Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Linda Johnson Rice
Linda Johnson Rice: "It really is about an inner strength and an inner beauty and how you carry yourself."
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Linda Johnson Rice is chairman of the multimedia company that publishes Ebony, a lifestyle and general interest magazine for African-Americans, and Jet, a news magazine.
Her father founded Johnson Publishing in 1942 with Negro Digest. Ms. Rice grew up in the publishing world after being adopted by John and Eunice Johnson. As a young girl, she traveled with her mother to fashion shows in Paris and Milan, being exposed to the finer things in life, as well as a strong work ethic.
Ms. Rice, 53, who is divorced with a daughter, was a special guest for the opening gala of "Teenie Harris, Photographer: An American Story," an exhibit that runs through April 7 at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
What have you been told was the most challenging aspect of creating Johnson Publishing?
I think the most challenging aspect from my father's perspective was probably getting advertising. He really did pattern Ebony after Look and Life magazines. Well, let me back up. I think there were several challenges. Advertising was one. The thing that was really challenging was getting the circulation, getting newsstands to even take the magazine because they had never heard of any before. They never had a black magazine, you know, on the newsstand. So that was a major hurdle.
Johnson Publishing gave a lot of African-Americans a chance to showcase their talents when opportunities at other outlets weren't available. Do you think it also inspired a sense of pride in the community?
I think it absolutely inspired a sense of pride. Remember, up until then there really weren't any sort of media outlets where African-Americans could see themselves in a successful, achieving, positive way. I mean everything that had been written about African-Americans was not the most uplifting. So along comes Ebony in 1945 and Jet in 1951, and what we're talking about really is success and achievements and firsts in the African-American community on every level. This really was a showcase for African-American achievement and for African-American talent.
And it was a place to say, "I belong."
Absolutely, this was an environment where you could see people like yourself, and African-Americans could relate to that and see goals that could be attainable.
In an age when print journalism is struggling and African-Americans are represented in all media, how are Ebony and Jet holding up?
We understand our audience. We write to the things that concern our audience. At one point it was civil rights. You know during the '50s and '60s we were at the forefront. Now I think people are concerned about their family, their health, their finances. So these are things we write about. I think we've kept up with having really best in class talent who work for the magazines and have a great perspective as to what Ebony and Jet are about in this current form.
Herman Cain has said that he doesn't think racism holds anybody back in a big way today. What do you think?
I'm not really a political animal, so I'm not going to get into a debate with Herman Cain. But I would say when you look at things like economic parity, educational parity, it's not there for African-Americans. There is a huge gap in the economic level as far as household income. There is a large gap, obviously, in unemployment. It's 9 percent for the general public and 16 percent for African-Americans.
We covered a story in Jet about a cross burning on a black man's home in Delaware. I mean these things still happen. This is the reality of where we are.
We know the disadvantages, but what are the benefits of being black in America today?
I think the benefits are you have a rich and deep cultural heritage which you can draw from, and I believe that gives us strength. It gives us pride in what we do. It's an experience no one else can have except you. You live that black experience, that African-American experience, and it is one you take great pride in. I think that is unique and special and a great advantage for us.
The stories of accomplishments, achievements, challenges, problems, issues, concerns, pass down through history, and those are things you take with you in your personal life wherever you go. Those are really important, the struggles and challenges, that are unique to the African-American culture that really provide great platforms and inspiration for us.
I imagine there is a sense of overcoming when much of the black history in America comes from slavery.
Absolutely, that is where I think the pride comes in. That's where also whatever challenges you have, it does make you think, "You know what? If my ancestors could survive coming over here through the Middle Passage on slave ships and on plantations and still prosper and I'm here and I'm a product of that history, then I, too, can move forward." You do draw great strength from that.
Being adopted, you had to have wondered what your life would be like had things turned out differently. Does that create an eternal curiosity in you?
I think I'm curious by nature because I always want to learn, and I think you can learn from so many things around you on an everyday basis. But, I also consider myself incredibly blessed. I mean I wake up every day and say, "There but for the grace of God go I." I was blessed enough to be adopted by John and Eunice Johnson. I'm sure if I were not adopted by them, yes, my circumstances would have been different, and I don't know in what way. I happen to have the great fortune and by the grace of God to be sort of chosen [laughing] by John and Eunice. I'm eternally grateful for that.
So what drives you and what has the power to deplete you?
I would say what really drives me is the strength I get by just being out among people who talk to me about how Ebony and Jet have inspired them. It's really amazing if I'm out either giving a talk or making a speech or just meeting people. I've run into people on airplanes who have said, "You know I read a copy of Ebony and it inspired me to start my business." Or "I've read your father's book, 'Succeeding Against the Odds,' and realized if he could do it, I could do it, too." That really does keep you going because it tells you you are making a connection to your audience. You really are giving people a platform where they can express themselves and try to start to fulfill their own hopes and dreams.
You know what? Nothing really depletes me. Obviously I'm a human being and some days are good and some days are not so good, but you just keep going. I have to have that attitude. I've been through very dark and difficult times. My father died in 2005 and my mother died in 2010. These were difficult things to go through because they were the backbone and the source of my inspiration. They are there with me every single day of my life as I move on and I move forward. So I can't think about depletion. I can't think about that.
You've had an almost charmed life in some ways. Your mother took you to Paris at a very young age and you were exposed to the wider world. Not all your readers have enjoyed that background.
I was very fortunate to be able to travel to Europe with my mother and go to all these wonderful high-fashion, haute couture showrooms. But that was part of the impetus for the Ebony Fashion Fair and my mother bringing those clothes from Milan and Paris and Rome to places like Mississippi and Birmingham [Ala.] and Los Angeles and Chicago and D.C. and all these cities so that our audience of African-American women could see -- even though the show was beautiful and a fantasy -- this was also something that could be attainable for you. You, too, should feel good about yourself.
My mother said, "You should be able to wear anything you want to wear. This is your plumage. This is how you feel about yourself." So it's more than just fashion, it really is about an inner strength and an inner beauty and how you carry yourself.
What's your view of destiny?
You know, I really have given that some thought. I have to tell you I do believe in destiny. I do believe there is a higher power that is guiding you along the path. Things do work out, but they are meant to be, and sometimes you go through very difficult times. You can't even understand why this is happening to you, but in the end there is a sense of clarity when you sort of come through these fires. Destiny is guided by a higher power, and I think that is overseeing most of us. Or all of us who believe in that [laughing]. Or those who don't.
First Published January 2, 2012 12:00 am