The Precarity of Everything: On Millennial (Blacks and) Blues

Reniqua Allen — the author of It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America — on Black millennials, millennial burnout, and hope in a time of uncertainty.

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,747 words)

Kimya works in a cardiologist’s office in New Jersey, but at 34, with three kids and dreams of changing careers, she’s planning a move to Atlanta. Joelle, a 23-year-old UCLA graduate who runs a think tank’s youth program, helped her parents financially when she was in college. Jeremy, 25, supported his wife and kids in West Virginia’s coal mines until he got laid off. Simon, CTO of a startup in San Francisco and an alumnus of M.I.T., still worries interviewers may not “think he’s as good as them” because he’s Black.

Millennials, born somewhere between 1980 and 2000, make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population and are more than a third of its workforce. They’re the most diverse generation of adults, according to the Brookings Institute, in American history — 44% of them are non-white. Yet, as journalist Reniqua Allen writes in her new book It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America, “discussion about millennials and their ideas of ‘success’ are often deeply rooted in the experiences of privileged White men and women — think more Lena Dunham than Issa Rae.” It explains why I’ve always had difficulty identifying myself as a millennial, and why I hadn’t realized that the stories of some Black celebrities, like melancholic trap artist Future, who turns 36 this year, or glowy 34-year-old showrunner Lena Waithe, are more emblematic of the generation than anything I’ve read about avocado toast. Including Kimya, Joelle, Jeremy, and Simon, Allen conducted interviews with over 75 Black millennials for the book. She paints a complicated, often bleak picture of what it’s really like to achieve in America amid rising college costs, deunionization, two major recessions, and the election of President Trump.

Allen also includes snippets of her own story, writing poignantly about growing up a precocious middle class striver in suburban New Jersey with her devoted mother and aunts. In several sections, her interviewees speak about their dreams at length, in their own voices. She named the book after a lyric from Notorious BIG’s “Juicy,” a joyous hip hop gospel about overcoming great odds, and uses language that refuses to shame or moralize. Taken together, It Was All a Dream is an expansive, engaging tapestry of a generation’s hope and resilience and reads like a hip, sharp heir of The Warmth of Other Suns.

Allen and I went to undergrad together at American University in D.C. and graduated the same year. In our late 30s, we’re part of the oldest sub-group of millennials. I chatted with her about the core themes of her new book, what it means that a generation of “youth” are now heading toward middle age, the millennial burnout pieces in BuzzFeed by Anne Helen Petersen and Tiana Clark, and whether she feels optimistic, given the precarity of everything.

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Danielle Jackson: Are you on your book tour right now?

Reniqua Allen: Yeah, and I’m exhausted, but the audiences have been really good. I’ve been to Atlanta and D.C. and I did some stuff in New York. We’re figuring out the West Coast and Midwest. People have been really engaged, in D.C. and Atlanta in particular.  They’re really trying to figure out what it means to be a millennial, how being a millennial of color, a Black millennial, is different from prior generations.

What topics have people wanted to engage with you about?

Mental health has come up a lot during the Q&As. People are really struggling, which I think is very pervasive in the stories I collected. I feel like mental health treatment has been taboo in the Black community, so it’s interesting that people are so willing to talk about it now.

Some of your interviewees offer solutions when they talk about ways they’ve managed their mental health. In the chapter “Breathe,” Jasmine talks about how breathwork and meditation had been helpful.

Yeah, for her. One very, very unexpected way I heard about managing mental health was with the dominatrix that I talked to, who is mentioned early in the book. She said that cracking the whip on her White clientele and talking to them about race and race relations was healing for her. That was really fascinating.

I’m sure you read the BuzzFeed stories about millennial burnout? I spoke to the author of the Black millennial burnout piece, Tiana Clark. She’s very lovely and nice, and I really enjoyed the piece. When I read the original piece by Anne Helen Petersen, I thought it was interesting yet very rooted in a White experience. My book hadn’t come out yet, and I wanted to respond. I was actually too tired and burnt out to respond to the burnout piece.

I read your book over the Christmas holiday, then the next month, the initial piece came out at BuzzFeed. I definitely thought it aligned with your critiques of how millennials are talked about, but I didn’t have time to address it. I do feel I miss opportunities to engage with people by being tired all the time.

Yeah, but it’s exhausting to have to write these kind of pieces over and over again. I keep trying to figure out what’s the best way to reach people. And I realized there was a period in time when I was writing think pieces in reaction to every police shooting. I’m sure tons of other writers would say the same thing. I was writing the same thing over and over and over again. It felt exhausting. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all of these emotions and energy and how best to tell important stories without feeling depleted.

Do you agree with Petersen that burnout is the defining millennial condition? Do you agree with that specifically when considering Black millennials?

Burnout is the definition of the Black experience in America in general. Is it unique to the millennial generation? I don’t think it’s unique to us. I think we feel the burnout even more because of systematic and historic oppression. Some of what she describes are “upper middle-class problems.” In her piece, she talks about how a lot of her friends were nannies or got babysitting jobs after college. I feel like my friends, particularly the friends who you would consider successful if you look at traditional monikers, didn’t have the ability to do that. They were getting internships and jobs basically since day one of college. The young Black people that we went to school with were so on it all the time.

That’s the thing that people don’t understand. Our experiences aren’t always equal, and even though we may end up in the same place, we’ve probably been tired since college or high school. I am so tired of saying it, because everyone says it, but we have to work twice as hard. So that burnout that everyone complains about? Double it up. And we’re not just talking about economic anxiety. We’re also talking about how we have to prove our humanity. That’s exhausting in a different type of way. We should be tired of telling people that Black people matter.

What was the genesis of It Was All a Dream?

I work in media as a producer and writer. I have a pretty middle class existence, despite all my complaints. I have privileges. I don’t want to act like I don’t because I do. Sometimes at work, I’d hear young White people saying they didn’t apply themselves in college, or they’d talk about how they “got drunk like every night.” One person said to me, “Well you know, we’re at the same place, Reniqua, so I don’t really see how you were that impacted by things [like racism].” At the same time, I noticed my Black peers working two or three jobs, with side hustles, trying to do online certificates or whatever it takes to get ahead. Yet, there’s a report from the Washington Post that says 31% of White millennials think that Black people are lazier than White people. It’s very frustrating.  

At one point, I was working on a documentary with an older Black man who grew up in similar circumstances to me. He was of my parents’ generation, probably on the older side of the Baby Boomers, born in the 40s. He had Caribbean parents and had grown up in suburban New Jersey. We had a lot of the same views on race but also a very different experience. I realized that it’s not just about race, but about generations too. While a lot of the same things come into play, growing up and being told that you can do whatever you want to do puts you in a different place. I think growing up with Barack Obama, who is an anomaly himself, puts you in a different place. Experiencing that pushed me to think beyond race and a little bit about class too, to be really more intersectional in my approach to race issues.

Also, I’m on my 10th year of a PhD program. When I entered graduate school I was interested in telling a success story of the Black middle class. And then the recession happened. The discourse got very ugly and racist: Barack and Michelle Obama were being called “monkey” and “baby mama.” By the time it really came to me to write the dissertation, it wasn’t a hopeful story anymore — Donald Trump was being elected president. It felt like it would need to be more about the broken promise of America, about shattered dreams.  

I was writing the same thing over and over and over again. It felt exhausting. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all of these emotions and energy and how best to tell important stories without feeling depleted.

What would you say are important markers and milestones for Black millennials that have shaped how we think about opportunity? You mentioned the recession of 2008, Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, various police shootings. What else has been important in defining the mood of our collective lifetimes?

Hurricane Katrina, which I didn’t realize initially. Kanye saying that George Bush doesn’t care about Black people. Rodney King’s video-taped beating and Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate. I remember when Jesse Jackson was running for president. Some of these are older millennial experiences. For some of the people I spoke to, it was the Jena 6 who inspired them to activism and awareness of racial injustice. For me, it was Amadou Diallo’s shooting and the acquittal of the officers involved. There are also positives, like Beyonce and Oprah coming to dominate everything.

Did you notice major differences between older and younger millennials?

Younger millennials have the attitude that things may not be great but they can change them. For example, a young artist, Shamir, was annoyed about the way he was being treated by his record label. He’d had one successful electronic pop album, and he didn’t want to be boxed into that sound for his next album. It seemed the label was trying to force him into a category of “queer pop artist.” He wanted to make lo-fi music that was way less produced. So he recorded his album on his own in four days in his room and released it.

It was an acknowledgement of how shitty the systems were, but also a real desire to make change despite that. A lot of younger millennial understood that most American systems weren’t made for them to succeed, so they chose to redefine what their idea of success looked like. They weren’t defining success as getting a job at IBM and working there for 20 or 30 years like our parents’ generation would. Or even having a stable marriage. They wanted happiness and freedom, which the older generations probably also wanted. But sometimes the younger millennials in particular were very okay with taking different paths or acknowledging that to get to their happiness, it may look different than past generations.

What about you? Did you feel pressure to go a more traditional route professionally?

I think there was initially a lack of understanding of how hard it is. Older folks may think if you want to be a writer, you should simply get a job at a magazine or a newspaper or whatever it is and work. Or if you want to work in television, in documentary, you know, just do that. In some ways the industry I chose has always been more defined by a gig economy than others. There’s less stability, less money. So for me, I know my mom has always wanted me to be happy, but she didn’t really understand what I needed to be able to do what I wanted. I think she has more of an understanding than earlier in my career of the insecurity that this generation faces. She’s seen us working hard but how it’s paying off less. You go to school but you have so much debt that you can never get out of it. It’s starting to show.


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When you’re with your family, do you work a lot?

Yes, they see me working all the time. Sometimes they don’t get that you don’t take breaks in the same way. I think they’re very much used to working from 9 to 5. They see me at noon on a Wednesday and it’s like, “You’re just…at home?” It’s mystifying to them. But they don’t see how I stayed up all night the night before or what it is to have to fill out form after form for health care.  

Reports say that 44% percent of millennials are not White. A little while ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about how CBS hired no Black campaign reporters for the 2020 election. Why did you decide to focus specifically on Black millennials? Do you agree with the congresswoman that there is something salient about the Black experience in America that is applicable for everybody?

Yes, of course, I think it is THE American experience. It’s really hard to separate the Black experience from the story of America. And the idea of the American dream is so pervasive in Black culture. Black people, believe it or not, actually believe in it more than any other group. An important aspect or recurring theme all across Black culture is the idea of hope and opportunity. Black people are deeply spiritual and forgiving, I guess, but there have been a lot of broken promises. Many different periods in history have promised great hope and progress for Black people, whether it’s Reconstruction, the Great Migration, or the passage of certain Civil Rights legislation. It keeps crashing down. The presidency of Barack Obama was another moment where there was great hope that completely crashed down.  

Older millennials like us are going into middle age. And that’s an interesting time and place to be when so much of what has been written about us has been about our youth and our youthful frivolousness and entitlement. It’s new territory, thinking about this generation going into their 40s. What do you hope for our cohort as we age? What does middle age look like for millennials?

I think middle age for many millennials is very uncertain. We’re not kids, and everybody talks about our youth, but we’re in our 20s and our 30s. We’ve had jobs for a substantial amount of time now. We have to look beyond these kinds of stereotypes, like calling us entitled or lazy. I’m sure that there is some entitlement; we grew up with our parents saying you can do whatever you want. But I would like for people to really think about systemic flaws. For example, you should not have to go to college to be “successful” in America. We should think about student debt. What’s happening culturally is related to these real systematic changes in our world. We can’t not go to college and get a job on a factory line anymore and have a solid middle class life. You could call us noncommittal—I think a lot of my friends are just starting to have kids, getting married now. I’m horrified by the fact that it would be a “geriatric pregnancy” now if I ever want to have kids.

Yeah, starting at 35.

At 35, I’m way past it, right? But by the same token it’s not just that people are noncommittal, it’s that they don’t feel stable. I still work as a freelancer, I still go job to job, and health care is still precarious. I can’t think of anyone besides my fiancé who has had their job for more than 10 years. He’s a public school teacher with a union and a pension. But that’s not the norm.

In addition to mapping the terrain with all we’re up against, you talk about some bright, joyful, and hopeful things. For example, ‘90s culture, like Living Single.

Yeah, I love Living Single. There are moments of joy in our experiences, and there are  things that help. Like Black Twitter. I’m glad I grew up with these wonderful, beautiful moments of Blackness and Black identity. Sometimes, when we see someone like Serena or Venus excelling in a particular sport or somewhere else where Black people have not been historically very visible, they think everything is all good for Black people everywhere. They don’t quite understand that those moments are not as frequent as they should be. They are way too few and far between. I think about Colin Kaepernick…

He didn’t vote in the [2016] presidential election. This is maybe an “old millennial” hang up, but I feel that while that doesn’t discredit him or his protest, it does make me feel like I have questions.

Oh yeah, I know. Because generally Black folks voted. We’re so highly engaged. But we still get asked for voter ID the most out of everybody.  

It’s really hard to separate the Black experience from the story of America.

In your book, you talk about mobility and consider leaving the northeast for the South — the opposite route of the Great Migration. The urban North hasn’t been all that great for Black people and maybe the New South — the urban, progressive South — is a better option. But for many of the people you speak to, the New South isn’t idyllic either. Where in America do you think is safe, hospitable, and abundant for Black people?

Oh, who knows! I wish I had answer for that. Maybe I could move there. This is one of the sections that I cut that I wanted to actually engage with — maybe the answer isn’t even America. I try to understand the South and I get the appeal of it in some ways, but it’s a painful place for me. My mother’s side of the family is from Manning, South Carolina. I like how warm the South is, in terms of the weather. I also love the people there. Even though I didn’t go to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), I really enjoy that part of the culture. I don’t know whether you consider D.C. the South, but I really liked it. There is a [prominent, vocal, large] educated Black middle class there that I don’t find in New York in the same way. I miss that, but I also just don’t like how you can turn down a road and there’s an old plantation. Maybe that’s actually better because I do think that they deal with their pain more than we do up here. And I know that I can be followed in a store on the Upper East Side. So I don’t know where it is.

I do think about how my family came up from the South during the Great Migration for their dreams. I keep trying to figure out if that was a mistake or not. Because my relatives in the South are all doing quite well. And they have what seems like a connection to the land and a sense of hope that the part of my family that has moved away doesn’t seem to have.

In your chapter about Black Lives Matter activism, you reveal some of the costs of sustained political engagement and movement work. Do you feel like the movements created by this generation are generative spaces or spaces of hope? And do you think it’s worth the cost emotionally and otherwise to really pursue that kind of work?

I think it’s still being debated. I feel like I haven’t made sacrifices in the way that someone like Jasmine [from the chapter “Breathe”] has. Her whole life has profoundly changed due to her visibility in Black Lives Matter. Like she says, when she was in a gang, no one paid her any attention, but she gets a felony when she becomes an activist. I haven’t made sacrifices in that way. But is it worth it? I hope so. I think that people are feeling in some ways that they need to speak on the inequalities in our society and that’s great, because I worry about who has actual power. Beyond faces on camera or other kinds of representation, who is actually wielding power? That has not changed that much.  

Are you hopeful about the future?

That’s a good question, and obviously it’s one that I’ve wrestled with a lot.

You end the book on a hopeful note.

I think I was really depressed after collecting the stories. I was in the thick of it for two years, and it was just sad to see people living on the margins or hearing about how much we still have to fight for our humanity. Seeing really young Black men and women working hard and not getting as much as they need in return was really hard. However, people were also resilient and determined to find a way. They seemed to recognize that America has always been screwed up to us, but they wanted to find a way regardless. That is the story of Black America. That is who we are as a people. So it is a hopeful story. It’s frustrating, but I’m not really worried about us because we are doing what we need to do. We’re doing the hard work, and it reminds me just how amazing the story of Black America is. Because we actually survived this.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.