In Memoriam: John H. Johnson (1918-2005)
By Haki R. Madhubuti
John H. Johnson, the unchallenged dean of Black publishing and entrepreneurship; the acknowledged “first” in categories that would require hundreds of pages to list; the publisher of Ebony, Jet, the JPC Book Division, and formerly Negro Digest/ Black World, Ebony Jr., EM (Ebony Man) and Ebony-South Africa; the founder of Fashion Fair Cosmetics and the Ebony Fashion Show; and one of the world’s first Black multi-millionaires, died on Aug. 8. He was 87.
His passing is less painful to the nation only because most of us witnessed, participated and benefited from his gigantic success. His world touched ours, whether as readers of his magazines and books, listeners of his radio stations, investors in his insurance company, users of his cosmetics, or viewers of his fashion shows — John H. Johnson had an idea and it changed the world of Black America.
As a poet, I first received national and international attention in an article written by David Llorens that appeared in the March 1969 issue of Ebony. I was the first poet-in-residence at an Ivy League university at that time, still using my birth name of Don L. Lee. Undoubtedly, my being a Black poet at Cornell University was the “hook” for Ebony. That article would help launch my career and make my third book of poetry, Don’t Cry, Scream, a national best seller.
My first introduction to Mr. Johnson’s importance to the Black community, however, arrived in Jet magazine. His weekly publication provided us with a national view of all that was “important,” culturally and politically, in the African-American community. I grew up selling Jet magazine, not for extra money, but for living money that I contributed to our impoverished household in Detroit. Each week, I would hit the streets, barber and beauty shops, the steps of Black churches, basement taverns, buses and automobile factories and sell somewhere between 30 and 50 copies of Jet.
Along with my morning and evening paper routes, shoe shine business, junk-metal collecting and my weekly Jet sales, I was making, in a good week, $15 or more — pretty good for a teenager in the 1950s. I knew that Jet was an important must-read for most Blacks and those persons trying to keep up with the happenings in our community. I did not realize the absolute necessity of Jet, however, until the murder of Emmett Till in 1955.
Mr. Johnson displayed unusual courage, placing the battered, beaten and bloated face of young Emmett in Jet. The magazine sold out in Detroit that first day. I sold 50 copies and could not acquire any more. Jet magazine had become the national voice in the Black community. Whether he intended it or not, “The Jet” (as it was fondly called) and Ebony put African-American people on the cultural, political and economic map. We began to walk a little straighter and with more purpose.
Reading the Johnson publications also spoke to me as a developing poet/writer. Other than the many Black newspapers that populated the land, it was Johnson Publishing Company that helped to nurture and train the hundreds of Black journalists and photographers that emerged out of the last century. The Johnson connection is not only professional but, for me, personal. His book selections and those of Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press remained the best examples for my starting Third World Press. Three of Mr. Johnson’s long-term employees served as major mentors to my own development. Lerone Bennett Jr., whose book, Before the Mayflower, was a foundational text for my early development, was a great historian, thinker and editor. Hoyt W. Fuller as editor of Negro Digest/Black World and mentor to hundreds of young Chi-cago writers, put precious time in developing me as an essayist. And David Llorens, friend and fellow poet/writer, was the brother who sold the idea of a story on me to Mr. Johnson.
With Jet and Ebony, we were finally able to see ourselves as Black people in a way that was not embarrassing or belittling. Mr. Johnson developed a “first class” philosophy of life. In order to be the best, we needed to see the best, and Ebony, his flagship publication, set out to prove to the world and ourselves that we need not forever stand in lines with our hands out.
He showcased the Black emerging middle and upper classes as they were reshaping the economic landscape of the country. He writes in his autobiography Succeeding Against the Odds, “We wanted to show Negroes — we were Negroes then — and Whites the Negroes nobody knew. … In a world of despair, we wanted to give hope. In a world of negative Black images, we wanted to provide positive Black images. In a world that said Blacks could do few things, we wanted to say they could do everything.”
For 60 years, Mr. Johnson’s dream became our dream, even when some of us had not yet learned how.
— Haki R. Madhubuti is a poet, publisher of Third World Press, Distinguished University Professor and director of the MFA program at Chicago State University.
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