An Essential Encounter with Susan L. Taylor

It’s funny how childhood dreams return to us in adulthood, wisp by wisp, to remind us of the things our soul seeks. This past weekend, a last-minute book fair and a chance encounter with Susan L. Taylor, former editor-in-chief of Essence magazine, made me realize that hopes can manifest in roundabout ways.

I was twelve when I first submitted a story to Essence for publication. At the time, the magazine was running an ad for soap that read: “Do you know an Ivory girl?” I clipped that ad and replied, “No, but I know an Ebony one” and proceeded to list a litany of prepubescent woes written in longhand on lined notebook paper: I felt like an outcast in “my inner city neighborhood,” and I was ostracized for “talking like a white girl” and “not being able to jump Double Dutch.” Needless to say, my first rejection letter arrived in the mail about a month later, albeit nicely worded.

When I was still running around in knickers and a jheri curl, most black households boasted the soulful triumvirate of Jet, Ebony and Essence on coffee tables and in magazine racks, but there was something magical about the glossy that featured a gorgeous and empowered black woman on the cover each month. I was too young to appreciate Susan Taylor’s creative and progressive vision, but as I grew older, I came to love her In the Spirit columns and would often turn there first for my monthly dose of self-love filtered through a lens of faith.

A few years out of undergrad, I was assigned to interview Taylor while working for a newspaper in Baltimore. I was a wreck as I prepared for our meeting, thinking I was too green for the task. The publishing guru put me at ease with her class and calm demeanor. She wore a black business suit, with fierceness and spunk straining at the seams, and her trademark cornrows. What I admired most about Taylor was her unabashed nationalism. She was a race woman from Harlem who stressed economic empowerment in the African-American community. Most of all, she cared about the spiritual wholeness of black women. She was the keeper of our stories – our relationship woes and bad hair days, our struggles on the job and in the home – the ultimate big sister.

Flash forward fifteen years. It’s a muggy June morning in Los Angeles, and I’m heading out the door to the Leimert Park Book Fair. By chance, I happened to be shopping in Leimert the previous Sunday and heard about the event, which would have otherwise escaped my notice. To my surprise, when I booted up my laptop the day of the fair to check the lineup, I noticed that Susan Taylor was one of the first speakers. Naturally, I was running late that morning, made even tardier as I dug through the crates to locate a copy of the interview I did with Taylor so many moons ago. I had two copies left. I grabbed one and raced out the door.

By the time I reached Leimert and found a parking space, I had about ten minutes to spare before the former editor-in-chief took the stage. Surprisingly – and sadly – the book fair wasn’t as packed as I thought it would be, and I was able to find a seat near the stage. A few moments later, Taylor approached the dais wearing an African-inspired pants set, cornrows framing her face. Although fifteen years had passed since I last saw her, she was still as radiant as ever, and, as she spoke, still passionate about the spiritual and economic health of her community.  These days, Taylor is founder and CEO of National CARES Mentoring Movement, and she emphasized the importance of volunteering with children in crisis. “The greatest gift you can give a young person is self-esteem,” Taylor told the audience. Realizing that she was speaking to a group largely comprised of church folk, she added, “You’re useless to God if you’re not rolling up your sleeves and doing the work.”

As self-aware and confident as Taylor seems to be, it’s hard to imagine that she once hesitated to accept the promotion from beauty editor of Essence to its editor-in-chief. She spoke candidly about her doubts, recalling that when she told a girlfriend of the promotion, the woman laughed in her face and said something along the lines of “You as editor in chief? Girl, perish the thought!” I imagine this well-meaning friend seeing Taylor as merely a single mom from the ghetto with a high school diploma and scoffing at the notion that she was fit to helm the nation’s leading magazine for African-American women. Taylor must have mirrored the same disbelief radiating from her friend’s eyes, because she joked about her pending promotion to Mel, her boyfriend at the time. He replied, without laughter, “You have exactly what black women need.” Needless to say, the sister from the hood went on to accept the position. That was in 1981, and Essence had a readership of around 600,000. Under Taylor’s leadership, the circulation grew to more than one million, reaching a reported 5.2 million viewers monthly.

Right before Taylor’s session at the book fair ended, I scooted over to the red carpet to see if I could talk to her. This is not the part where she spotted me outside the velvet rope and embraced me warmly, exclaiming how happy she was to see me after all these years. One could only hope. A chick wearing sunglasses and Daisy Dukes, who was managing the flow of talent to the stage, gave me a dismissive wave and walked away when I tried to flag her down. When I got her attention again and told her I was a writer who had interviewed Taylor and simply wanted to present her with the article, she said, “That’s nice. Wait here.”

Even though the brusqueness of the handler’s reply stung, I humbly took my place outside the velvet rope. I’d gone from working at a top-rated talk show to a self-employed, self-published author. There were no press passes or badges to flash, no big names to mention for VIP access. I had to re-establish my identity.

I waited nearly thirty minutes for Taylor to make her way through a swarm of media and fans. As I stood there with the sun beating down on my face, lamenting my lack of credentials and proper sunscreen, I imagined Essence without the touch of this braided wunderkind, a visionary who showcased full-figured women and those with unprocessed hair on the cover and inside the pages, who championed gay rights when it was not popular to do so, who featured articles about HIV/AIDS in the black community. I wondered what the world would look like had Taylor caved to her homegirl’s ribbing and never accepted the position as editor in chief. Sometimes, when our faith is in its babyhood, well-meaning friends commit infanticide, smothering our dreams with fear-based comments and negativity. That’s why the former EIC says, “It’s important to have people in your life who believe in you.”

I wrestle with similar doubts in my talent and purpose as a self-published author. I quit my job and invested my savings to publish a collection of short stories about empowered, flawed, complex, dysfunctional black female characters because I believe our stories are worthy to be told, and I wanted to show a quirky, futuristic side of our existence. Like Taylor, I share the same concern about the spiritual and emotional health of black women. I’ve said before that I don’t consider myself the voice for black women, but a voice, tackling issues of race, hair and rage.

I wiped sweat from my forehead and mulled over my reason for baking in the summer sun just to reconnect with a woman I’d interviewed more than a decade ago who probably didn’t remember me. At that moment, I realized that my work mattered, and that realization was enough to propel me out of my comfort zone to speak about it to a well-known and well-loved businesswoman. As Taylor headed toward me, my hands grew moist, and I worried that I would smudge the ink on the aged newspaper I clutched. When she was in shouting distance, I unfolded the paper and blurted out a jumble of words about interviewing her years ago and being inspired by her commitment to black women. Taylor smiled, glancing at the article, saying, “Look at that.” Emboldened by her warmth, I rambled on about my short story collection Escape from Beckyville and handed her a postcard I had printed up a week prior.

I’ll save how Taylor responded for another post. But my interaction with the former queen of the black girl glossy encouraged me to pursue my passion. Despite my first rejection letter from Essence magazine at age twelve, I never stopped believing that my words would one day matter. For an angst-ridden eighth grader who talked “like a white girl” and couldn’t “jump Double Dutch,” all I had was my writing. I’m still clinging to words, hoping they’ll continue to sustain me and perhaps help others remain afloat as well.

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