Standing behind a booth at the 2010 Charleston Black Expo last March, Deona Smith was a magazine editor without a magazine. She was searching for feedback. What she received confirmed her suspicion: Charleston's African-American community not only wanted a magazine reflecting its people, it needed it.
For Smith, one comment at the expo truly resonated. Even a year later, she remembers it well. An elderly man came up the booth, applauding her efforts to create an African-American-centric magazine. "Do you know what it does to my spirit when the first image I see each morning is the picture of a black man in handcuffs on the news?" he asked. "It is disheartening."
Nearly a year later, Smith recounted that story in the premiere issue of Native, a bi-monthly magazine that launched in February. "When that gentleman came up to the booth, it was eye-opening and sad, but empowering at the same time," Smith tells the City Paper. "It really told us we were on the right track — that we had something that wasn't just a business for us, but a service for the black community and the larger community."
And although Native is geared toward the Holy City's African-American residents, Smith knows that the magazine has to pull in the Charleston community as a whole. She isn't interested in telling stories about African Americans to African Americans. In fact, the African American community may be familiar with many of the stories Smith hopes to tell.
"People outside of the black community need to see all the great things happening in the black community," Smith says. "Do we know that African Americans make bad choices? Yes. But that's not my community that I see and live every day."
Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who purchased a full page ad in the issue, praised the magazine for telling stories about Charleston's successful African Americans. "Native gives a voice to that. There are articles you wouldn't see in other magazines," he says. "As the magazine grows, it's going to be a powerful voice in the Charleston Lowcountry."
Native's first issue includes interviews with Beaufort-born "Smokin'" Joe Frazier, Charleston artist Jonathan Green, and actor Roger Guenveur Smith (American Gangster, Do the Right Thing, He Got Game), as well as Charleston-centered stories about sweetgrass basket weaver Jeanette Lee and African-American experiences during the Civil War and through the Civil Rights era.
"Things like the Gullah culture and sweetgrass basket making are so unique and unlike any community," Smith says. "That is a reason to publicize and celebrate the richness of our culture, the richness of our history and our community. There is so much here and so much that was started here. This is the ideal place to have this type of publication."
Even if there's a story that readers have read before, the goal with Native is to offer something else, something more, says publisher Kurt Walker. "There are going to be some stories that have been done over and over again, but there may be something we can find that hasn't be told yet."
The magazine also looks at emerging trends and up-and-coming personalities in the community, like jewelry designer LaShawna Wilder. "The dynamics of the community are changing every day," Walker says. "Native can serve as an archival piece to tell stories to the next generation."
Smith and Walker came up with the idea for the magazine over lunch more than a year ago. They liked the concept, but they were a little weary about such a large, untapped market in the publishing world. "Whenever you're starting a new business someone else hasn't done, you've either got a great idea or there's a reason no one has done it," Smith says.
According to Walker, the year that the duo spent in preproduction, as well as the money they invested in the burgeoning magazine, may have been enough to discourage others before. But Smith suspects their success in launching the magazine may be due to the pair's approach. "The African American community is such a close-knit community that other media players coming from outside didn't have a strategy to capture that market and tell those stories and make the people in the community comfortable enough to tell those stories," she says.
Preparing for the magazine's launch, Smith and Walker reviewed successful publications in other metropolitan areas and learned the differences between publishing in print and on the web. "It was like reviewing two business models at the same time," Walker says. With a slick, full-color magazine on the stands and thenativelife.com up and running, Native is getting positive feedback from readers in Charleston and around the country.
The experience at the Black Expo last year showed Smith and Walker that Native could be popular, but Smith says it took reaching out to African-American business owners before they knew it would be a success. "I talked to various business owners and you could see the light bulb go off," she says. "So many of them said they've been trying to figure out how to reach the black community."
The next issue, scheduled for April, will focus on the Lowcountry's successful African-American women, just in time for Mother's Day. But before that, Smith and Walker will be back at the Charleston Black Expo. And, this time, they've got a magazine to show off to the crowd.