One does not normally think of Ebony magazine as a place to look for black intellectual life. Yet Christopher Tinson‘s article on Ebony editor and writer Lerone Bennett Jr. has convinced me that the pages of this popular magazine did serve as a site for intellectual activism.
Ebony founder and publisher John H. Johnson gave Bennett the space to research and write articles and books that brought attention to the black struggle in American life. As a result, Bennett became a public intellectual who was able to reach an audience that far exceeded the audiences of more academic black writers.
Here is a taste of Tinson’s piece at “Black Perspectives“:
However, Bennett’s career took off upon the publication of Before the Mayflower in 1962, which began as a series of Ebony essays in 1961. The book was an immediate sensation. Mainstream press outlets such as the Chicago Tribune favorably reviewed the book. The Tribune also carried book reviews written by Bennett while he served as associate editor at Ebony. Historian and activist John Henrik Clarke’s review essay for the black left periodical Freedomways in 1965 locates Bennett in relation to the Civil Rights upsurge carried out by “A new generation of restless black Americans.” For Clarke, Bennett was part of a new generation who, like himself, could be called participant historians. In other words these were historians who not only documented history, but were themselves poised and principled activists in their own regard. Clarke offered readers a glimpse into Bennett’s background before diving into a review of key sections of Before the Mayflower and several of his seminal Ebony articles. Accompanying the piece was two of Bennett’s poems, showcasing a multitalented intellect.
The great irony of Bennett’s career, perhaps, is found in his relationship with Ebony, a magazine known for its dependency on advertising that peddled skin lighteners, platform shoes, cigarettes, scotch, the latest styles, and wigs. Bennett was bent on using the popular magazine of the black high life as a reputable platform to document and forecast black struggle, and he succeeded. Still, this did not mean he went unquestioned about what some perceived to be a contradiction.
Without question, Ebony was a critical platform for Bennett. In the front matter of every book he published for JPC, he earnestly thanked Johnson for allowing him the massive platform, time, and resources to research and write. He could reach larger audiences than professors at exclusive colleges or universities, but he could also keep relationships with those institutions that had no effect on his work. Ebony thus emerges as a premier, if unlikely, site of black cultural knowledge production. In this sense Ebony was a different kind of public institution. Bennett certainly benefitted from this unique arrangement and never took it for granted. Not only could he be in the thick of key debates as sage and journalist and historian, but also Ebony’s book publishing gave him a direct line to the national book networks. Among their many publishing pursuits, Bennett and Johnson had plans for an Ebony Encyclopedia.
Read the entire piece here.