For Essence Magazine, A New Direction With A New Chief

Essence's new Editor-in-Chief Constance C.R. White

Essence's new Editor-in-Chief Constance C.R. White Courtesy of Essence hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Essence

Essence's new Editor-in-Chief Constance C.R. White is putting her first official stamp on the magazine for its July issue, which features Beyonce's debut cover story and profiles of socially influential women abroad. To learn more about these articles and how Essence plans to better capture the lives of everyday black women, host Michel Martin speaks with its new Chief Constance C.R. White.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now we check in with the new editor-in-chief of one of the country's top magazines for women, Essence. Constance C.R. White brings more than 20 years of journalism and business experience, building her own unique style at the New York Times, Elle magazine and even eBay. She's here to tell us how she'll influence the mission and tone of Essence. And she'll talk about the magazine's latest issue, the first produced under her supervision. It features, among other things, the first published piece by music superstar Beyonce Knowles.

And Constance C.R. White, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations to you.

CONSTANCE C.R. WHITE: Oh, you're welcome. And thank you. And it's very exciting to be here.

MARTIN: Now, you officially started on March 21st, but the July issue is the first issue - would you put it this way - in which you're sort of putting your stamp as editor-in-chief. Would that be accurate?

WHITE: It would be. It's the first issue I really sort of gotten my hands really dirty, and will evolve over the next few issues for it to be a total new direction, in some ways.

MARTIN: I want to quote from your first editor's letter, which appears in the July issue. It's titled "My Promise to You."

WHITE: OK.

MARTIN: I'll just read a couple of lines. I'm sure you can read it. Would you have a magazine in front of you? I'm going to try to...

WHITE: I don't need it in front me. I have it in my head.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. I'm not going to ask you to memorize it, OK? That would be unfair.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You said: This month, as I step into the role of editor-in-chief, I want you to know that I am committed to working with our team to reflect the truth of our lives in words, images and ideas that uplift and empower, rather than confine us and bring us down. I'm promising you that the stories you will read here will be real.

Now, you know, what does that mean? Because one of the things that people rely upon Essence to do - as a friend of mine, Alvin Hall, contributor to this program says - you know, everybody needs a friend in their lives who will tell them when their breath stinks, you know?

WHITE: Right.

MARTIN: And Essence is that magazine that often tells African-American women things that they need to hear, when perhaps they don't want to hear it from other people. On the other hand, sometimes people do get tired of being told what they could do better. So how are you going to walk that line?

WHITE: Black women have enough people who are only too ready to say our breath stinks, as you put it. And Essence is that place where we also go to be celebrated, to be affirmed, to be empowered. And while we're not going to shy away from saying, OK, here's an issue that perhaps, OK, maybe we don't have all our stuff right.

At the same time, the predominant direction of the magazine is going to be less alarmist and less sort of crisis-driven and really looking at the way that black women are balancing their lives, being celebrated. I think Essence needs to be that place. And as I point out in that letter, I go on to talk about all the places where, in the media, we are reflected in such a negative light, you know, one dimensionally is the problem. So where is that place where we see our whole selves? Essence is and will be that place.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're speaking with Constance C.R. White. She is the new editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. Let's talk about what readers can look forward to in the latest issue. The cover story was written - please tell me it really was written. Was it as told to, dictated into the tape recorder by Beyonce?

WHITE: No, that was something I said absolutely to my editors, we do not want as told to. If Beyonce's going to write this story, as she, you know, said she wanted to, then let's have her write the story. So this is a first-time exclusive for any publication. You know, we really see her sharing herself with our readers, as opposed to having on that celebrity mask.

MARTIN: You know, another article that stands out for me is titled "Women of the Diaspora: Sisters Who Are Commanding the World Stage." There's this quite remarkable picture of Unity Dow...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITE: Isn't it amazing?

MARTIN: ...who is the first female judge on Botswana's high court. And she's wearing the traditional Anglican regalia of the judiciary, the powdered wig.

WHITE: The wig.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That was quite impressive.

WHITE: It was awesome.

MARTIN: How did you find these women?

WHITE: As soon as my hiring was announced, I started hearing from a lot of women. And one of the things a lot of them said is: We want to hear about our black sisters around the world. So we set out - and this is going to be a regular feature to find those women, women who are really making an impact on their society and just who really reflect the lives of real black women here, too.

MARTIN: And there's another, Edna Lima, who's Brazil's first female master in Capoeira, which is the - well, tell us what it is. I know it if I see it, but I don't know how to describe it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WHITE: Capoeira is a combination of art form and defense, which became popular. It was brought over by Africans who came to Brazil, many of them as slaves hundreds of years ago. And it was developed as a way to fool the ruling class. You know, you're learning to fight, but at the same time you're masking it in an art form, almost like dance.

MARTIN: OK, Constance, I have a question for you. I've always wanted to ask you this.

WHITE: Yes.

MARTIN: What does the...

WHITE: What dress to wear?

MARTIN: No. What does the C.R. stand for?

WHITE: Oh, the...

MARTIN: Your byline has always been Constance C.R. White, which is very distinguished.

WHITE: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: But what does the C.R. stand for?

WHITE: The C is for Charmeigne(ph), as I like to say, and the R is for Rosalind .

MARTIN: What do you mean you like to say? Because did you make that up? Is it really that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It is that, or it isn't that? What is it really? Like, Carly Richter or something?

WHITE: I know (unintelligible). No, it is. It is my given name.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Constance C.R. White is the new editor-in-chief of Essence magazine. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

WHITE: You're welcome.

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