Picture yourself walking into a Black-owned beauty salon in the mid-2000s. The smell of Blue Magic grease and hot combs are a welcoming scent. You sit in the waiting area, thinking about how sore your scalp may be after this. Then you picture your freshly done hair and remember that it’ll all be worth it. As you wait for a chair to free up, you peer down at the stack of magazines in front of you. To your surprise, JET Magazine has a new issue out. You pick it up and can’t wait to flip through each page.
This level of anticipation for JET Magazine was and still is felt by readers for 70 years now. Armyll Smith recalls having the magazine as a coffee table staple in their youth.
“I remember it was so cool to look at growing up. Maybe I didn’t understand some of the news because I was so young but the culture. The culture carried. I wanted the hairstyles, the clothes; I wanted to order the CDs they recommended. It was a whole movement,” Smith said.
To look back at its genesis is to realize how monumental a magazine like this was. JET Magazine began publishing in 1952 under John H. Johnson’s publishing company. Johnson is considered a legend in paving the way for Black media.
“It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Johnson publications in telling the story of Black America,” said Donovan X. Ramsey, head of the Instagram account @blackmagcovers.
JET marketed itself as the “Weekly Negro News Magazine”, covering the quickly unfolding Civil Rights Movement. The name “JET” stuck with Johnson because he wanted it to symbolize “Black and speed”. He cited that news moved so quickly. The publication’s aim was to provide “news coverage on happenings among Negroes all over the U.S.—in entertainment, politics, sports, social events as well as features on unusual personalities, places and events.”
JET garnered national attention with its coverage of Emmett Till’s murder. Images of the teenager’s brutalized body as he lay in his casket circulated throughout the nation by way of JET. This contributed to bringing national attention to the violence of the Jim Crow South which propelled the growing Civil Rights Movement forward.
Taking their growing audience into consideration, JET continued to cover the Civil Rights Movement as well as other social justice movements. From 1970-1975, JET gave physicians the platform to discuss scientific facts surrounding abortion and reproductive rights.
The magazine covered news on happenings among African-Americans all over the U.S.—in entertainment, politics, sports, social events as well as features on unusual personalities, places and events. Celebrities and notable figures graced the Black and white covers.
JET also became well known for its centerfold feature, “JET Beauty of the Week.” Polarizing to say the least, JET Beauty of the Week has been a centerpiece of the magazine since its inception. Each issue featured a beautiful Black woman and a short bio about herself. These women had ranging career paths such as beauty consultants, college students, aspiring politicians, and musicians.
Some Black women who gained success later in life credited the centerfold piece as their start, from the likes of television beauty Willona Woods to Blaxpoitation icon Pam Grier.
Noliwe M. Rooks believes that the platform “brought Black female bodies into the mainstream” and challenged beauty standards set by mainly white pin-up girls at the time.
Others criticized JET’s depiction of Black women. Beauties of the Week were largely photographed in bathing suits from 1959-1993. These centerfold features were accompanied by a bio of the Beauty and her body measurements. Critics grew concerned citing the importance of Black beauty being visible but not being based on objectification.
JET also came under fire along with the popular Essence magazine for promoting colorist ideals. A 1955 issue included an advertisement for Nadinola, a bleaching cream. The ad depicted a light-skinned woman as the center of men’s attention.
In a study conducted by Vanessa Hazell and Juanne Clarke, it was concluded that JET and Essence magazine between 2003 and 2004 still allowed Eurocentric and white standards of beauty to be promoted through their hair care ads. Many of these companies featured models that were either white or adhering closely to white standards of beauty.
In June 2014, JET released its last physical issue, opting to move to fully digital. Two years later, Johnson Publishing sold JET and its sister magazine Ebony. Clear View Group, a Texas-based and Black-owned equity firm, still owns both publications in 2022.
In 2021, Michele Ghee was appointed CEO of JET & Ebony. In a Los Angeles Times feature, Ghee recalls the lasting legacy of the brands and how instrumental they were in the creation of the Black media blueprint. Ghee plans to bring the publications back into their former glory by tying on tried-and-true ways to new solutions. Today JET can still be found on jetmag.com, producing content for us and by us.
JET magazine has cemented its place in the history of Black media as an influential giant. It gave voices to artists that the industry forgot and news that the mainstream ignored. With its many supporters and creative staffing, hopefully we see the magazine fully restored to its former glory: “Black like it never left.”