“Essence magazine is failing Black America. When Black media companies become unstable, it triggers the instability of the entire culture. Black women and men have long depended on Black-owned media outlets to service them with cultural identity, cultural memory, purpose, and economic advancement. …Black women, at Essence, have been forced to remain silent. We fear cannibalizing the public narrative for Black Lives Matter and civil rights 2.0. We also fear losing our jobs or being banished from Black cultural spaces. Historically a haven for Black female media professionals who couldn’t get roles at major publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast due to racial bias, the magazine’s very first cover in May 1970 boldly presented a Black woman in a natural afro with a tantalizing cover line asking Black men, do you love me? Today, the company’s predominantly Black female workforce is asking Essence itself, “Do you love us like we love you?” – Black Female Anonymous
Amid allegations of a toxic work culture, Essence Communications, Inc. has named Caroline Wanga as the new interim Chief Executive Officer at Essence. This comes amidst allegations of mistreatment and abuse of lewer-level Black female employees, by the company’s CEO Richelieu Dennis and other top-level executives. Wanga served as Essence’s chief growth officer in June before becoming the interim CEO. Wanga’s leadership was announced days after Essence refuted a publication on the blogging platform Medium.
Last week, under the byline, “Black Female Anonymous,” a letter was published to Medium demanding the resignation of Dennis, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, Chief Content Officer Moana Luu, and Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks. The letter claims that the previously mentioned people, “collaboratively immortalize an extremely unhealthy work culture.” It also calls for AT&T, Coca Cola, Chase Bank, Ford, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Walmart, and Warner Media to immediately eliminate all active or future sponsorships and media buys at Essence Ventures until the company is under new leadership. The letter was published anonymously for fear of retribution. “ We are #BlackFemaleAnonymous but not for long. Our hope is that this message assures the hearts and minds of every forcibly muted Essence employee past and present that the change we’ve secretly hoped for is on the way.”
According to the letter, Essence cultivated an environment of a toxic culture, which resulted in the loss of highly qualified Black female talent. The letter alleges sexual harassment, pay inequities, and bullying by upper management. Additionally, Black women were systematically suppressed by colorism, classicism, nepotism, and intimidation. “For past and present Black female talent once lucky enough to walk its prestigious halls, Essence is the most deceptive Black media company in America. Why? Essence aggressively monetizes #BlackGirlMagic, but the company does not internally practice #BlackGirlMagic. The company’s long-standing pattern of gross mistreatment and abuse of its Black female employees is the biggest open secret in the media business.”
The letter goes into depth about the actions of Collins, Profet, Luu, Ebanks, and founder and former owner of Shea Moisture products Richelieu Dennis. Dennis acquired Essence in 2018 from Time Inc. according to the letter, ” to advance his personal power and influence despite his carefully crafted, public messaging. His surface-level commitment to Black women is driven by greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite.” It also proclaims that Dennis has a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff, (the parent company of Shea Moisture he sold to Unilever in 2017). For the women who did not consent, he openly sexually harasses them at private company events. In the latter half of 2019, after a string of unjustified layoffs, Dennis tried to force employees and contractors to sign non-disclosure agreements that protect his family from disparagement and “other potentially libelous activity.” Dennis has since stepped down.
The following day, Essence issued a formal statement, discrediting the allegations written in the exposition. Essence claims that the letter is an attempt to discredit their brand and assassinate their character. “Further, accusations of sexual harassment or misconduct are extremely serious matters, and we fully understand the gravity of the implications. These are also not claims to be recklessly and untruthfully thrown about – particularly when there have been no claims to respond to or any evidence of such defamatory accusations. In fact, there have been multiple comprehensive reviews of the HR function, and no evidence has been found to substantiate these anonymous claims. Our message is simple – the accusations are false, and we fully deny them. We are not succumbing to a cancel culture.”
Kelly Washington is a freelance writer and blogger living on the southside of Chicago. You can follow her on social media @ Sunrise and Sugar (Facebook).