alicia keys (jet mag cover)

*Still more irrefutable proof that the times, they are a  changin’: supermarkets now charge you a dime for paper grocery bags. McDonald’s serves salad.  And now Jet magazine is gone.

Well, not really. Black-owned, Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company (JPC) recently announced that at the end of June the legendary digest-size newsweekly, like many other iconic national magazines of late, will exist online exclusively.

But for those of us who grew up reading the bite-sized Jet, the retirement of its physical version marks the end of an era.

After JPC’s announcement, out of curiosity I asked five friends of mine who happen to be white if they’d ever read the publication. Three had never heard of it and none had ever read it. That’s understandable. Jet is what you’d truly call a “black thing.”

Launched in 1951 by publisher John H. Johnson– who by 1945 was already publishing the monthly Ebony magazine, still printing today—Jet was so titled to acknowledge the speed at which popular culture is moving, with people giving little time to being informed.

Hence, Jet, a small, quickly-read general interest publication covering everything from politics to entertainment. At the time, Mr. Johnson decided that there was enough negative being written about the black man, so a hallmark of Jet, like Ebony, was its concentration on the positive aspects of black American life.

Jet, along with Life, Look and Reader’s Digest, was one of the first publications I ever read. Mama, like a large number of black Americans, religiously purchased the magazine every week. Indeed, households, as well as black-owned businesses in “The Community”–barber shops, beauty parlors, the waiting areas of auto garages—none were complete without a Jet on hand.

I remember “The Photo of the Week.” This image could be a black politician hugging a constituent; a kid playing with his dog; a photo of the abject poor—the idea was to present a prolific visual of an aspect of the black experience that week.

Decades later, two “Photos of the Week” linger in my mind. One was of a young black woman born with no legs or arms, just a torso and a head.  She was the mother of a child.

The other was of the body of a well-to-do black man who’d passed away and insisted that his casket be his car (a Cadillac, I believe).  There was actually a picture of this.

Figures. In the ‘hood, a new car has always held its prideful place as a sign of movin’ on up. Thus,  the requisite photo for Jet stories on celebrities featured the entertainer posed with his or her car(s). The opening photo of an early ‘70s Isaac Hayes cover story had the singer/songwriter standing proudly among his fleet of rides, including one I’d never heard of–a gaudy, American-built luxury car called the Stutz Bearcat. Wow!

Jet had a politics section and a world section. As a kid, I didn’t care about those. Instead, I’d go straight to the entertainment section–and the female centerfold called “Beauty of the Week.”

The latter feature might have seemed corny or out of place, but in the ‘50s and particularly the ‘60s, when we made the shift from Negro to Black, the feature did its part to instill self-love. Yes, “Black is Beautiful”–and as a teenager I didn’t require any more proof than a curvy sister with afro puffs in a swimsuit and pumps.

Many of the ladies’ photos were credited to one Lamonte  McLemore, aka the “Tall Light skin Brother in the Fifth Dimension.” When he wasn’t harmonizing on such hits as “Up, Up and Away,” “Stone Soul Picnic” and “Aquarius,” McLemore, who founded the group and has shot for Harper’s Bazaar, Playboy and People, photographed (and often recruited) the young, everyday women who appeared as the Jet “Beauty of the Week.”

Jet had its own music chart, the “Soul Brothers Top 20,” a weekly ranking of the nation’s hottest black singles. Launched in 1967, the chart was reportedly compiled by the magazine polling some of the country’s hottest black night clubs, beauty and barber shops to learn what people were playing and talking about. Readers were also invited to mail in their choices.

And anyone who read Jet back in the day has to remember the Flagg Brothers clothing ads. Leisure suits. Plaid cuffed bellbottoms. Pleather coats with fake fur collars. Platform shoes and boots galore. You too can dress as if you just stepped out of a Blaxploitation flick. Forget actually owning the mack daddy threads my friends and I thought were so cool;  we just wanted to order the catalogue.

When I grew up and started writing, I myself made onto the pages of Jet: in 1977, I interviewed Michael Jackson at the Jackson family home for Soul Newspaper when rumors were swirling that he was Gay. So I asked him point blank. A previously talkative Jackson sitting in front of me suddenly paused. Then his eyes went down to the cassette recorder in my lap. “Turn off the tape recorder,” he said quietly.

I did as he requested.   Jackson said no, he wasn’t Gay, but that he didn’t have anything against Gays and said he knew lots of Jacksons fans were Gay. He said he didn’t want to be recorded in case someone might misconstrue his answer as being anti-Gay.

It was the first time a journalist had asked Jackson what was then considered a controversial question. Jet reported the interview as news.

I haven’t read Jet in years (isn’t it just like a fickle society to lament the loss of something you no longer patronize?). The magazine came along during a period in this nation’s history when it was nearly impossible to find positive, informative coverage in the national media about black American culture, for and by blacks, presented with dignity and respect.

Alas,  as I got older, in an ever-changing world my thinking required a more objective perspective,  even—especially—about us.

However,  for a culture during a pivotal time in America, the little but mighty magazine called Jet more than served its purpose. And for that, I, along with generations of black Americans, are forever grateful.

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected].  

steven ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory