'Essence' Explores Race, Same-Gender Love Essence magazine’s latest issue aims to stimulate a national dialogue about race in America that informs and empowers African American women. Another recent feature from Essence is an online profile of an African-American lesbian couple.
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'Essence' Explores Race, Same-Gender Love

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'Essence' Explores Race, Same-Gender Love

'Essence' Explores Race, Same-Gender Love

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Now it's time for our magazine mavens where we talk to the editors of some of our favorite magazines. This month, though, we are focusing on Essence magazine for some bold choices the magazine and website have made. The words "Race in America" grace the cover of Essence magazine's November issue. Essence says it wants to start a national dialogue about race that will inform and empower black women and maybe inspire some action on issues of race, as well.

The publication pulled together a panel of prominent African-Americans to share their insights. It included CNN journalist Soledad O'Brien, NAACP President Ben Jealous and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

To talk about the magazine's race issue, we've invited the news editor for Essence magazine, Wendy Wilson. Also with us, managing editor for essence.com, Emil Wilbekin. He's going to tell us about a feature on its website, the story of an African-American lesbian couple who are getting married. And I thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. WENDY WILSON (News Editor, Essence): Thank you.

Mr. EMIL WILBEKIN (Managing Editor, Essence.com): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So, Wendy, first of all, let's just talk about this big race in America takeout that Essence did this month. I think a lot of people understand that Essence magazine, over the course of its history, has covered issues of particular interest to African-American women. But I think race is so central to the lives of African-American women, why did you feel a need to sort of focus on it specifically?

Ms. WILSON: Especially as we head into the midterm election season, we really wanted to take a look at how we have an African-American president in office. How does that really impact us as a people, whether or not we are moving ahead in the ways that we should be moving ahead.

MARTIN: One of the interesting things that the panel discussed was a question posed by your editor Bob Meadows. And his question was, on many levels, blacks are doing better than ever. Why doesn't it feel like it? What would your answer be, Wendy?

Ms. WILSON: While we are doing better than ever, we still have systematic racism in place that keeps us from moving ahead. We can do what we can do to get to the top of the mountain, but if we're still having that glass ceiling there, then it really kind of keeps it in a box. Looking at class, really open up a different dialogue that we've never really gone to before.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our monthly visit with the magazine mavens, but this month we're focusing on Essence magazine. Essence has decided to take a deep look into race in America. And we're speaking with the magazine's news editor Wendy Wilson about that.

Also, essence.coms managing editor Emil Wilbekin is with us. And Emil, we were intrigued by your decision to focus on a same-sex couple. Is it my understanding that this is one of the features that people particularly enjoy, where you focuse on weddings and engagements and proposals? And this is an online feature that many, many people enjoy.

Mr. WILBEKIN: Absolutely. Every Wednesday we have a feature, franchise called Bridal Bliss. And it's hugely popular with our audience because a lot of our audiences are romantic. And this amazing lesbian couple, they were legally married in June in Washington, D.C. They were one of the first couples to register. And then they were going to have this really huge beautiful wedding.

And I thought, instead of just covering it as a straight news story, why don't we normalize it and cover the wedding as an amazing same-sex black lesbian wedding.

MARTIN: And what's been the response?

Mr. WILBEKIN: We got an overwhelmingly positive response. I mean, there's already over 5,000 Facebook likes on the wedding. And a lot of the comments were, you know, this is not something I would normally think about or I would normally know about, but I think it's amazing because I think what translates in this story is that this is really a story about love.

And I think that regardless of your politics, and regardless of your values, you have to look at that and see that these two women love each other and are very happy.

MARTIN: I was wondering, were there any negative remarks?

Mr. WILBEKIN: Oh, of course. I mean, you're going to have conservative right wing audience who, you know, is quoting from the Bible and thinks its an abomination. And we get that type of rhetoric whenever we cover gay issues. So we expected that. But what was more interesting were the people who were not exposed to this and actually took a stance against the people who were making the negative comments.

MARTIN: And speaking - you know, it is a measure of how important Essence is to its readers that internal decisions at Essence magazine are discussed seriously. And one of those also came up in your Race in America package where the question of Essence magazine's new fashion editor was discussed. And she's the first non-black fashion editor, I believe, in the history of the magazine. And she's also born in Australia. And some readers have made it clear that they are not pleased by this.

And it also came up in the race discussion. Author Lenny McAllister, who was one of the panel discussion - discussions said that black women feel as if they've lost their safe zone. And they're wondering how the new editor can even relate to the struggles of African-Americans is she's not even from this country.

So, Wendy, this controversy has sort of brewed for a couple of - what, one or two months now. How are - are people starting to settle down? What have been the reactions now?

Ms. WILSON: Well, you know, our readers have looked at the fashion coverage that we've had in the magazine and we've gotten such positive responses from all the things that we've featured on the clothing and the designers and the styles. And so she continues to do a wonderful job and our readers continue to enjoy what she's bringing to the table.

MARTIN: And, finally, there's another piece that Essence - provocative piece that Essence published in this November issue. It's called the hate that hate produced and it's an investigation of hate groups, and it's also - I'll just read the subtitle. It says that fringe right wing groups have pushed an agenda that is infected with white nationalism and violent rhetoric. Essence spent six months infiltrating their secret conferences and backroom meetings to go inside this frightening movement that has widened both the racial and political gap in America.

What interested you in this story? Why did you want to pursue this story?

Ms. WILSON: We started seeing some of the signs that a lot of folks at Tea Party rallies and some of these other rallies going on across the country were holding up. And, you know, looking at the seemingly, you know, insidious remarks against the president. And, you know, whether you believe that the president's doing a good job or not, that's fine, that's your right to say that. But there are some of these billboards and signs that we started to see that were really on the tinge of being racist.

And so it's taken six months - it really took that long for us to start going to some of these meetings, particularly of this one white nationalist nonprofit group called the Council of Conservative Citizens. And we hired a reporter to go in.

MARTIN: Who was white.

Ms. WILSON: Who was white. And that's what we want to bring to our readers -primarily we want to open an area where we feel our readers may not have known about and may not have realized that a lot of this stuff is actually happening across the country and not in ways that are usual KKK and skinhead type of stuff. This stuff is really mainstream. It's, you know, your next door neighbor, it's your doctor, it's your lawyer. These are the folks who are attending these types of meetings.

MARTIN: Emil, final question for you, what about - do you feel that this piece that you presented on the lesbian couple, is that a new direction for essence.com, or do you feel that it's just kind of a continuation of the direction that you're already in?

Mr. WILBEKIN: Particularly with the website, we attempt to reach a younger audience, a post-racial audience. And I think in those discussions, you know, the topics of gay culture and civil rights do come into play. But it's like, how do you cover that in a way that's of interest? And how do you engage them?

And I think the overwhelming response, not just from black women, but from straight people and people that don't typically read Essence or essence.com, they were very intrigued by the effect of it. So they want to kind of continue the dialogue. And I agree with them. If we have such a huge response, we should talk about this more.

MARTIN: Emil Wilbekin is the managing editor for essence.com. Wendy Wilson is the news editor for Essence magazine. They were both kind enough to join us from our studios in New York for our monthly Magazine Mavens conversation. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. WILSON: Thank you.

Mr. WILBEKIN: Thank you.

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