Influential Black writers
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.
— 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."