Writing while black isn’t an easy thing. Since it’s not the default viewpoint (i.e., white), any nod toward racial identity is likely to get blowback for being “too political.” But after a campaign season that was defined by highly public verbal sparring matches over racism, it’s more important now than ever to create a space for voices that are normally pushed to the margins.
In many ways, the Facing Race conference in Atlanta, Georgia, was exactly this kind of space. For two and a half days in November, some 2,300 racial justice activists gathered to participate in panel discussions and workshops on how to make moves toward achieving long-sought racial equality. One of the conference panelists, Jamilah Lemieux—currently Vice President of News and Men’s Programming for Interactive One and former Senior Editor of Ebony magazine—sat down with us to talk about her work as a writer, and what kind of media we’ll need in the years ahead.
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Brandon Tensley: Could you start by telling us more about the importance of being under black thinkers? Roxanne Gay hit on this yesterday—the idea that when you’re working under a white hierarchy, that can affect the voice that actually comes out of the work. Has that figured in your writing, or have you seen that play out over your career?
Jamilah Lemieux: I routinely hear from my friends who are freelance writers about their struggles with non-black editors, who may be very earnest in assigning a story or accepting a pitch about something directly impacting or shaped by black people. It’s not every editor—I’ve had great experiences with white editors, and non-black people of color editors—but if this isn’t your lived experience, if this is not your community, your vernacular, your lens, then you can’t always be trusted to know how those stories should be told.
Unfortunately, so many black journalists have basically been told that they can’t be unbiased. When they’re doing reporting, even when it comes to op-ed writing, we’re told that we can’t be trusted to be the final say. We’re too close to the information, we’re too close to the story, right? And so we end up with the idea of whiteness as default.
In particular, I think of some of the mainstream men’s publications and their interviews with black male athletes and rappers. There have been instances where the subject was offended or bothered by the writer or just not really getting any insight. It’s almost like National Geographic stepping into Compton or Chicago to talk to someone who’s American, as if he’s from some mystical, magical land where there are gangs and basketball. To that example, the conversations between rappers and black male journalists are so much richer. Even if they’re from different class backgrounds or different parts of the country, there is something that kind of unifies them in their black maleness.
So, I think that the best reporting about black people is led by black editors. I think that the best op-ed writing about black people has been touched and shaped by black editors, and I’m looking forward to empowering more black editors to do the work I’ve been able to do in the last five years.
Michael Richardson: We do a lot of work on poverty issues. What do you think the media’s role is in reporting about poverty and illustrating the narrative of people’s stories?
JL: There’s what the role is now, and there’s what it should be. The media, of course, has not been kind to folks living in poverty. It has not been honest. Oftentimes, we just have these very trite, narrow, limited stories about what it means to be impoverished in America, when that entails such a diverse set of experiences.
There are people who are glamorous and popular, who in certain ways enjoy a decent quality of life, perhaps outside of the household, who are living in poverty. There are so many people who have experienced periods of poverty, but who are no longer living in poverty and maybe themselves are trying to escape or erase that experience, so it’s not something they include in their own narratives about themselves. They don’t talk about it often, or it just becomes this anecdote once you’ve made a whole lot of money and you’re wildly successful. Then it’s cool to say, “I grew up poor.”
But the media, much like the government, criminalizes poverty. It shames people for struggling and acquiring benefits we pay a lot of taxes to fund. And we just simply have to do better in telling the truth about what it means to be poor.
Think about a show like Atlanta, where there’s actually a plot twist at the end of the season when you see where the main character lives. He spent the season house-hopping from his woman’s house to his parents’ and other women’s houses, and you just never really thought to ask, “Does he have an apartment? Does he have a home? Does he have somewhere where he can collect mail?” And then you see in the last episode that his home is a storage unit.
I think that’s an experience that’s more common than a lot of us know. This character is someone who is cool and popular. He’s got this cousin who’s got a rap career, and he’s managing it, so he’s going to parties. He attended Princeton, so he’s got some very highfalutin friends, and this very pretty on-again, off-again girlfriend, and a child. You wouldn’t think that this person is, in theory, homeless.
BT: Could you put that in the context of this political moment, where, especially over the past few days, there’s been racist, homophobic backlash? Do you see your role—and other people’s, as well, especially people of color—as a writer, as a thinker, needing to shift going forward, even just looking to 2017?
JL: We’ve been doing this work for quite a long time. We’ve always had this work to do. It’s urgent now, more than ever, and it’s daunting.
Your class status won’t protect you.
We have so much work to do. It’s going to get harder. It’s going to get more intense. I think that the closest thing to a silver lining is that I don’t think people will have the luxury of ignoring this work in the way they once did. Your class status won’t protect you. Deciding to be detached from media won’t protect you. People you know will be impacted by what’s going to come.
I think that the level of vitriol, and the outward expressions of hatred by people who are supporting our next president, are going to force a lot of people to wake up and pay attention. That’s an opportunity for media-makers on every side of the business. For those of us who do advocacy journalism and want to change hearts and minds with our work—as opposed to simply driving traffic to a website or people to a newsstand or television network—we have a difficult ride ahead of us. But there are people who are equipped to do this work, and we just have to fight to keep each other sustained, to not just completely fall apart, to make sure that we have funding, to make sure that we have space. I do think that great work will come from what’s going to be a very dark time.
MR: What do you think the role is for progressive media advocates in lifting up these voices? What would you recommend to them as they continue on this journey?
JL: For those of us who work on the editorial side, making sure that we are looking for a diverse pool of content creators and writers. We can’t keep hearing from the same people over and over again.
Understand that people need joy, people need safe spaces, and people need a break. So you know, if a Solange album comes up, or Beyoncé drops a project, people are going to want to celebrate that. Make space for that.
Also, be more lovingly critical when we’re talking about ourselves, whether it’s an album, a politician, a thinker, or somebody who said something problematic. Learning how to critique our stuff with love, as opposed to “Did you really like Solange’s album? Is it really a big moment in music, or just something you all like right now?” or “So-and-so said something kind of offensive, so he’s dismissed, he’s problematic, he’s thrown away.” We need each other, we can’t afford to lose each other. We shouldn’t make energy to hurt people’s feelings.
You’d be very hard pressed to get me to sit down and write a long excoriation of Tyler Perry in 2016 or 2017. I just don’t think that’s the best use of my time and talent. I’m also not going to dismiss the people he reaches. I’m not going to say I don’t have stern critiques of his work and some of the messaging he puts forward. But at the same time, knowing who our enemies are, and who’s a real threat to our lives, is more urgent than it’s ever been.