Black Beauty

LAST NIGHT, I came home after a day of negotiations — that means, of late, weaving all the different creative threads into something called money flow. But, news kept popping up in my Facebook newsfeed and then via the old fashioned way — the telephone — was the 411 that Essence magazine just hired a new fashion director, Elianna Placas and — wait for it — she’s white.

I don’t write about fashion except in the sort of culture critic/pop culture way as a features writer. I have written for Essence, many editors ago. I have on-and-off been a subscriber to Essence; met and had a wonderful hours-long talk with Susan Taylor when she was at the helm there and came to L.A. for a “getting the lay of the land” visit. But my relationship with Essence is like many black women’s relationship with it, one that formed out of familiarity and necessity. It was “a place to go” when you needed to read about you. It was about survival.

Back story done:

Now, the firestorm: Michaela Angela Davis, a former Essence editor and founding fashion director, posted this on Facebook on Friday:

“It’s with a heavy heart I’ve learned Essence Magazine has engaged a white fashion director. I hate this news and this feeling. It hurts, literally. The fashion industry’s historically been so hostile to black people, especially women.”

Essence defends it’s position on

“I got to see firsthand [Placas’] r creativity, her vision, the positive reader response to her work, and her enthusiasm and respect for the audience and our brand,” [editor-in-chief Angela] Burt-Murray said. “As such, I thought she’d make an excellent addition to our team. And I still do. This decision in no way diminishes my commitment to black women, our issues, our fights.”

Michaela Angela Davis was on CNN last night with Anderson Cooper fielding questions that essentially often had her trying to explain that she her position *wasn’t* one of reverse racism.

The line that still reverberates was this: “We have one chair.”

She meant at the shows during Fashion Week but I took that one chair as achingly symbolic — an extended metaphor. That one chair behind a desk in the editing world, that one chair in front of the vanity’s mirror that represented black women.

There have historically been few places for black women to go for anything resembling themselves — not just external beauty, but inner beaut. Essence was the defacto place — different from others, not always perfect, not always spot-on — but it was there to deal with issues that black women in particular dealt with — how race played in the world of the workplace, dating, buying clothes, interacting with family and yes, buying make up to match your skin tone, figuring out how to make the fashions of the day work on our bodies. It was, in its best moment and best months, a place to meditate and a place for conversation.

So this firestorm isn’t a dis of Ellianna Placas — per se. She’s a symbol too now. I’m sure she’ll do her job. And she’ll do what most black women — black people — have done for many decades — learn, absorb, talk to people, figure out the culture — that’s how you survive.

And so, Ellianna Placas walks right into this tradition; she’ll learn that too, I suppose.

What so many people — black women in particular — are up-in-arms about is that this was one of the few places that we could not only go for advice, reassurance, some semblance of a mirror-image of ourselves — but also that “one chair” — that one chair in a fashion industry, publishing world that speaks from a black point-of-reference. This is pan-industry-wide problem — publishing/journalism, fashion.

This late in the day, it shouldn’t be the case. But it is. That’s how so much expectation gets put on “one chair,” one set of shoulders, one brand — especially when so many are braiding together all of their creative endeavors trying to create that money flow. Again, it’s about all survival.


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