Reflecting on the Glamorous, Political, and Artistic Covers of Ebony Magazine

Ebony (February 2017); a painting by Kadir Nelson pays homage to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”Ebony (August 1969); a painting by Herbert Temple on the cover of a special issue titled “The Black Revolution,” which included articles by prominent Black figures including Bayard Rustin and Huey Newton.

When I was growing up, magazines were my gateway into exploring realities that I could only dream of. I would flip through the glamorous lifestyles of models and celebrities and immersive tours into unknown landscapes beyond the Pacific Northwest, where the people actually looked like me. The isolation of being one of few Black families (or people of color in general) in my neighborhood birthed early introspection. What does beauty look like outside of standards created and maintained by white supremacy? What will life be like for Black people in the future? In spite of feeling isolated from Black communities, my connection to them was facilitated by another space. It could be accessed through the glossy pages of Ebony magazine.

The cover of Ebony: Covering Black America by Lavaille Lavette, published by Rizzoli

Last year marked the 75th anniversary of the publication that has long celebrated the trials and triumphs of the Black community across time and space. It also marked the end of print publication of the magazine. To commemorate the place the magazine has held within the consciousness of the community, the president and publisher at Ebony Magazine Publishing, Lavaille Lavette, curated Ebony: Covering Black America. The coffee table book showcases the magazine’s history through more than 600 covers from throughout the years.

Especially in 2021, we know actual representation matters. Founded in 1945 by Chicago entrepreneur John H. Johnson, Ebony reported on the realities of being Black American. Ebony used articles, columns, and spreads to highlight Black aesthetics through fashion and music, family life, politics, and more. At a surface glance, you can understand the pulse of the publication. Ebony elevated Black culture to another sphere through its content and visuals. The bold red and white logo is reminiscent of Life magazine, which claimed to capture the 20th century but failed to acknowledge the contributions of Black people. The pages of Ebony not only instilled pride, but also documented and contextualized Black realities. It was a complete FUBU — for us by us — mission. 

Prince covers Ebony (November 1964)“The Flapper Returns–With Soul” on the cover of Ebony (November 1969)

Covering Black America comes enclosed in a glossy sleeve, a nod to magazines, and a way to protect the hardcover. Overall, the book is easy to navigate. It is separated into six sections (Civil Rights and Social Justice; Love and Family; Ebony Man; Ebony Woman; Ebony Music; and Covers: 1945-2020). Each begins with a framing text written by a celebrity contributor (Ciara, Common, Dwayne Wade, Gabrielle Union, Kimora Lee Simmons, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Venus Williams) about the magazine’s impact on their life. In this selection, I particularly appreciate the curation of Black female voices. These women — as athletes, musicians, models, and more — were foundational in showcasing the multi-dimensionality of Black beauty across fields. Each is a game-changer in their profession and has had lasting impacts across generations. While millennials grew up with many of these legends, Generation Z is coming to know these names through revisiting the archive and their continued relevance today.

Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson on the cover of Ebony (May 2009). The author recalls the cover from her childhood as an Ebony reader.

As I thumbed through the pages of Covering Black America, it felt like traveling through time. With each cover, you journey through glimpses Black fashion, language, and icons of their time. While most of the quotes from long-time Ebony readers and contributions are brief, two extended pieces are pleasant surprises in the book. Martin Luther King Jr.’s advice column and a six-page spread of the 1963 March on Washington gave in-depth accounts of a man and a movement that often are glossed over in the media. Ebony: Covering Black America could even be called navigating the collective Black memory. When I started to recognize the covers, even remembering having them at home, I was amazed by how many of the questions they posed monthly are still being examined today. Reading this book allows us to sit with where we have been and where we might be going. Yet, it also challenges us to define what that future could hold. 

A photograph by Moneta Sleet Jr. of the Selma to Montgomery march, depicting (left to right) Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Juanita Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King

Approaching some of the sections, I asked myself, “Do these categories still serve us?” Although I understand the importance of showcasing Black families, relationships, and trailblazers (men and women), I imagine there are ways to move these conversations forward. Black creativity, expression, and love exist outside of the binary. How might new generations of Ebony readers influence the magazine’s digital presence? Who will become the new icons as social media influencers, artists and activists alike are reshaping the way we engage with the world? Staying at the front-line of Black culture will also mean investigating the complexities of Blackness as we continue to define ourselves outside of white normativity. 

Ebony: Covering Black America by Lavaille Lavette is published by Rizzoli and available online.

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