So much of African-American history is about reclamation. My elders, who came through the Jim Crow South and fought for civil rights, taught me “you don’t know who you are unless you understand the path that was paved for you to get there.” From the seat of responsibility that is the editor’s desk, I find it befitting to reflect on the revolution that is ESSENCE and the mission that began 50 years ago.
While I was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in my mother’s beauty salon, it didn’t take a genius to see that Black women were invisible to the beauty industry and the nation. I marveled when my mother brought home makeup from Europe that matched her flawless chocolate skin, but couldn’t buy a magazine that reflected the women in our neighborhood.
In 1970 that all changed on the day she brought home “the mirror on Black womanhood,” which was simply known as ESSENCE. It began in the hearts of four brothers who had the bodacious idea to start a publication that affirmed our strength, style and achievements.
Edward Lewis, Clarence Smith, Jonathan Blount and Cecil Hollingsworth knew that Black women deserved a magazine that showed our beauty and spoke directly to our souls. The men were joined by the award-winning photographer and legendary filmmaker Gordon Parks, who shared the vision and helped to take it to the next level.
When I walked through the magazine’s doors in 1980, I stepped into this proud legacy as an editor in the Fashion and Beauty Department, and for more than 30 years, I poured myself into the mission.
In my very first staff meeting, Susan L. Taylor, then fashion and beauty editor, issued the edict that “we put this magazine out for and about ourselves, all shades, shapes and sizes.” That was and still is the blueprint for the content on our pages.
For years I was the only Black woman at press events, but I had a community of more than 14 million women backing me up.”
Now, fast-forward with me to 1981. I’d been at the magazine a year, poking my head into all things beauty; asking Susan and my colleagues Sandra Martin, associate fashion and beauty editor, and Ionia Dunn-Lee, the fashion editor, why the products that worked for us could fit in the span of my arms.
Why didn’t we appear in any advertisements when our beauty was a form of self-expression that we poured millions into? Susan became editor-in-chief that year, and in answer to my questions, she appointed yours truly as beauty editor and trusted me to provoke change. She handed me a job description that charged me to affirm and inspire the culture’s definition of beauty.
Both nervous and excited, I did so with images that spoke to our distinctive looks and hairstyles that worked for our diverse textures, as well as resources and products that we could count on. I began to educate the industry on the importance of engaging us with offerings that met our desires and needs, and I pushed brands to show they cared by featuring us in their advertisements.
For years I was the only Black woman and beauty advocate representing us at press events, but I silenced all misconceptions that companies held about us because every time I walked through the door I had the magazine’s community of more than 14 million women backing me up.
That force opened up the ethnic corner at retail counters and turned it into an aisle. It produced spokeswomen who looked like us and changed the language that manufacturers used in speaking to us. I ultimately became the beauty and cover director, with an extraordinary team to brand the signature look of the cover and beauty pages.
I dreamed a world that cast women with gaps and gorgeous full lips and skin like mahogany. From Queens with full-blown Afros to those with bold shaved heads—imagine stepping into the studio or hitting diverse locations every month with a handpicked glam squad, to collaborate with some of the most captivating and influential people in the world.
I take great joy in knowing that I became a part of an unparalleled mission that set the stage for Black Girl Magic. ESSENCE is the griot of our times and the defender of our truths. Now, in the future I dreamed, where the possibilities are ours, I want to say to us, “Don’t relax.” The reclamation continues.
Furthering our visibility, as well as our impact, is ever more necessary. The trailblazers who gave us ESSENCE, and the new voices who are building on its legacy, need all of us to be transformational in our thinking, relentless in our determination and visionary on the journey to all that comes next. Happy 50th anniversary!
Mikki Taylor wears an exclusive gown by designer Marco Hall.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of ESSENCE magazine.