Writing Through Protest: 12 Influential Black Writers Share Why Their Work Is So Crucial
This past year, I have on many occasions stared at my computer screen as the cursor flickered. My words tend to get lost when I am anxious, devastated or angry.
Almost daily, I think about or offer commentary on issues impacting black people's lives and collective well-being in the United States and abroad. Black people abused or killed by police on video. Black churchgoers fatally shot by racists as they worship. Black subpopulations overcriminalized and incarcerated. Black communities ripped apart by natural disasters made worse by human folly.
On many occasions, I am expected to be a race expert. This is because I am a black writer.
Writing is my job. But I am not immune from the devastating pain that surfaces after repeatedly watching a video of a black person fatally shot by a white police officer on my iPhone screen.
I interviewed young people in Baltimore during the uprising responding to the death of Freddie Gray, and sensed the rage permeating the crowds. I empathized with the many black people protesting in the middle of the night. I talked to a young man as a building burned behind us. The city was on fire and so were the emotions of black residents. Gray died after his spine was snapped in multiple places while in police custody. He could have easily been my brother, sister, niece, nephew or cousin. Gray could have been me. So I refused to be objective while writing another piece in defense of legitimate black rage.
Black journalists and pundits are needed, especially in this moment of social discord, and the work is not easy. "Each report I write about a black person being killed is basically an obituary. I pray each day that some other journalist doesn't write mine," AlterNet's Terrell Jermaine Starr told Mic. "That's why I have no problem describing myself as an activist reporter because being an activist is to seek the truth. So is being a journalist."
The critical perspectives black reporters bring to media have always been useful in expanding the public dialogue on race and much else, but there are costs black writers must pay. "As calls for newsroom diversity get louder and louder — and rightly so — we might do well to consider what it means that there's an emerging, highly valued professional class of black reporters at boldface publications reporting on the shortchanging of black life in this country," NPR's Gene Demby recently wrote. "What it means — for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent and for our own mental health — that we don't stop being black people when we're working as black reporters. That we quite literally have skin in the game."
Following Demby, Mic asked black writers and journalists to share their experiences. Here's what they had to say.
"I write because there are actual bodies on the line, both mine and those of other black people."
— Brittney Cooper, Ph.D., professor, contributing writer at Salon and cofounder of the Crunk Feminist Collective
"I try to remember that I write to and for us, and by us, I mean black people. That's difficult when sometimes the writing for us means I have to reason with a broader, mostly white readership, about how absolutely devastating white supremacy is, on both a structural and a personal level. Sometimes I wonder if my writing is enough about us, about our magic, about our struggles, about the things that matter to us. Sometimes my critics, black, white, and otherwise, wonder why I show up so often in the things I write. I think it's because as Demby says, 'I have skin the game.'
"I don't write these pieces merely for the enlightenment of a disembodied reader. I write because there are actual bodies on the line, both mine and those of other black people."
"The stories I've cared about for as long as I can remember are suddenly interesting to the vast majority of new consumers. "
— Donovan X. Ramsey, fellow at Demos, contributor to the New York Times, GQ, the Atlantic
"The stories I've cared about for as long as I can remember are suddenly interesting to the vast majority of new consumers. The race beat is hot again, so to speak... Earlier this year, I was working with a white editor on a piece of reported analysis about mass incarceration. She decided halfway through the process to kill the piece and later emailed me to say that it would be really 'powerful' if I wrote a 'personal reflection' on incarceration.
"I don't think I've ever been more insulted professionally. First, there's the assumption that I have personal connection to incarceration. Then there's the marginalizing of my voice to the realm of testimony. I turned down the offer. I told her that I was trained and practiced as a journalist, and not interested in offering up anecdotes."
"I have a great career and a decent Twitter 'following' — for a lot of people, that makes me dangerous, which is sad and funny and scary all at once."
— Jamilah Lemieux, senior editor, Ebony magazine
"I have been very fortunate to be employed by a black publishing company for nearly four years and to have my work affirmed and supported in that space, and to have the room to tell the stories that matter. However, it is when I step outside of the confines of my workplace that I am met with sexism, racism and gaslighting by people on the Internet, from bored trolls to political figures.
"Outspoken black women are routinely targeted for silencing. We have little room for error or humanity and when we advocate for ourselves, we represent a very specific threat to society at large. I have a great career and a decent Twitter 'following' — for a lot of people, that makes me dangerous, which is sad and funny and scary all at once."
"These aren't just stories I find interesting; they are stories that affect me and the people I love."
— Josie Pickens, professor and cultural critic, contributor at Ebony, Mic and Rumpus
"Everything I write is deeply personal, whether the writing focuses on black women and police violence, or the prison industrial complex. These aren't just stories I find interesting; they are stories that affect me and the people I love... As a black feminist seeking to combat the erasure of black girls and women from larger conversations on black life, I find my commentary is often seen as divisive and hateful towards black men. It's heartbreaking, and something I have yet to get used to."
"I keep going because I love black people and we're still not free. The work has to be done. I'm going to keep doing my part."
— Mychal Denzel Smith, Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute, author of the forthcoming Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching (Nation Books)
"The biggest challenge is my own emotional health. It's hard to continually consume the images and facts of this violence, but it's even harder to step away. ... My inbox and Twitter mentions are filled with the most racist and backwards logic the Internet has to offer — I had a woman approach me after a panel I spoke on to tell me why my rhetoric was supposedly harmful to any sort of progress. That takes its toll, but I keep going because I love black people and we're still not free. The work has to be done. I'm going to keep doing my part."
"When I write things that appeal to people, that make them feel heard or seen or held, I often get messages from strangers thanking me for my work."
— Muna Mire, freelance writer and fact checker based in Brooklyn, New York
"The usual pitfalls still apply: Some editors wanting to soften language or make the point in a less direct way than I would like, my expertise being questioned, online hate for daring to write the way I do and so on. I'd say the last one, online hostility, is the most pressing concern right now. ... When I write things that appeal to people, that make them feel heard or seen or held, I often get messages from strangers thanking me for my work. I am able to connect with people that otherwise, I would never have met.
"I recently wrote a piece for the New Inquiry on black Muslims and that's exactly what happened. Honestly, this sort of connection is what keeps me going."
"A number of major publications have asked me to place my name on pieces that ... place me as native informant for their white readers."
— Kiese Laymon, professor and author of Long Division, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others, and the forthcoming A Fat Black Memoir (Scribner)
"A number of major publications have asked me to place my name on pieces that really push an 'All Lives Matter' agenda or stories that place me as native informant for their white readers. I understand why some writers write those stories. Generational poverty is real and we all need to eat, but I don't ever want to eat like that. The rewards for that kind of writing are amazing, but the spiritual and communal costs are too high. ...
"I'd love to see every black writer in the country get in these publications and just write, 'It's all been said. Use Google. We have more important work to do.' Then maybe we can get on with the business of writing pieces that actually center our own communities, our own wonder, our own investment in structural violence, our own histories and imaginations."
"I start out from the perspective of police brutality being a grave problem and write from that positioning."
— Shaun King, justice writer, Daily Kos and founder of Justice Together
"The primary audience for Daily Kos is white and liberal. While they are overwhelmingly warm to what I have to write, by in large I know that they have not actually experienced a great deal of what I write about when I am covering police brutality and racial injustice. Because of that, it really requires me to see myself as an informed educator in a way that I might not if my audience was different. ... As long as I'm honest and have my facts straight, Daily Kos allows me to be strongly biased on the issues I cover.
"I start out from the perspective of police brutality being a grave problem and write from that positioning. All of our writers are allowed and even expected to have strong leanings that come out in our work."
"People assume most reporters don't care enough about black trans people to run stories but that is not always the case."
— Terrell Jermaine Starr, senior editor, AlterNet
"I am a cisgender man, but I try my best to cover the black community in its entirety. Unfortunately, editors, regardless of race, tend not to see stories centering transgender people as 'clickable' or willing to devote time to publishing enough work on this community to develop readership. ... People assume most reporters don't care enough about black trans people to run stories but that is not always the case. Sometimes it is the editors who railroad your efforts to pursue a story idea. This is especially challenging when you're dealing with white editors who lack a cultural context for your ideas and can't help you flesh them out."
" We bear witness to history and that is a privilege and responsibility that I don't take lightly, particularly as it pertains to amplifying the lived experiences of black women."
— Kirsten West Savali, cultural critic and senior writer, the Root
"As black writers in this movement it is our duty not to be silent. It is our duty to let generations from now know that we did not enjoy being raped by police officers. We did not enjoy watching our children be executed while playing in the park or walking home or sitting in a car listening to music. We fought back. We bear witness to history and that is a privilege and responsibility that I don't take lightly, particularly as it pertains to amplifying the lived experiences of black women. ... To be a black woman and writer during this revolutionary awakening has demanded that I reject fear. Fear of being too radical, too loud, too feminist, too black."
"She got in a mouthful before I was able to say: 'You are harassing me and I am hanging up.'"
— Rebecca Carroll, opinion writer, the Guardian, and author of five books, including Saving the Race: Conversations on Du Bois From a Collective Memoir of Souls
"A couple of weeks ago I had a racist troll track down my office number and call to harass me about my columns at the Guardian, and why didn't I write about how murderous and deadly the Black Lives Matter movement is — why don't I write about how black people are killing police and making the country a terrible and unsafe place? She got in a mouthful before I was able to say: 'You are harassing me and I am hanging up.' She called back immediately and the office manager took the call a few desks away. She didn't call again after that. But suddenly I thought, what if she's waiting outside for me when I leave the office? What if she has a gun?"
"There was a time when such a thought might seem like an exaggeration, but then I thought of all the black mothers and family members who have lost their child, sibling, father or mother to gun and police violence in the past year alone. I thought of my 10-year-old son, how tragically gutted he would feel. Because we write about this sort of thing happening — the calls, the harassment, the trolls, which in their own way are all precursors to physical violence — but then when it actually happens, it's so startling. Such a breach of human rights."
"Even when we discuss 'straight news reporting' and investigative projects, perspective not only is honest, it adds value."
— Jamil Smith, New Republic senior editor and host of the "Intersection" podcast
"My colleagues in this industry are thinking and pushing necessary arguments forward and challenging my own preconceptions on a regular basis. To be a part of that conversation, you must be prolific, make persuasive arguments and tell compelling stories. I do my best to do all three daily. ...'Objective reporting' is a ruse that serves the status quo, and does a disservice to those who are underrepresented. Even when we discuss 'straight news reporting' and investigative projects, perspective not only is honest, it adds value. I'm about to turn 40, so I've come to grasp the value of lived experience in my reporting and my columns."