Black publishing's inspirational godmother: Susan L. Taylor reflects on her 34 years nurturing writers at Essence and her dozen years as an author in conversation with Malaika Adero, the veteran book editor who midwifed Taylor's In the Spirit.

Author:McHenry, Susan
Position:Interview
 
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Those impeccably groomed elegant braids. A flawless, unlined complexion--yes, even at age 58. The high forehead and graceful neck, and an easy carriage that makes her appear taller than she is at five feet nine. This is the iconic media image of Susan L. Taylor. And she looks just so when she greets us with that generous smile and mellifluous voice in her recently renovated office suite in the Times Square building where Essence magazine has been headquartered since the 1980s. When she embraces us unpretentiously, we feel welcomed for sure. Here is a woman who is truly comfortable in her own lovely brown skin.

But as longtime readers of her Essence column "In the Spirit" and her three published books of inspirational writing (see listing, page 15) know, Susan L. Taylor hasn't always been so self-assured. She first came to Essence as a freelance beauty and fashion editor in 1971--without a college degree, newly divorced and the mother of a toddler. While working and raising her daughter, Shana, Taylor earned her B.A. from Fordham University, attending evening classes. (Today, daughter Shana is the owner of a thriving beauty supply business, wife to former NBA player and Atlanta-based businessman Bernard King, and mother to their six-year-old Amina Suzanne.) Leading Essence since 1981, Taylor went on to win the magazine industry's highest honor, the 1999 Henry Johnson Fisher Award from the Magazine Publishers of America. In 2002, Taylor was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors' Hall of Fame. She also found a beloved life partner in writer Khephra Burns, 52, her husband of 15 years. Taylor will tell you that she has struggled and worked diligently to earn this ease with herself that now is reflected in the ease in which she moves in the world.

Essence magazine will celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2005, and the guardian of the Essence brand is the woman who served as its editor-in-chief from 1981 until 2000, when she assumed her current role as Senior Vice President and Chief Content Officer for Essence Communications Partners. Susan L. Taylor is a major force in the magazine and media worlds, but her tremendous impact in book publishing is largely underacknowledged.

Her inspirational writing has built an audience for a whole genre that authentically speaks to black women, opening the doors for best-selling authors like Iyanla Vanzant. Many African American readers first met the work of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat in Essence's pages, which have also been a nurturing proving ground for fiction writers like Bebe Moore Campbell and Terry McMillan. Scores of Essence editorial staff members have gone on to write well-regarded books, contributing to the current boom in black publishing. The boom itself has been chronicled since 2000 by the monthly Essence Bestsellers List. Essence also regularly brings authors and readers together at its annual Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and has published numerous books of its own. It was also a major sponsor of the October 2004 Yari Yari Pamberi Writers Conference at New York University, which showcased black women writers from all over the Diaspora.

BIBR reunited Taylor with Malaika Adero, the editor of In the Spirit: The Inspirational Writings of Susan L. Taylor (Amistad Press, November 1993). Adero, now senior editor at Simon & Schuster's Atria imprint, is a...

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