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Commentary: Sale of Ebony, Jet photos is like ‘eating the seed corn’

Commentary: Sale of Ebony, Jet photos is  like ‘eating the seed corn’
January 29
00:00 2015

In photo: Bill Turner

By Bill Turner

The recent news that Johnson Publications of Chicago – the parent company of Jet and Ebony magazines – in hopes of raising $40 million, is selling off its photographic collection that contains more than five million of the most iconic images of African -American life and culture reminds me of a saying I first heard from my Georgia farm-raised grandfather: “Don’t ever eat your seed corn.”

The beginning of my mindful journey to know as much and as best I could about African-American history, life and culture started when I was 10 years old in the form of Jet magazine. It was September 1955 when my semi-literate grandfather, who migrated to Harlan County, Ken. in the early ’20s to work in the coal mines, handed me the issue of Jet with the cover photo and story about Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

For me and millions of others, young Till’s inhumanly disfigured head became the milestone image of the world that Black Americans in my generation would see and live – and change – for a long time to come.

To really grasp how much Jet and Ebony came to mean to me as a small town black boy growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, you have to appreciate how much Mr. John Johnson – who, with his wife, Eunice, founded the company in 1942 – controlled the message of his magazines. In every issue, at all times, Jet and Ebony pressed the positive angle of any story, even to the point of the publications being accused by mainstream media of being little more than feel good channels for Black Americans.

At the darkest times in segregated America, I could read any issue of Jet or Ebony and feel content that blacks – that I – could still excel in any human endeavor. Happy thoughts, cheer, and optimism filled the pages. These signature Johnson Publications, in addition to another – Negro, later renamed Black World – were, to the Civil Rights Movement, what Facebook and Twitter are to contemporary social movements.

Over the years, I put my faith in Jet and Ebony to inform me of things that I was taught intelligent Black Americans cared, or should, care about, always delivered with superb photographs framed inside an editorial perspective directed to the needs of America’s black population, which was besieged by the special effects of racism.

In my youth, I would deliberately look for these periodicals as essential fixtures on coffee tables in the homes of forward-thinking black people. I did so the same way my grandfather could judge the ripeness of a watermelon by thumping it with his middle finger. Jet and Ebony were to the growth of black social consciousness and political awareness what rain and sunshine were to a healthy farm. A black-owned barbershop without frayed aged copies of Jet and Ebony is a sign of an imitation black barbershop.

All that changed at the beginning of the 21st century. Johnson Publishing Company sold an equity stake in the company to JP Morgan Chase. Similarly, Time Inc. bought 49 percent of Essence Communications in 2000 and absorbed the rest in 2005. Viacom Inc. purchased BET a few years ago for $2.3 billion.

It’s to a point where “a black perspective” in “American media” can’t fit in the same sentence. Ebony-hued diehards like me meet for coffee at the McDonald’s and ruminate only to ourselves about the good old days. Farm-raised folk like my grandfather, those who used to say, “Don’t eat your seed corn” are spinning in their gravesites, at least in the ones that have yet to fall victim to growth, development, integration, diversity, inclusion and progress.

Ebony and Jet are like cultural heritage seeds that came through black hands and minds in America for 70 years. We ate some of the corn and we kept some seeds to plant for the next generation to reap.

Now the seed corn is being used up. Our grandchildren will have nothing to put in the ground. The farm will be lost. Blacks will be poorer for this cultural loss, soon broke altogether.

Dr. Bill Turner is a noted educator, writer and thinker who called Winston-Salem home for many years. Reach him at bill-turner@nullcomcast.net.

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