Reflections on a Career

By Pinsky, Mark I. | The Quill, July/August 1998 | Go to article overview

Reflections on a Career


Pinsky, Mark I., The Quill


Reflections on a career

White editor looks back on years that produced Ebony, Jet

NITTY GRITTY A White Editor in Black Journalism. By Ben Burns. University Press of Mississippi. 230 pages. $27.50.

Ben Burns was Joe McCarthy's worst nightmare: a Jewish Communist editing the most influential black publications in America at the height of the Cold War. In the course of his intriguing career, Burns went from the staff of the Communist Party's Daily World and People's World to conservative black publications like Ebony, Negro Digest and Jet.

The son of a house painter, Ben Bernstein was raised in the slums of Chicago. After graduating from Northwestern University's journalism school in 1936 (and changing his name), Burns' idealism led him to a four-year stint with Communist Party newspapers, until he was laid off. Leftist comrades-looking for an ideological foothold in the black press-helped him find work at the militant Chicago Daily Defender. Although he later was expelled from the Communist Party for insufficient ideological fervor, Burns continued editing black newspapers and magazines for more than three decades.

Why did he stick with this incongruous career choice? When his "short roller-coaster career on radical dailies" ended, Burns writes in Nitty Gritty, his job in the black press left him feeling like "a refugee finding comfort in a new homeland." Black publishers were able to see beyond his white skin and Red background to his expertise, energy and his unwavering commitment to racial equality. In return, they got a talented professional at a cut-rate salary. For his bosses, Burns writes, "my contribution as an editorial workhorse apparently outweighed my liability as an ex-Red."

This is a hard-headed and clear-eyed account by a sympathetic "outsider" who worked on the inside of the black press in its formative period. While Burns notes the imperfections of the African American press he is understanding of the reasons for these weaknesses. "Regardless of its sometimes amateurish appearance, notwithstanding its occasional stridency in pillorying bigots, the Negro press was a significant influence in changing the racial pattern of America. I reveled in my small individual contribution to the effort:'

The most complex of Burns' professional relationships was with John H. Johnson, with whom he created Negro Digest, Ebony and Jet Ebony was conceived by Johnson as an unabashed imitation of Henry Luce's Life-a monthly, upbeat version of black life, focusing on black achievements but seasoned with sensationalism, show business and coverage of interracial relationships.

Despite Ebony's high circulation figures and Johnson's racial conservatism, it was often a personally humiliating struggle in the early 1950s for the publisher to get major white corporate executives to advertise consumer products like automobiles, pens and toiletries. Burns' feelings about Johnson, who built a cosmetics empire of his own in addition to Ebony and his other publishing ventures, are ambiguous. …

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