Yvonne Brathwaite Burke was a rising star in national politics when she arrived in the House in 1973. Mainstream media, however, rarely covered any African-American or female legislator in depth. One exception was the Black media empire founded by Jack Johnson, with the influential Ebony and Jet magazines at its center. They gave Burke her first national coverage, depicting her both as a serious politician and as a model of traditional femininity.
Jet, a weekly news digest magazine with enormous circulation, balanced news stories with entertainment, health advice, and dating tips. Paradoxically, the magazine became most famous for both its influential civil rights movement coverage and swim-suited “Beauty of the Week” photos.
Based on the success of large-format magazines Life and Look, Ebony's philosophy was one of sunny optimism. Its pages showed a world of glamorous Black Americans, in big, full-color pictures that virtually never appeared in the mainstream press. Ebony embraced America’s post–World War II buoyancy, with essays and photo spreads that painted a world of accomplishment, celebrities, suburbs, and domestic bliss.
As a Black woman, Burke stood at the intersection of race and gender politics, both in her career and in the coverage of Ebony and Jet. Three artifacts from the House’s collection of magazine covers illustrate the ways in which the African-American press gave Burke a platform for her political views, even as they reinforced traditional notions of women’s proper role.
Burke first appeared on a magazine cover in 1967, shortly after she won her first election to the California state legislature. Jet immediately predicted she would “become the first Negro woman elected to the U.S. Congress.” The image of Burke that Jet used on the front, with agreeable smile, business-like suit, and impeccable manicure, reinforced the text inside: “She loves politics and maintains her femininity.” Jet dutifully reported Burke’s views on state banking reform and the likelihood of advancing causes in the statehouse. But it also peppered the article with references to Burke’s looks, clothes, and romantic prospects, so “important to attractive young single women.”
While Jet was wrong in forecasting Burke as the first African-American Congresswoman (that title went to Shirley Chisholm in 1969), it was more prescient when it put Burke on the cover again in 1972. She won her first congressional race that November. Jet again presented Burke to its readership, with a cover photograph of the photogenic candidate smiling in front of a flag. Inside, the article described Burke as an “attractive 5-foot, 6-inch, 127-pound assemblywoman, who once modeled for Ebony magazine.” More to the point, Burke was a “meticulous, persistent, understated legislator.”
Burke’s most notable distinction in the eyes of much of the public occurred in 1973, when she became the first Representative to give birth. Ebony magazine marked the occasion the next year with a huge photo spread and Burke’s essay on “The Kind of World I Want for My Child.” The cover photo emphasized the Congresswoman’s private life, not her public responsibilities. True to its domestic allusions, Burke traded her power suit for a yellow blouse, against which she held her tiny daughter, Autumn Burke. Inside, virtually every image showed Burke and her young family. By contrast, Burke’s essay explored the responsibilities of a citizen and legislator and offered a hopeful view of the future. “As a person in a legislative body,” she wrote, “I have to try to change those laws which are impediments to progress. . . . It’s just a matter of time until we have a black governor, and yes, a black President.”
Sources: Armistead Scott Pride and Charles C. Wilson, Jr. A History of the Black Press (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1997); Paul Finkelman, ed. Encyclopedia of African American History: 1896 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
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