, a Morehouse College graduate who had risen to associate editor at the Atlanta Daily World. Johnson hired Bennett in 1953, and soon after that Ebony's editorial side took on a more activist gravitas.

West explains how Bennett, who was not a trained historian, conceived of his approach to Black history as "living history", a mindset that has influenced countless historians and journalists ever since. Seemingly given wide latitude to pursue his interests, Bennett wrote about everything from the Sally Hemmings-Thomas Jefferson relationship (one of the first Black writers to do so) to the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. In 1960, driven in part by the more progressive attitudes of editors like Bennett and Era Bell Thompson, Johnson announced a new Black history series to be written by Bennett. This series, Johnson wrote, would help satisfy readers' desires to "tell us of our past". It was an editorially ambitious undertaking for Ebony, which was still seen by many as lacking when it came to serious coverage of Black issues, but Bennett was more than up to the task.

His articles in this series deviated sharply from a typical Ebony article: less photo essay and more researched study, with graphics supporting the text and not the other way around, tacking on a reading list at the end for good measure. Some trained historians, writes West, were begrudging in their praise of Bennett's work, but they weren't the target audience. Ebony's general-market readers were, and they responded so enthusiastically that the articles were eventually bundled up into the groundbreaking Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America (Johnson Publishing, 1962). With the success of the series and book, Bennett's niche as Ebony's in-house historian (official title: Senior Editor) was secure.

His historical articles and essays became regular features in Ebony, and they often anchored special issues devoted to Black struggle and progress. Although Bennett's articles, and articles for these issues by other writers, carried their proper historical substance, they were not dispassionate recitations, but urgently tied to the growing militancy within Black America as the '60s advanced.

Lerone Bennett Jr. in his office at the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago, 1973. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives, Environmental Protection Agency. Courtesy of University of Illinois Press

Consider "Of Time, Space and Revolution", Bennett's anchor article for the August 1969 special issue "The Black Revolution" - part historical analysis, part think piece, part political broadside. Early on, he waxes almost poetically to set the tone of his essay, very much in the tenor of the day:

We are moving just now toward a point of no return and it behooves all of us to reexamine our strategies and commitments and to ask ourselves where we are in time and where we want to go and how we intend to get there and how much we are willing to pay for our passage.

What time is it?

I don't know. Nobody [emphasis his] knows. But even the blind and hard of hearing know that it is very late and the road ahead is long and rocky.

He then proceeds to lay out the chain of events over time and the previous years that brought America to that moment, which he termed the Black Rebellion. He draws parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the independence movements happening simultaneously in Africa. Along the way, he quotes Malcolm X, Lenin, Mao Zedong, and W.E.B. DuBois.

"In a sense, all this was inevitable, given the Afro-American birthrate and the history of bad faith in white America," he wrote.

History tells us that a nation can survive for years by shifting the burdens of life to the people confined by force and violence to the bottom. But history also tells us that this process, with inexorable logic, rebounds against the oppressor. For at a certain point, the people at the bottom begin to straighten their backs and the burdens rise to the top of society. That's where we are today. The burden of disability is rising in the scales. Hence, the difficulty in electing presidents and mayors. Hence, the chaos in our cities. Hence, the shakiness of our international position. Freedom is indivisible; so is misery.

Towards the end of the article he writes:

Our problems stem from substance and not from psychology, from structural faults in the system and not from the wording of the complaint. We can ask what Black leaders will do now, but the question is meaningless. Black leaders will do what they have to do. The power is the white man's and so is the responsibility. The future of the Rebellion will be determined in part by the motion or lack of motion of white America….
…This is an important moment in the history of the United States of America. Not since white men looked down their rifles at each other in the Civil War, not since white men zeroed in on Red men, has there been such a confrontation of spirit and spirit in this land. And that confrontation is forcing a decision which will probably determine for all times the meaning of America and the meaning of Afro-America. The choice is becoming clearer. America is going to become a democracy, or America is going to become a North American South Africa.

Setting aside that at the time South Africa was still an apartheid state, you might sense that Bennett's words from 51 summers ago carry an eerily uncanny resonance and relevance in the current wake of ongoing police brutality and economic inequality as revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. If so, you may draw your own conclusions.

Such righteous, learned excoriation of the powers that be endeared Bennett to the generation of radicalized Blacks in college, especially those confronting racism at majority-white institutions. At Northwestern University, just north of the Chicago city border in Evanston, Black students forced the university to launch a Black studies department, and Bennett was brought on as a visiting lecturer and to oversee the program's development. West writes that Bennett's time in academia was marked by clashes with the Northwestern administration, and he left after only a year, presumably to enjoy the far greater autonomy he had at Ebony.

West's consideration of Bennett's work ends in the mid-'80s, comparing Bennett's pointed concerns about the newly established Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the January 1986 special issue "The Living King" to the anodyne coverage elsewhere in those pages. Even with the holiday less than five years old, Bennett identified a creeping distortion of King's message by white politicians, one which would grow ever more fantastical (and ever more called out) in the future.

"Bennett pushed back against an uncritical commemoration of King to frame the 'real meaning' of the King holiday as a recommitment to black activism and militant protest," writes West. "By doing so, Bennett was able to situate an 'appropriate' observance of the Holiday with the broader responsibility of Black Americans to utilize their history as a tool in the ongoing struggle for racial justice."

West makes the case that Bennett's work not only galvanized generations of historians, scholars and general readers, it helped cement Ebony's status as a pre-eminent Black business and institution. Schools across the country used Ebony as their de facto black history text, especially in the days when Black history was never covered in a standard school textbook. West quotes one letter writer who praised Ebony's 40th anniversary issue as "a witness, a revelation, a history and a prophecy to the world."

It is, then, curious at the least that Bennett's contributions to Ebony were less frequent after the '80s, even as he was still on the masthead. West notes how many of Bennett's earlier articles were recycled in later years, and the fiery tone Bennett and other writers brought to their Ebony work was less prevalent as time went on, with the magazine reverting to Johnson's original mission of presenting, as he put it, "the happier side of Negro life". Bennett himself may have been marginalized; he was not invited to participate in the official dedication of the John H. Johnson postage stamp in 2012 (an event I worked on, full disclosure, as the U.S. Postal Service's corporate communications representative in Chicago).

Nonetheless, his work stands out for its unassailable strength and character, and as the tentpole of what West and others now call "popular black history" -- rigorous enough for serious study and research, but accessible to the masses. It's all but impossible to point to anyone currently doing regular historical work on Bennett's level at any magazine, with the exception of Jill Lepore's features for The New Yorker.

Hopefully, West or someone else will be able to flesh out the back half of Bennett's career at a later point. For now, this concise, illuminating book serves as a useful marker for a full-fledged (and long overdue) critical history of Ebony, a major American magazine, in all its glories and travails. Should that other book ever come, rest assured Bennett will be a pivotal figure. In the meantime, there is his body of work itself, a most useful starting point for anyone grappling to understand today's -- and yesterday's -- Black rage, struggle and hope.

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