THE BLOG

Sale of Ebony and Jet Photos Like Eating the Seed Corn

02/09/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015
Bob O'Connor via Getty Images

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. That the venerable black-owned firm will "monetize valuable assets" 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 as I could about African-American history, life and culture started when I was ten years old in the form of a photo in Jet magazine. It was September, 1955 when my semi-literate grandfather, who migrated to Harlan County, Kentucky in the early '20s to work in the coal mines, handed me the issue of Jet with the cover photo and story about Chicago teen, Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman. For me, and millions of others, young Till's horrifically disfigured head became the hallmark image of the world that Black Americans in my generation would see and live -- and try to change -- for a long time to come.

To really grasp how much Jet and Ebony influenced 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 the magazines. In every issue, at all times, Jet and Ebony pressed the positive angle of any story, even to the point of being criticized 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 would judge the readiness of a watermelon by thumping it with his middle finger. Jet and Ebony -- for most blacks born between WWI and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 -- were to the growth of black social consciousness and political awareness what rain and sunshine were to a healthy farm. A black-owned barber shop without frayed aged copies of Jet and Ebony was a sign of an imitation black barber shop.

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 magazine in 2000 and absorbed the rest in 2005. Viacom Inc. purchased Black Entertainment Television (BET) a few years ago for $2.3 billion. But, by that time, BET's owners had exchanged the "E" to stand for entertainment rather than education.

It's to a point where the words "a black perspective" and "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 advised: "Don't eat your seed corn!" are spinning in their grave sites; at least in the ones that have yet to fall victim to development, diversity, growth, inclusion, integration and progress. When will we learn that change is not the same as progress?

Ebony and Jet were 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 consumed. 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 -- all for the sake of money.