Essence Names Interim Chief After Claim of ‘Abusive Work Culture’

Long a touchstone of Black culture, Essence celebrated its 50th anniversary with its May issue, which featured the model Naomi Campbell on the cover. The magazine has a circulation of more than one million and its website attracts nearly seven million unique visitors each month. The company also runs the annual Essence Festival in New Orleans, a celebration of Black culture that has drawn headliners like Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and John Legend. (The festival was canceled this year and replaced with a digital event because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

The anonymous essay was published at a time when many other media companies have wrestled with race and discrimination against Black employees and other workers of color.

The top editor of Bon Appétit, Adam Rapoport, resigned last month after a photo of him costumed in stereotypical Puerto Rican attire resurfaced on social media. His departure was part of a larger revolt at the magazine’s parent company, Condé Nast. Similar uprisings have taken place at The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the women’s lifestyle website Refinery29.

In the essay, Black Female Anonymous tied their efforts to the larger social protest movement that has swept the country. “The demand for a new America calls for the complete accountability of all Americans, even those of us in Black America and our cultural institutions,” the writers said. “Black women deserve to feel safe both in white America and Black America.”

In a Wednesday letter to Ms. Wanga, Black Female Anonymous asked for a guarantee that Mr. Dennis would not have a role in running Essence and that the three other executives they had identified leave the company by the “close of business” on Friday. The letter, which was posted on social media, also demanded that Essence be transparent about the law firms it will hire for the planned review, adding that they must not have ties to Mr. Dennis or others in leadership roles.

In an Instagram post on Thursday, Ms. Wanga sounded optimistic about the future of Essence. “I don’t believe in losses,” she wrote. “You win and you learn. The conversations @richelieudennis and I started a few months ago about his strategic vision for @Essence and the opportunity to be on a team furthering the health/wealth of the global black diaspora, across a portfolio of businesses including @essence, was a ‘win.’ A win stitched together by a 50-year legacy of black creatives, businesses, and community that I would be honored to be a part of.”

Ms. Wanga noted that she had “learned there are things that need to be better for our team and culture — and I’m ready to begin that work,” adding, “I’m committed to flourishing while fixing and fastening what needs to work to be in service to our teams, communities and partners. So let’s GOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” She ended her statement with the hashtag “#BlackWomenRiseTogether.”

Black Female Anonymous replied to Ms. Wanga on social media. “We don’t want @Essence to fold,” the group said. “But we must fix the systemic brokenness of any Black cultural institution that devalues Black women. We’re counting on you, Caroline. Fix it or fold.”

Adenike Olanrewaju contributed reporting.

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