For Margaret B. Smith, getting a new copy of ESSENCE magazine in the mail is about far more than just thumbing through the pages. That’s because for the past 30 years, the New Orleans native has collected and preserved a copy of every single issue that has been released since 1980.
In today’s technology age when magazines are easily accessible both online and in digital format, many people consider print issues to be a something out of the stone age. However, to Smith, collecting the magazines serves as a self-affirming process that can’t be matched in the digital form.
“ESSENCE brings out the natural beauty of African-American women and I consider it an honor and a pleasure to be able to hold these pieces of history in my hand,” she said when we caught up with her at the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center, where she proudly has her collection on display for visitors to take in.
She says she was first was inspired to begin keeping each issue because of what the magazine represents for Black women. “I fell in love with the beauty of ESSENCE, the culture of ESSENCE. When the magazine came along, it gave me a chance to be myself and be proud of who Margaret is,” she explained.
When the opportunity presented itself for her to share her cherished collection with the public, she jumped at the chance. As she recalled that fateful moment 20 years ago, a smile spread across her face. “I had to do an interview with the city of New Orleans. At that time, I only had a box full of them and I brought it with me and they just loved it.
"Since then, she has acquired enough issues to fill that one box and then some, growing her display from one glass panel to the current six, handmade glass panels that she uses to showcase her pride and joy.
To take a look at Smith’s collection is to take a look at the history of ESSENCE and provides the opportunity to observe the growth of the publication. There are only a few issues that she is missing and she is on a quest to locate them and add them to her stockpile.
With so many issues, it would seem difficult for her to single out one issue in particular as a favorite. However, when asked, she easily picks one without hesitation. “The ‘Black Lives Matter’ issue is my favorite,” she explained, referring to the February 2015 commemorative issue. “When they talk about ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they talk about Margaret also because my life matters also as a human being. I see myself in those victims. I admire it because they speak on all lives, all Black lives. They don’t say ‘Ferguson Lives Matter’ or ‘Baltimore Lives Matter;’ all Black lives matter and that touched my heart.”
Managing to keep over 350 copies in her possession has been no easy feat, especially considering that she lost everything when Hurricane Katrina destroyed her home, splitting it in half. While she still lost about 20% of her collection, thinking ahead helped keep her losses to a minimum.
“Two weeks before Katrina hit, I had put my magazines in storage. The storage facility got over 18 feet of water. The water levels got all the way up to the fourth floor. Lucky for me, my collection was stored on the fifth floor,” she said. Despite losing everything and having her family displaced across the country, Smith’s optimistic attitude and deeply spiritual faith allows her to find the bright side from the devastating storm, which is approaching its 10th anniversary in August. “I cried my eyes out, but I have to thank God because he spared my life,” she said, hints of emotion creeping into her voice.
“He changed my life after Katrina. I feel more blessed than I did pre-Katrina. Even if I’m broke, busted and can’t be trusted, I’m still anointed and I thank God and ESSENCE for saving me.”