Though absent from most histories of American, African-American, and women's publishing, African-American women's magazines have a long history in the United States. Taken as a group, from their inception to the present, African-American women's magazines have allowed African-American women to find work as journalists, printers, writers, and editors; to define personal as well as group identities; to create a sense of unity by establishing a communication network between women in different regions; to present and comment on world and local events from an African-American female perspective; and to highlight achievements often overlooked and ignored by the white and/or African-American male press. African-American women's magazines have been and continue to be an important part of both American and African-American culture.
If African-American women's magazines are defined as those publications owned, edited, or aimed at an African-American reading public, the first magazine for African-American women was established in 1891. From 1891 to 1950 there were eight African-American women's magazines published for a variety of purposes, and from 1950 to the present another few magazines fit that definition. Some, such as Ringwood's Journal of African American Fashion (1891–1894), Woman's Era (1894–1897), and Sepia Socialite (1936–1938), provided a space where readers who considered themselves educated and refined could, despite geographical distance, mingle with like-minded individuals. Other publications, such as Half-Century Magazine for the Colored Home and Homemaker (1916–1925), Woman's Voice (1912–1927), and the Home Magazine in Tan Confessions (1950–1952), prepared African-American women for a place in urban social landscapes and overwhelmingly focused on the significance of consumerism for African-American women within those locales. Still others, like Our Women and Children, published by the Black Baptist Association from 1888 to 1891, and Aframerican Woman's Journal (1935–1954), attempted to speak to specific political, domestic, or religious aspirations on the part of an African-American female readership. In terms of more contemporary magazines, one of the longest-running publications to target African-American women as readers, Essence, initially owned by a group of four African-American men, first appeared in May 1970, and Oprah Winfrey's O, The Oprah Magazine, targeting women of all races, began publication in 2000.
The magazines published through the 1950s had relatively small readerships, never reaching more than forty thousand readers each month. However, the importance of those African-American women's magazines does not so much reside in their subscription numbers but rather in the fact that they ask readers to think more deeply about, or in some instances rethink, what they are sure we know about relationships between groups of African Americans during different periods of time and to listen in on intra-racial conversations from a number of historical periods. African-American women's magazines contextualized, portrayed, and communicated societal expectations to an African-American female reading audience. As a result, when taken as a group, these magazines are source material about the lives, thoughts, and political leanings of African-American women.
From the 1970s on, the import of African-American women's magazines shifted. Essence magazine's significance lies in its success at becoming a gateway through which mainstream advertisers are able to reach a lucrative group of African-American consumers of both sexes. In that sense, it is a profitable example of American magazine-publishing industry practices, and the magazine's founders were able to succeed at and modernize marketing strategies. Indeed, in 2001 African Americans spent $356 million on books, and Essence has the ability to reach upwards of 72 percent of such buyers. Within that same vein, O has transformed magazine publishing. Oprah Winfrey and her business partner in the venture, Hearst Publishing, with little advance marketing, were able to sell out the initial newsstand run of 1.6 million copies. In a few short months the publication signed up 1.9 million subscribers (by way of comparison, American Vogue has 1.1 million subscribers). Featuring an image of Winfrey, an African-American woman, on the cover of each issue, the magazine outsells more established rivals such as In Style, Glamour, Harper's Bazaar, and Good Housekeeping.
Whereas the two more contemporary magazines obviously demand more nuanced definitions of ownership and readership than did those African-American women's publications that came before, they also reveal quite a bit about a post–civil rights, post–Black Power, postintegration use and meaning of both race and gender in American and African-American magazine culture. They communicate that in many ways times have changed. They are a testament to the success of the political movements and struggles of past generations. They make clear that in some areas, such movements have paid tangible dividends. In relation to questions about ownership, marketing strategy, and an ability to firmly locate African Americans within American culture, they are at the same time substantially dependent on what came before, and a world apart.
Bullock, Penelope L. The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Daniel, Walter. Black Journals of the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982.
Rooks, Noliwe M. Ladies Pages: African American Women's Magazines and the Culture That Made Them. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004.
noliwe rooks (2005)