Author Archives

Danielle is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Lapham's Quarterly, Pitchfork, The Paris Review Daily and more.

Welcome to Hive

William Gottlieb / Getty, Universal Records, Michael Ochs Archives / Getty, Epic Records

“I was happy when I saw my dance all over,” Jalaiah Harmon, 14-year old dancer, choreographer, and creator of the Renegade dance told Taylor Lorenz of the New York Times. Last fall, the suburban Atlanta teen, trained in all the classical forms, took to her bedroom and created movement to accompany the stuttering 808s of “Lottery,” a single by Atlanta hip hop artist K Camp. Its lyrics and sonics describe a flamboyant kind of self-possession. Harmon recorded the moves on her phone, uploaded her recording to the social video app Funimate, and then to Instagram. The dance went viral when TikTok influencers recorded and uploaded themselves doing it, buoyed by the attention of celebrities like Lizzo and Kourtney Kardashian. Harmon — young, Black, female and Southern — was rarely named or linked to in the frenzy. But Black Twitter intervened, and by the following winter, she would be. Harmon performed centerstage with cheerleaders at February’s NBA All Star game, and publicly, K Camp thanked her for making his song “the biggest in the world.”

In the early days of rock and roll, according to Ann Powers, “Girls ran the fan clubs, bought the records and the magazines, filled the concert halls.” Harmon’s creative brilliance, an extension of the girl-fueled heritage of popular music, is also a reminder of all the credit we have yet to give.

Women are underrepresented, missing, even, in many areas of influence and power in the music industry — as journalists, songwriters, producers, and executives. But they’ve long been the quiet center of music culture, keeping it vital. This is especially true of Black teenage girls and femme people, whose tastes and creative responses to what they love shape and originate many trends. You don’t get Beatlemania without teenage girls, or Sam Cooke without swooning adolescents like my mother, who remembers slow dancing to “You Send Me” at junior high school dances and blue light parties with Blue Magic crooning from the speakers. My memories of our household of women thrum. The TV, brown and boxy, atop a shelf of vinyl, taller than me by miles, playing “Freeway of Love” — the pink Cadillac, Ms. Franklin’s short cut and stonewash denim an everlasting, glamorous imprint. My teenage sister’s blouse with lace and ruffles and her feathered curls bouncing to the first saxophone notes of “The Glamorous Life.” My mother and her marcel irons in the bathroom mirror singing “You Bring Me Joy.” These women make the music I love, live. They help me remember that despite the dominance of male critics and tastemakers in the mainstream press, teenage girls — in hallways between classes, scrolling on their phones, making up dances in their rooms — are shaping what’s next.

Welcome to Hive, a new Longreads series about women and the music that has influenced them. The pieces in Hive live in the gap between the swarm or hive — the crowd of girls and femmes who form the base of pop trends — and the critical male voice that has shaped the “formal,” “legitimate” interpretation of music culture. The essays embrace fandom and rigor in equal parts, considering both as conduits for creativity. “Strange things happen when an artist is moved to a new depth by another,” writes contributor DJ Lynnée Denise, in her forthcoming essay about Southern crunk funk artist Joi. In this series, each contributor trusts their tastes and thinks with and through the music to tell a story of unexpected connections and embodied intellectualism.

Hive is inspired by: the Beyhive; the family of women who shaped my tastes; zines from the ‘90’s; viral Vines, the hustle, mashed potato, and dab; epistolary essays; Tumlbr; group texts; the voice of Alice Smith; and each contributor’s voice and experience.

“I wanted to be less peripheral to the things I poured my attention into,” writes contributor Eryn Loeb, in an upcoming essay about how creating a zine in her local scene as a young girl shaped her as a grown woman writer and critic. I imagine the Hive essayists writing to their teen selves, to each other, and maybe to you, reminding us that we’re all already in the center.

Also in Hive:
Welcome to Hive: Series Introduction by Danielle A. Jackson
Miami: A Beginning, by Jessica Lynne
On Watching Boys Play Music, by Eryn Loeb
Funk Lessons in Sonic Solitude, by DJ Lynnée Denise

‘People Can Become Houses’

Adam Shemper / Grove Press

Danielle A. Jackson  | Longreads | September 2019 | 18 minutes (4,289 words)

The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom’s debut memoir, tells the story of the light-green shotgun house in New Orleans East her mother, Ivory Mae, bought in 1961. At 19, Ivory Mae was the first in her immediate family to own a home; her mother had been born on a plantation in St. Charles Parish. Over years of renovations, the house acquired a second floor at its rear and a layer of pale yellow vinyl siding. 

The book is also about a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and how generations of systemic neglect weigh on the human beings who bear it. New Orleans East was a vast, mostly undeveloped marshland in the early ’60s, a fledgling suburb within the city held afloat by investment from retailers and oil developers. Its neighborhoods were, at the time, predominantly white. The public schools were not yet integrated. 

The Brooms built a lively home life there. Sarah, the youngest of 12, was born in 1979. Largely missing from city maps and narratives that highlight the tourist-friendly French Quarter, New Orleans East fell into disrepair by the late ’80s. As investors pulled out, its streets became lined with abandoned apartment buildings and men in cars soliciting sex.

Sarah was just 6 months old when her father, Simon Broom, died suddenly at home. She came of age with the ache of his absence. The house became increasingly difficult to maintain, and shame settled in alongside the family’s grief.


Throughout The Yellow House’s four sections, which Broom calls “movements,” after the parts of a symphony, she pulls from hundreds of hours of interviews to include exceptionally long passages where her family members speak for themselves; the book is, in part, an oral history. She says it is because their stories “compose” hers. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans East and destroyed their home. By then, Broom had a magazine job in New York and had been gone from her hometown for nearly a decade. Her Louisiana family recounts the storm in “Water,” the book’s riveting third movement. In the fourth, the author unravels the questions the full text poses: about grief and identity, American racism and environmental catastrophe, family and womanhood and the multiple meanings of home.

The Yellow House is beautifully wrought on a grand scale and at the level of the sentence. It is intricately researched, narratively complex, and dives into the most fundamental questions of our time: Who am I? How did I become me? How does one survive catastrophe when it is inevitable? How does one rebuild? The Yellow House was longlisted for a National Book Award and became a New York Times best seller in late August. I spoke to Broom two days before its release. A condensed version of our conversation follows. 


Longreads: Even before Toni Morrison passed away, I’d noticed certain things about The Yellow House that reminded me of her novels. Beloved begins by mapping the house where Sethe and her family live, the place that is haunted, with an address: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” There’s a scene in the documentary The Pieces I Am showing how Morrison sketched out a floor plan of this house. The architecture and physicality of a house and how a house can live as an object, but also as an imagined thing, a goal, a part of us, is really the foundation of your book. Could you talk about Toni Morrison’s influence on you and your work?

Sarah M. Broom: I remember finding out that Toni Morrison had died. It was rainy and dim where I was in upstate New York, and I kept thinking, This day is so low hanging. That’s how I kept imagining it. Almost like the sky was hovering close, just above my head. I felt grief. It was bottomless and familial. The way that one grieves a family member is like grieving a part of a system, a part of an organism. And I knew this, but I really knew this after she died — she was literally a part of my system. A part of what it meant for me to be a writer. She was so interwoven in these layered ways into the ways in which I think. 

In The Yellow House, I talk about “water having a perfect memory” [from the essay “The Site of Memory”]. Most people only mention that part of the essay, about how water is forever trying to get back to where it was. But the part that comes after that is equally as important. She says, “Writers are like that, remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.” Writing this book for me was driven in some deep way by that quotation, which is really about the ways in which Morrison thought about and dealt with place. It was a given and known thing that she was from Lorain, Ohio. I think that in a way she was always writing deeply about place and about belonging.

There was an interview a few years ago in the Telegraph, where she is talking about a conversation with her sister, Lois, who still lived in their hometown. Her sister told her the street where they grew up is gone. In the interview she says that her sister drew her a map of the street and wrote in the names of the people who used to live in the houses on their street. They figured out that 20 houses were gone. What Morrison said in the interview is that loss, that absence of the houses and all the memories they held, it’s a death. That idea fueled me as I was trying to understand my book and the architecture of it. 

Another thing about Morrison, which matters so much to me: Often, especially with writers of color, people focus a lot on our story and less on our craft. Toni Morrison wrote sentences that were so multi-varied and layered and also were road maps to something. Beyond that, they had an innate musicality to them and they made you feel. I think often when certain writers make you feel, people misunderstand the difficulty of that. Making a person feel something is the greatest thing an artist can do, and it’s all about craft. It’s about rhythm and cadence and tone.

Is it also about what you have to take out to get to that? What isn’t there?

Absolutely. There is a composed-ness. It’s jazz-ical. Great language and great writing is jazz-ical, it’s spontaneous but it’s super controlled. Whenever I was at a point that I felt that I needed to remember the sounds of what writing could do, I always read Toni Morrison. And that’s a gift. I’ll probably be rereading her throughout this entire book tour because I can’t imagine not having her voice every single day. 

Read more…

When American Media Was (Briefly) Diverse

Photo by Jessica Felicio, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | September 2019 | 16 minutes (4,184 words)

The late summer night Tupac died, I listened to All Eyez on Me at a record store in an East Memphis strip mall. The evening felt eerie and laden with meaning. It was early in the school year, 1996, and through the end of the decade, Adrienne, Jessica, Karida and I were a crew of girlfriends at our high school. We spent that night, and many weekend nights, at Adrienne’s house.

Our public school had been all white until a trickle of black students enrolled during the 1966–67 school year. That was 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education and six years after the local NAACP sued the school board for maintaining dual systems in spite of the ruling. In 1972, a federal district court ordered busing; more than 40,000 white students abandoned the school system by 1980. The board created specialized and accelerated courses in some of its schools, an “optional program,” in response. Students could enter the programs regardless of district lines if they met certain academic requirements. This kind of competition helped retain some white students, but also created two separate tracks within those institutions — a tenuous, half-won integration. It meant for me, two decades later, a “high-performing school” with a world of resources I knew to be grateful for, but at a cost. There were few black teachers. Black students in the accelerated program were scattered about, small groups of “onlies” in all their classes. Black students who weren’t in the accelerated program got rougher treatment from teachers and administrators. An acrid grimness hung in the air. It felt like being tolerated rather than embraced. 

My friends and I did share a lunch period. At our table, we traded CDs we’d gotten in the mail: Digable Planets’s Blowout Comb, D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar, the Fugees’ The Score. An era of highly visible black innovation was happening alongside a growing awareness of my own social position. I didn’t have those words then, but I had my enthusiasms. At Maxwell’s concert one sweaty night on the Mississippi, we saw how ecstasy, freedom, and black music commingle and coalesce into a balm. We watched the films of the ’90s wave together, and while most had constraining gender politics, Love Jones, the Theodore Witcher–directed feature about a group of brainy young artists in Chicago, made us wish for a utopic city that could make room for all we would become. 

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

We also loved to read the glossies — what ’90s girl didn’t? We especially salivated over every cover of Vibe. Adrienne and I were fledgling writers who experimented a lot and adored English class. In the ’90s, the canon was freshly expanding: We read T.S. Eliot alongside Kate Chopin and Chinua Achebe. Something similar was happening in magazines. Vibe’s mastheads and ad pages were full of black and brown people living, working, and loving together and out front — a multicultural ideal hip-hop had made possible. Its “new black aesthetic” meant articles were fresh and insightful but also hyper-literary art historical objects in their own rights. Writers were fluent in Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison as well as Biggie Smalls. By the time Tupac died, Kevin Powell had spent years contextualizing his life within the global struggle for black freedom. “There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket [on the popular February 1994 cover] to ‘It’s Obama Time’ [the September 2007 cover, one of the then senator’s earliest],” former editor Rob Kenner told Billboard in a Vibe oral history. He’s saying Vibe helped create Obama’s “coalition of the ascendent” — the black, Latinx, and young white voters who gave the Hawaii native two terms. For me, the pages reclaimed and retold the American story with fewer redactions than my history books. They created a vision of what a multiethnic nation could be.

* * *

“There was a time when journalism was flush,” Danyel Smith told me on a phone call from a summer retreat in Massachusetts. She became music editor at Vibe in 1994, and was editor in chief during the late ’90s and again from 2006 to 2008. The magazine, founded by Quincy Jones and Time, Inc. executives in 1992, was the “first true home of the culture we inhabit today,” according to Billboard. During Smith’s first stint as editor in chief, its circulation more than doubled. She wrote the story revealing R. Kelly’s marriage to then 15-year-old Aaliyah, as well as cover features on Janet Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Whitney Houston. Smith was at the helm when the magazine debuted its Obama covers in 2007 — Vibe was the first major publication to endorse the freshman senator. When she described journalism as “flush,” Smith was talking about the late ’80s, when she started out in the San Francisco Bay. “Large cities could support with advertising two, sometimes three, alternative news weeklies and dailies,” she said.

‘There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket [on the popular February 1994 cover] to ‘It’s Obama Time’ [the September 2007 cover, one of the then senator’s earliest].’

The industry has collapsed and remade itself many times since then. Pew reports that between 2008 and 2018, journalism jobs declined 25 percent, a net loss of about 28,000 positions. Business Insider reports losses at 3,200 jobs this year alone. Most reductions have been in newspapers. A swell in digital journalism has not offset the losses in print, and it’s also been volatile, with layoffs several times over the past few years, as outlets “pivot to video” or fail to sustain venture-backed growth. Many remaining outlets have contracted, converting staff positions into precarious freelance or “permalance” roles. In a May piece for The New Republic, Jacob Silverman wrote about the “yawning earnings gap between the top and bottom echelons” of journalism reflected in the stops and starts of his own career. After a decade of prestigious headlines and publishing a book, Silverman called his private education a “sunken cost” because he hadn’t yet won a coveted staff role. If he couldn’t make it with his advantageous beginnings, he seemed to say, the industry must be truly troubled. The prospect of “selling out” — of taking a corporate job or work in branded content — seemed more concerning to him than a loss of the ability to survive at all. For the freelance collective Study Hall, Kaila Philo wrote how the instability in journalism has made it particularly difficult for black women to break into the industry, or to continue working and developing if they do. The overall unemployment rate for African Americans has been twice that of whites since at least 1972, when the government started collecting the data by race. According to Pew, newsroom employees are more likely to be white and male than U.S. workers overall. Philo’s report mentions the Women’s Media Center’s 2018 survey on women of color in U.S. news, which states that just 2.62 percent of all journalists are black women. In a write-up of the data, the WMC noted that fewer than half of newspapers and online-only newsrooms had even responded to the original questionnaire. 

* * *

According to the WMC, about 2.16 percent of newsroom leaders are black women. If writers are instrumental in cultivating our collective conceptions of history, editors are arguably more so. Their sensibilities influence which stories are accepted and produced. They shape and nurture the voices and careers of writers they work with. It means who isn’t there is noteworthy. “I think it’s part of the reason why journalism is dying,” Smith said. “It’s not serving the actual communities that exist.” In a July piece for The New Republic, Clio Chang called the push for organized labor among freelancers and staff writers at digital outlets like Vox and Buzzfeed, as well as at legacy print publications like The New Yorker, a sign of hope for the industry.  “In the most basic sense, that’s the first norm that organizing shatters — the isolation of workers from one another,” Chang wrote. Notably, Vox’s union negotiated a diversity initiative in their bargaining agreement, mandating 40 to 50 percent of applicants interviewed come from underrepresented backgrounds.

“Journalism is very busy trying to serve a monolithic imaginary white audience. And that just doesn’t exist anymore,” Smith told me. U.S. audiences haven’t ever been truly homogeneous. But the media institutions that serve us, like most facets of American life, have been deliberately segregated and reluctant to change. In this reality, alternatives sprouted. Before Vibe’s launch, Time, Inc. executives wondered whether a magazine focused on black and brown youth culture would have any audience at all. Greg Sandow, an editor at Entertainment Weekly at the time, told Billboard, “I’m summoned to this meeting on the 34th floor [at the Time, Inc. executive offices]. And here came some serious concerns. This dapper guy in a suit and beautifully polished shoes says, ‘We’re publishing this. Does that mean we have to put black people on the cover?’” Throughout the next two decades, many publications serving nonwhite audiences thrived. Vibe spun off, creating Vibe Vixen in 2004. The circulations of Ebony, JET, and Essence, legacy institutions founded in 1945, 1951, and 1970, remained robust — the New York Times reported in 2000 that the number of Essence subscribers “sits just below Vogue magazine’s 1.1 million and well above the 750,000 of Harper’s Bazaar.” One World and Giant Robot launched in 1994, Latina and TRACE in 1996. Honey’s preview issue, with Lauryn Hill on the cover, hit newsstands in 1999. Essence spun off to create Suede, a fashion and culture magazine aimed at a “polyglot audience,” in 2004. A Magazine ran from 1989 to 2001; Hyphen launched with two young reporters at the helm the following year. In a piece for Columbia Journalism Review, Camille Bromley called Hyphen a celebration of “Asian culture without cheerleading” invested in humor, complication, and complexity, destroying the model minority myth. Between 1956 and 2008, the Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 and a noted, major catalyst for the Great Migration, published a daily print edition. During its flush years, the Baltimore Afro-American, founded in 1892, published separate editions in Philadelphia, Richmond, and Newark.

Before Vibe’s launch, Time, Inc. executives wondered whether a magazine focused on black and brown youth culture would have any audience at all.

The recent instability in journalism has been devastating for the black press. The Chicago Defender discontinued its print editions in July. Johnson Publications, Ebony and JET’s parent company, filed bankruptcy earlier this year after selling the magazines to a private equity firm in 2016. Then it put up for sale its photo archive — more than 4 million prints and negatives. Its record of black life throughout the 20th century includes images of Emmett Till’s funeral, in which the 14-year-old’s mutilated body lay in state, and Moneta Sleet Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize–winning image of Coretta Scott King mourning with her daughter, Bernice King. It includes casually elegant images of black celebrities at home and shots of everyday street scenes and citizens — the dentists and mid-level diplomats who made up the rank and file of the ascendant. John H. Johnson based Ebony and JET on LIFE, a large glossy heavy on photojournalism with a white, Norman Rockwell aesthetic and occasional dehumanizing renderings of black people. Johnson’s publications, like the elegantly attired stars of Motown, were meant as proof of black dignity and humanity. In late July, four large foundations formed an historic collective to buy the archive, shepherd its preservation, and make it available for public access.

The publications’ written stories are also important. Celebrity profiles offered candid, intimate views of famous, influential black figures and detailed accounts of everyday black accomplishment. Scores of skilled professionals ushered these pieces into being: Era Bell Thompson started out at the Chicago Defender and spent most of her career in Ebony’s editorial leadership. Tennessee native Lynn Norment worked for three decades as a writer and editor at the publication. André Leon Talley and Elaine Welteroth passed through Ebony for other jobs in the industry. Taken together, their labor was a massive scholarly project, a written history of a people deemed outside of it.

Black, Latinx, and Asian American media are not included in the counts on race and gender WMC reports. They get their data from the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), and Cristal Williams Chancellor, WMC’s director of communications, told me she hopes news organizations will be more “aggressive” in helping them “accurately indicate where women are in the newsroom.” While men dominate leadership roles in mainstream newsrooms, news wires, TV, and audio journalism, publications targeting multicultural audiences have also had a reputation for gender trouble, with a preponderance of male cover subjects, editorial leaders, and features writers. Kim Osorio, the first woman editor in chief at The Source, was fired from the magazine after filing a complaint about sexual harassment. Osorio won a settlement for wrongful termination in 2006 and went on to help launch and write a memoir before returning to The Source in 2012. Since then, she’s made a career writing for TV.  

* * *

This past June, Nieman Lab published an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic since 2016, and Adrienne LaFrance, the magazine’s executive editor. The venerable American magazine was founded in Boston in 1857. Among its early supporters were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. It sought to promote an “American ideal,” a unified yet pluralistic theory of American aesthetics and politics. After more than a century and a half of existence, women writers are not yet published in proportion to women’s share of the country’s population. The Nieman piece focused on progress the magazine has made in recent years toward equitable hiring and promoting: “In 2016, women made up just 17 percent of editorial leadership at The Atlantic. Today, women account for 63 percent of newsroom leaders.” A few days after the piece’s publication, a Twitter user screen-capped a portion of the interview where Goldberg was candid about areas in which the magazine continues to struggle:


GOLDBERG: We continue to have a problem with the print magazine cover stories — with the gender and race issues when it comes to cover story writing. [Of the 15 print issues The Atlantic has published since January 2018, 11 had cover stories written by men. — Ed.]

 It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

My Twitter feed of writers, editors, and book publicists erupted, mostly at the excerpt’s thinly veiled statement on ability. Women in my timeline responded with lists of writers of longform — books, articles, and chapters — who happened to be women, or people of color, or some intersection therein. Goldberg initially said he’d been misquoted. When Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor at Nieman who’d conducted the interview, offered proof that Goldberg’s statements had been delivered as printed, he claimed he had misspoken. Hazard Owen told the L.A. Times she believes that The Atlantic is, overall, “doing good work in diversifying the staff there.”

Taken together, their labor was a massive scholarly project, a written history of a people deemed outside of it.

Still, it’s a difficult statement for a woman writer of color to hear. “You literally are looking at me and all my colleagues, all my women colleagues and all my black colleagues, all my colleagues of color and saying, ‘You’re not really worthy of what we do over here.’ It’s mortifying,” Smith told me. Goldberg’s admission may have been a misstatement, but it mirrors the continued whiteness of mainstream mastheads. It checks out with the Women’s Media Center’s reports and the revealing fact of how much data is missing from even those important studies. It echoes the stories of black women who work or worked in journalism, who have difficulty finding mentors, or who burn out from the weight of wanting to serve the chronically underserved. It reflects my own experiences, in which I have been told multiple times in a single year that I am the only black woman editor that a writer has ever had. But it doesn’t corroborate my long experience as a reader. What happened to the writers and editors and multihyphenates from the era of the multicultural magazine, that brief flash in the 90’s and early aughts when storytellers seemed to reflect just how much people of color lead in creating American culture? Who should have formed a pipeline of leaders for mainstream publications when the industry began to contract?

* * *

In addition to her stints at Vibe, Smith also edited for Billboard, Time, Inc. publications, and published two novels. She was culture editor for ESPN’s digital magazine The Undefeated before going on book leave. Akiba Solomon is an author, editor of two books, and is currently senior editorial director at Colorlines, a digital news daily published by Race Forward. She started an internship at YSB in 1995 before going on to write and edit for Jane, Glamour, Essence, Vibe Vixen, and The Source. She told me that even at magazines without predominantly black staff, she’d worked with other black people, though not often directly. At black magazines, she was frequently edited by black women. “I’ve been edited by Robin Stone, Vanessa DeLuca [formerly editor-in-chief of Essence, currently running the Medium vertical ZORA], Ayana Byrd, Kierna Mayo, Cori Murray, and Michaela Angela Davis.” Solomon’s last magazine byline was last year, an Essence story on black women activists who organize in culturally relevant ways to fight and prevent sexual assault.

Solomon writes infrequently for publications now, worn down by conditions in journalism she believes are untenable. At the hip-hop magazines, the sexism was a deterrent, and later, “I was seeing a turn in who was getting the jobs writing about black music” when it became mainstream. “Once folks could divorce black music from black culture it was a wrap,” she said. At women’s magazines, Solomon felt stifled by “extremely narrow” storytelling. Publishing, in general, Solomon believes, places unsustainable demands on its workers. 

When we talk about the death of print, it is infrequent that we also talk about the conditions that make it ripe for obsolescence. The reluctant slowness with which mainstream media has integrated its mastheads (or kept them integrated) has meant the industry’s content has suffered. And the work environments have placed exorbitant burdens on the people of color who do break through. In Smith’s words:

You feel that you want to serve these people with good and quality content, with good and quality graphics, with good and quality leadership. And as a black person, as a black woman, regardless of whether you’re serving a mainstream audience, which I have at a Billboard and at Time, Inc., or a multicultural audience, which I have at Vibe, it is difficult. And it’s actually taken me a long time to admit that to myself. It does wear you down. And I ask myself why have I always, always stayed in a job two and a half to three years, especially when I’m editing? It’s because I’m tired by that time.

In a July story for Politico, black journalists from The New York Times and the Associated Press talked about how a sophisticated understanding of race is critical to ethically and thoroughly covering the current political moment. After the August 3 massacre in El Paso, Lulu Garcia-Navarro wrote how the absence of Latinx journalists in newsrooms has created a vacuum that allows hateful words from the president to ring unchallenged. Lacking the necessary capacity, many organizations cover race related topics, often matters of life and death, without context or depth. As outlets miss the mark, journalists of color may take on the added work of acting as the “the black public editor of our newsrooms,” Astead Herndon from the Times said on a Buzzfeed panel. Elaine Welteroth wrote about the physical exhaustion she experienced during her tenure as editor in chief at Teen Vogue in her memoir More Than Enough. She was the second African American editor in chief in parent company Condé Nast’s 110 year history:

I was too busy to sleep, too frazzled to eat, and TMI: I had developed a bizarre condition where I felt the urge to pee — all the time. It was so disruptive that I went to see a doctor, thinking it may have been a bladder infection.

Instead, I found myself standing on a scale in my doctor’s office being chastised for accidentally dropping nine more pounds. These were precious pounds that my naturally thin frame could not afford to lose without leaving me with the kind of bony body only fashion people complimented.

Condé Nast shuttered Teen Vogue’s print edition in 2017, despite record-breaking circulation, increased political coverage, and an expanded presence on the internet during Welteroth’s tenure. Welteroth left the company to write her book and pursue other ventures.

Mitzi Miller was editor in chief of JET when it ran the 2012 cover story on Jordan Davis, a Florida teenager shot and killed by a white vigilante over his loud music. “At the time, very few news outlets were covering the story because it occurred over a holiday weekend,” she said. To write the story, Miller hired Denene Millner, an author of more than 20 books. With interviews from Jordan’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucy McBath, the piece went viral and was one of many stories that galvanized the contemporary American movement against police brutality.

Miller started working in magazines in 2000, and came up through Honey and Jane before taking the helm at JET then Ebony in 2014. She edits for the black website theGrio when she can and writes an occasional piece for a print magazine roughly once a year. Shrinking wages have made it increasingly difficult to make a life in journalism, she told me. After working at a number of dream publications, Miller moved on to film and TV development. 

Both Miller and Solomon noted how print publications have been slow to evolve. “It’s hard to imagine now, particularly to digital native folks, but print was all about a particular format. It was about putting the same ideas into slightly different buckets,” Solomon said. On the podcast Hear to Slay, Vanessa DeLuca spoke about how reluctant evolution may have imperiled black media. “Black media have not always … looked forward in terms of how to build a brand across multiple platforms.” Some at legacy print institutions still seem to hold internet writing in lower esteem (“You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!” were Goldberg’s words to Nieman Lab). Often, pay structures reflect this hierarchy. Certainly, the internet’s speed and accessibility have lowered barriers to entry and made it such that rigor is not always a requirement for publication. But it’s also changed information consumption patterns and exploded the possibilities of storytelling.

Michael Gonzales, a frequent contributor to this site and a writer I’ve worked with as an editor, started in magazines in the 1980s as a freelancer. He wrote for The Source and Vibe during a time that overlapped with Smith’s and Solomon’s tenures, the years now called “the golden era of rap writing.” The years correspond to those moments I spent reading magazines with my high school friends. At black publications, he worked with black women editors all the time, but “with the exception of the Village Voice, none of the mainstream magazines employed black editors.” Despite the upheaval of the past several years (“the money is less than back in the day,” he said), Gonzales seems pleased with where his career has landed, “I’ve transformed from music critic/journalist to an essayist.” He went on to talk about how now, with the proliferation of digital magazines:

I feel like we’re living in an interesting writer time where there are a number of quality sites looking for quality writing, especially in essay form. There are a few that sometimes get too self-indulgent, but for the most part, especially in the cultural space (books, movies, theater, music, etc.), there is a lot of wonderful writing happening. Unfortunately you are the only black woman editor I have, although a few years back I did work with Kierna Mayo at Ebony.


* * *

Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.

Editor: Sari Botton

Fact checker: Steven Cohen

Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross

Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison photographed in New York City in 1979. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

To lose Toni Morrison is to lose a great earthly guide. It feels personal, familial, yet I am aware that it is not. She had her own, very full life, with two sons, Harold Ford Morrison and Slade Morrison (who died in 2010), as well as grandchildren and other extended family. Still, I was born into her world. When she died last Monday night after a short illness at 88, Toni Morrison, born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, had published eleven novels, nine volumes of non-fiction, five children’s books (in collaboration with Slade), two plays, a libretto, and more over four-and-a-half decades. After her third novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison left her job at Random House, where, as senior editor, she shepherded work by Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara, and Angela Davis. She “single-handedly produced a black literary canon,” poet Harmony Holiday wrote as part of a longer reflection. A good amount of this work, including Clifton’s memoir Generations and The Black Book, from 1974, is out of print. The essayist Michael Gonzales told me The Black Book was “a breathtaking tome of black life from the Motherland to the Otherland, sheet music and slave notices, pictures of baptisms and black bodies burning as hordes of white men laughed.” In her foreword to the 35th anniversary edition, Morrison called it a “requirement for our national health.”

My earliest years overlap with the publication of Tar Baby, Beloved, and Jazz. Morrison won the Pulitzer in 1988 and became a Nobel Laureate in 1993, when I was not yet a teenager. In their tributes, many writers have spoken of a maternal transmission — how they came to Toni Morrison through their mothers, aunts, older sisters. I remember early edition hardcovers with bold plain fonts, laid out in different spots around my first home, protected in slick plastic, tucked under my mother’s arm or in the space between the driver’s and passenger’s seats for a return trip to the library. Morrison was grown-woman business and I burned to be let in on it. I’ll never know the force of what made my mother — born in 1943 to a woman born in Mississippi in 1906 — truly reach for those books and hold on to them the way she did. I’m lucky to have come of age with Toni Morrison fully formed, her books on the typewritten reading lists teachers pass around at the start of the school year, on Oprah’s show, in the glossies. We do not deify the pursuit of learning — we’d pay teachers and journalists more in money and respect if we did. When a person who reads for pleasure and reads for work, who takes the lessons of what they read to heart, who allows the lessons to wash over them is held up as an American celebrity, it is its own kind of coup. This coup made a different country possible. By being born and coming of age in the last years of the 20th century, I received the gift of the challenge Morrison waged on behalf of literacy, learning, and language, and, to some degree, won. 


* * *

I finally read my first Toni Morrison novel, Song of Solomon, at 16. Before then I breezed through every book I read for school or fun with a haughty ease, memorizing names and dates and the facts of plots in order to recite them back for tests. I do not know that anything before made me stretch and reach for my intelligence. The village in which the protagonist, Milkman, comes of age, the circle of women who surround him, the language they speak to each other, all had the texture of home. But Morrison’s experimentation with narrative and her conception of time — the gaps and dynamism that make a reader slow down  — were too much for tenth grade me to breezily absorb. It got better the second time; I could understand enough to talk about it. “That, my dear, is called reading,” Morrison said to Oprah when Winfrey phoned about adapting Beloved for the screen. I hadn’t known before then that if something did not come easy, I could struggle with it until it changed me. That it would be meaningful; I could be made myself by the struggle. Not an egoistic pursuit of struggle, not a flirtation with martyrdom or self-deprecation. But a grown-woman struggle made of will and a desire to extend myself. Reading is re-reading, trying means trying again.

There would be other lessons. Sula sees possibility in a matriarchal upbringing and pushes me to recommit to my own women friends. “My sister? I need her,” Morrison told the writer Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah during their time together. I am thinking of black women like my mother who rushed the bookstores and signings when Toni Morrison began publishing her own work in 1970, before she’d won any of the awards that signaled her significance to white America. I am thinking of the black women she shared the New York Times bestsellers’ list with, like Alice Walker and Terry McMillian, who, together, created a renaissance of black women’s fiction. I am thinking of the poet Sonia Sanchez, one of the early instructors to teach Morrison’s work in the university. I am thinking of the 48 signatories of the January 1988 open letter to the New York Times, published shortly after the publication of Beloved and fresh off the loss of James Baldwin, whose defiance helped write Toni Morrison’s work into posterity. I am thinking of the black women she wrote alongside (“Some of us thrived; some of us died,” she writes in a foreword to Sula), with whom she dreamed:

I was living in Queens while I wrote Sula, commuting to Manhattan to an office job, leaving my children to childminders and the public school in the fall and winter, to my parents in the summer, and was so strapped for money that the condition moved from debilitating stress to hilarity. Every rent payment was an event; every shopping trip a triumph of caution over the restless caution of a staple. The best news was that this was the condition of every other single / separated female parent I knew. The things we traded! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory—and daring. Daring especially, because in the late sixties, with so many dead, detained, or silenced, there could be no turning back simply because there was no “back” back there. Cut adrift, so to speak, we found it possible to think up things, try things, explore. Use what was known and tried and investigate what was not. Write a play, form a theater company, design clothes, write fiction unencumbered by other people’s expectations. Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves. 

Morrison’s passing is an enormous loss. She was a singular writer and editor with a complex body of work, a rigorous, unwieldy mind who wrote and thought us toward a more capacious humanity. She defies any impulse toward summary. She taught us what reading is, and will be teaching it into all the futures we actually have. May we also remember the witnesses who saw her early on. 

For more on Toni Morrison, selected profiles, interviews, and tributes: 

For more of Toni Morrison, a short story and selected essays: 


‘Give It Up For My Sister’: Beyonce, Solange, and The History of Sibling Acts in Pop

Frank Micelotta, Frank Leonhardt, Evan Agostini, Chris Pizzello, Jordan Strauss, Hubert Boesl / AP, Illustration by Homestead

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,597 words)

Houston-born sisters Beyoncé and Solange Knowles couldn’t be more different. They emit different energies, seem to vibrate at different frequencies. Solange is the emo Cancerian who lunged at her brother-in-law in an elevator. Beyoncé, the preternaturally polished Virgo, clung to the corner and fixed her dress. Lately, I’ve been hung up on how they’re similar. I think it’s because, for people who’ve paid attention, it’s their differences that got drilled into us over the years. By the time Solange released her first record in December 2002, Beyoncé, with Destiny’s Child, had released four albums, earned three Grammy Awards, and was in the final recording sessions for her solo debut. Focusing on their differences was probably a strategic move dreamed up by their father, and, at the time, manager, Matthew Knowles, to maximize the commercial viability of the two artists. Yet, seventeen years later, in the spring of this year, both siblings released albums and accompanying films with musings on “home.”

The two projects are like fraternal twins—individually interesting, but fun and compelling to think about in relation. Both follow albums that were career highlights. Both build their foundations on rhythm, the voice, and vocal harmony. Both marry light and sound and knit their soundscapes into images. Both depend on the improvisational skill of a cohort of contributors. Beyoncé’s project, the live album companion to her Netflix documentary “Homecoming,” documented her two headlining sets at last year’s Coachella and layered the visuals and sonics of HBCU pageantry atop references to a specific, Southern emanation of blackness. Solange’s fifth studio album, When I Get Home, traveled the exact same terrain, but in a far-out, deconstructed way, with references to cosmic jazz and psychedelic R&B, black cowboys, undulating hips and mudras, and the skyscrapers and wide, green lawns of the sisters’ hometown.

It’s logical that if two people share a childhood home, they grow up to be into the same things. But it’s taken time — for us, as audiences, to widen our perspectives enough so that we can see, in the same frame, how they’re similar and how they’re not. It’s taken time for the two sisters to grow comfortable enough being themselves while publicly navigating the music industry as black women. To differentiate herself from her sister’s glamorous pop image, Solange initially emanated an alterna-vibe that resonated with those who may have liked Beyoncé, but felt hemmed in by her R&B fantasy, lead-girl-in-a-video perfection. While Bey rocked the trendy low-slung denim of the early aughts, went blonde, and mostly kept a huge mane of loose, blown out curls, Solange wore red box braids, and in her first video, a floor length patchwork skirt. She was the earthier sister, positioned in alignment with the diasporic neo soul scene of the late 90s. She had a baby, got married early, and lived with her young family, for a while, in Idaho. Then she sheared her long locks and quietly rented a brownstone in Carroll Gardens.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

We didn’t linger on or make much meaning from Solange’s time as a background dancer for her sister’s group, or how she’d replaced Kelly Rowland in the lineup for some tour dates when they opened for Christina Aguilera in 2000. But it did raise eyebrows when, during Solange’s Brooklyn years, Beyoncé began showing up at concerts of indie acts her sister put her on to.

Solange’s first album Solo Star covered a lot of musical ground, but didn’t make much of an impact commercially or otherwise. She was then 16. Between 2001 and early 2003, a number of female R&B vocalists made big Top 10 pop albums: Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Ameriie, Ashanti, Mya. Beyoncé’s 2003 debut (coupled with the rapid deterioration of the recording industry) seemed to flatten out the pop-R&B landscape like a grenade. Five years later, Solange released the Motown-influenced Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, then left her label. She independently released the 2012 EP “True.” Its lead single “Losing You,” a buoyant breakup bop, was a breakthrough. A Seat at the Table, with spoken word interludes that include interviews with her parents about black history and family, came out in the fall of 2016. It was Solange’s first album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. By then, Beyoncé was talking about her mama’s and daddy’s roots, too, most explicitly, on Lemonade, her sixth studio project as a solo artist, which, just five months before, earned the same chart placement.  

* * *

According to Billboard, besides the Knowles sisters, in the history of the chart there have been only two other pairs of sibling solo artists in which each sibling has earned a number one pop album: Master P and Silkk the Shocker during a run of releases in the late nineties, and Janet and Michael Jackson. The Jacksons’ older brother, Jermaine, The Braxton sisters, Toni and Tamar, and the Simpson sisters, Jessica and Ashlee, have all earned albums in the Top 10. But the only solo siblings to earn number ones during the same calendar year have been Janet and Michael, Solange and Beyoncé.

The two projects are like fraternal twins—individually interesting, but fun and compelling to think about in relation.

Michael famously got his start in a band of brothers, The Jackson Five. After signing to Motown in 1969, their first four singles — “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I’ll Be There” — all went to number one. Their father, Joseph Jackson, a former boxer and steelworker born in Arkansas, managed the band with reportedly horrid methods. Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon all became capable musicians individually. But it was Janet, born eight years after Michael and too young to join her brothers’ band, who truly absorbed their ascent. She performed in the family’s variety show and TV sitcoms throughout the 70s, and beginning in the late 80s, released music that, arguably, approached Michael’s impact. Control, Rhythm Nation, Janet., and The Velvet Rope are gorgeous, singular statements that define pop-R&B and still sound alive.

Janet has earned more number one albums than Michael (seven to his six) and her singles have been in the Top 10 for more weeks than his (“That’s the Way Love Goes” was the longest running number one for either of them). For a while, the fiasco of Super Bowl 2004 derailed Janet’s career. She lost endorsement deals and had a long, marked decline in album sales. “Nipplegate” angered then CBS chairman Les Moonves so much that he’d reportedly ordered MTV and VH1 to stop playing her videos. Janet’s black fans always suspected something sinister at play. Last year, the New Yorker and New York Times published sexual assault allegations against Moonves, and his pattern of derailing women’s careers became public knowledge. Janet got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past March, and while that’s somewhat palliative, it doesn’t give back the lost years, or acknowledge her sprawling, multi-medium contributions to entertainment. Still, her reputation hasn’t had the kind of epic blemishes Michael’s has, and our current ferment of empowered, black women singers owes everything to her.

Though they’re starting to, Solange and Beyoncé haven’t leaned all the way in to their shared origin in the way of Michael and Janet in the ”Scream” video, where their charisma and similar, long-limbed, open hip-jointed athleticism is foregrounded in nearly every frame. We got glimpses at Solange’s set at Coachella in 2014, when Bey joined in for a dance break, and its reprise in Bey’s sets, a highlight of the 2019 film. Solange has, like Janet, who sang backup on Thriller, been all over Beyoncé’s catalog. And while coverage of black pop has evolved from the 90s and early 2000s, when Janet got blackballed and Beyoncé and Solange seemed to represent poles on a restricted continuum of what a black woman in pop could be (the glamorous diva vs. the earthy bohemian), it still hasn’t gone far enough.

In Interview, Beyoncé asked her younger sister where she got her inspiration, and she answered,“For one, I got to have a lot of practice. Growing up in a household with a master class such as yourself definitely didn’t hurt.” She also namechecked Missy Elliot, who produced and provided vocals for some of Destiny’s Child’s finest tracks. In other words, she claimed her proximity to her older sister’s career, as nourishment, cultivation, as part of what undergirds her artistry. When Solange’s latest album launched, the NPR music critic Ann Powers made a playlist of its antecedents called the “mamas of Solange.” It included Alice Coltrane, Minnie Riperton, Tweet, Aaliyah, and TLC. It did not include Beyoncé or Destiny’s Child, contemporaries of some of the women who did make the list. Maybe it’s taken for granted? Stevie Wonder’s ambient album The Secret Life of Plants is brought up a lot in relation to When I Get Home, but The Writings on the Wall and Dangerously in Love are also important building blocks of the music Solange and most contemporary pop and R&B artists make. It feels incomplete to not say so. Similarly, when talking about Beyoncé, something’s missing when we don’t acknowledge how indebted she is to the cluster of women around her. Perhaps that’s leftover residue from the marketing machine of the late 90s and early aughts, too — an overemphasis on singularity.

* * *

When I Get Home’s interlude “S. MacGregor,” named after an avenue in Houston’s Third Ward, contains snippets of Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen performing a poem their mother, Vivian Ayers-Allen, wrote. Rashad and Allen make up another culturally significant sibling pair. There’s Fame!, The Cosby Show, and A Different World, but also the stage — Rashad is the first black woman to win a lead actress Tony, and Allen was nominated for Tony Awards for West Side Story and Sweet Charity.

Both sisters also had short-lived recording careers. Rashad released a tribute album to Josephine Baker in 1978 and an album of nursery rhymes in 1991. She memorably sang on multiple episodes of The Cosby Show. Allen released Special Look in 1989. It was a pop, dance-R&B concoction that sounds like a harder edged Paula Abdul, whose blockbuster Forever Your Girl had come out the year before. Today, Allen directs for TV and runs Los Angeles’ Debbie Allen Dance Academy, while Rashad directs for the stage.

Allen’s younger than Rashad by 2 years, and they have two older brothers: the jazz musician Andrew Arthur Allen, and Hugh Allen, a banker. Their parents’ nasty divorce in the mid-’80s got covered in Jet. I often wonder about the dynamics in high-intensity, high-achieving households like theirs. Some accounts say Solange felt neglected for parts of her childhood when her older sister’s group became the family business. The five-year age difference is too wide for straightforward competition, but not so for resentment. Some of my earliest memories are the legendary fights between my two older, high-achieving siblings. It still annoys me to think about how much time and energy their rivalry took up (and continues to take up) in our family. In an interview with Maria Shriver last year, Tina Knowles Lawson said she deliberately taught her daughters not to be intimidated by another woman’s shine and sent them to therapy early on to learn to protect and support each other. From the perspective of an outsider, it seems to have worked.

While coverage of black pop has evolved from the 90s and early 2000s, when Janet got blackballed and Beyoncé and Solange seemed to represent poles on a restricted continuum of what a black woman in pop could be, it still hasn’t gone far enough.

Family dynasties are neither new nor newly influential in pop. My mother adored the voice of Karen Carpenter, who’d gotten her start in a duo with her brother, Richard. The LPs of the Emotions, the Pointer Sisters, the Jones Girls, and Sister Sledge were in my  mother’s racks, too, — all vocal groups with at least one pair of siblings. The early years of rock and roll, the doo wop era, is full of crews of schoolmates, like the Chantels, the Marvelettes or the Supremes, or sibling groups like The Andrews Sisters, the Shangri-Las, and the Ronettes. Later, there’s DeBarge, the Emotions, The Sylvers, the Five Stairsteps, Wilson Phillips, the Winans, Ace of Base, Xscape, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Isley Brothers. Part of me wants to say it’s because of the genre’s origins in domestic spaces like the living room or the stoop, a refuge of creativity against the backdrop of chaotic 20th century urban life. Music education in schools provided training, as did the subtle rigor of the church, where troupes, quartets, and choirs led worship. When describing what’s special about “that sibling sound,” in 2014, Linda Ronstadt told the BBC: “The information of your DNA is carried in your voice, and you can get a sound [with family] that you never get with someone who’s not blood-related to you.” What a voice sounds like, in large part, depends on biology and anatomy—the shape of the head, chest, the construction of the sinus cavities. It makes sense that the sweetest, most seamless harmonizing could happen between people who share DNA. And as audiences, we like being witness to the chemistry of our performers. It can feel fun and somewhat uncanny to watch people who look a little bit alike sing and dance in formation.

None of this completely explains how much popular music has historically been “A Family Affair” (a number one in 1971 for Sly and the Family Stone, a group comprised of Sylvester Stewart and his siblings Freddie and Rose, with baby sister, Vaetta, in charge of the backing vocalists). Or how much, aside from the Jonas Brothers, the top 40 of the past few months is absent sibling groups, or, really, groups of any kind. Haim, the trio of sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana from the San Fernando Valley, had Top 10 albums in 2013 and 2017, and will co-headline this year’s Pitchfork’s festival with the Isley Brothers and Robyn. They sing in effortless three-part harmony, are aggressive on guitar, bass, and percussion, and write their own songs. A New York Times critic called them proudly “anachronistic,” because their sound is a throwback to earlier eras and bands like Fleetwood Mac and Destiny’s Child, whose Stevie Nicks-sampling “Bootylicious,” was the last pop number one from a girl group. In a 2011 piece for The Root, Akoto Ofori-Atta attributed the decline of vocal groups to, among other factors, reduced record label budgets and the “me-first” narcissism of social media. She also suggested the cyclical nature of music trends could mean that audiences will want to hear tight vocal harmonies again. I’d think that was impossible since digitization has meant that people don’t have to sing together anymore. But singing itself has gotten new life from young R&B artists like Ella Mai, Moses Sumney, and H.E.R., so who knows.

In 2015, Beyonce signed the sister duo Chloe+ Halle to her record label. She’d seen them on YouTube performing covers and accompanying themselves on keys in their living room.  The young women sing ethereal, soul-inflected harmonies, play multiple instruments and compose and produce their own music. They’re also actresses with recurring roles on “grown-ish.” Their first studio album The Kids are Alright released last year and earned the group two Grammy nominations. They performed at the ceremony, memorably, in the tribute to Donny Hathaway, and at the Grammy’s tribute to Motown, they performed the Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman,” Motown’s first number one. None of the singles from Chloe + Halle’s record have made much of a commercial impact or stuck with me yet, but, based on history, the incubation potential of the vocal group, the sibling group in particular, bodes well for longevity.



‘Play Another Slow Jam, This Time Make It Sweet’

Kerry Coppin / Chicago History Museum / Getty

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | March 2019 |7 minutes (1,794 words)

In a photo dated September 1983, my father stands alone, 30ish, and relaxed, with arms akimbo and a slight belly bulge on a porch outside Superior Baths in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In another image with the same timestamp, my mother reclines on a pink-framed bed and paints her nails. I’d call her posture dainty, how she holds her head at an angle, crosses one bare leg over the other. It is obviously shot by her lover. Before finding this memento of their getaway as an adult, in my mother’s apartment after my father died, I had only my own existence as proof they’d ever been romantic with each other.

I also had incomplete, fragmented memories that felt sharp, scattered about my mind like bits of glass. They are records of fact, but also, possibly, my imagination: a blue light of something lost yet unnamed and refracted back to me. In one, I stand near the front door of our first home as my parents, far away, on the other side of the room, embrace with hips and arms touching. I peek at them above the piece of newspaper I have found to hide my face. The heat of their embrace embarrasses me; their smiles seem private and new. In the other, they slow dance on our fluffy green shag carpet, but I cannot recall what music they dance to.

When I think of my father back then, the Luther Vandross album, Never Too Much comes to mind. Luther wears a leather jacket on the cover, opened to reveal a crisp white shirt and a grin that reaches his watery eyes and creases his forehead. It was his solo debut, after years composing, producing, arranging, and singing backup for, among many, David Bowie, Chic, and Roberta Flack. Luther’s weight fluctuated during those years. He battled hypertension and diabetes and tried to manage it by managing his waistline. Through his first decade of  solo success, when records like, “Any Love,” and “So Amazing,” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” burned through car stereos on my street, his weight was the subject of loving jokes from his fans. Big Luther’s voice was better, sexier, more supple than little Luther’s, people would say.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


My father’s weight went up and down during those years, too. When we were closest, he was merely portly, but he smoked and drank cans of Pepsi in rapid succession. This worried me, so with my mother’s help, I made a case for him to quit cigarettes. “Maybe you could eat more oranges instead,” I told him. Time passed and he became so obese it wore down his femurs, and he had difficulty walking a long block without losing his breath.

My Uncle Frank was a glamorous gay man who lived in California and worked as a hairdresser and stylist to many people in show business. Before he died in the mid-80’s, he told us Luther was gay, too. It was a rumor we held as truth and made space for without using language we would today, like “coming out” or “in the closet.” We assumed Luther knew longing. We knew his performances were made of great skill, but recognized in them something so tender and familiar, we speculated the personal stories that must have lived underneath.

* * *

When I fell in love in my 20s, “Never Too Much,” the single, made me dance an ecstatic two step whenever a DJ played a set of R&B from my parents’ time. My college boyfriend J. was the pride of black upwardly mobile DC — the local paper profiled him when he won a hefty scholarship to university. J. was more like me than many of the friends I made — I, too, was paying for college with lots of prayers and an academic scholarship. We spent entirely too much time together; for a while, I liked living without boundaries. “Never Too Much,” an uptempo song of romantic abandon, was us. Marcus Miller’s bass is warm and ebullient, but mostly, it’s Luther’s phrasing that propels it. He sings every line into the next like it’s all one sentence, a single breathless enjambment. I remember joy in the moments we danced, but I now believe the source of my joy was the full experience of sensation dancing and falling in love gave me permission to have.

Luther’s cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “A House is Not a Home,” is the most enduring single from his debut. Kanye built a number one hit out of it in 2003, and it remains a staple on The Quiet Storm with Lenny Green, a syndicated show that runs out of New York’s WBLS on weekdays from 7pm to midnight. The most recent night I listened, they played New Birth’s “Wildflower,” released in 1973, then Guy’s “Goodbye, Love,” from 1988, which led into the Jackson 5’s 1970 Motown single, “I’ll Be There.” Then came Xscape’s recording of “Who Can I Run To,” an R&B #1 in 1995, and Ella Mai’s “Trip,” released just last August.

Before finding this memento of their getaway as an adult, in my mother’s apartment after my father died, I had only my own existence as proof they’d ever been romantic with each other.

Green has been on WBLS since 1997, but Melvin Lindsey and Cathy Hughes at DC’s WHUR, the Howard University affiliated station, created the Quiet Storm format in 1976. Hughes was managing the station and needed a replacement DJ. Lindsey, then an intern and Howard student, filled in, bringing records his family owned. The segment proved immediately popular, and when he graduated, Lindsey came on full time. It was a striver’s music, created specifically to reach the growing Black middle class of DC and its suburbs. Hughes had taken the name for the format from Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album, A Quiet Storm, which opens with soft, howling wind, flutes, congas and a cooing vocal, suggesting, Pitchfork wrote, “a deeper metaphysical connection between two intimate lovers.” It was definitely for people like my parents, who’d become adults in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights legislation that changed the kind of work they had access to, but didn’t go far enough to protect them from the vulnerability a society stratified by race guarantees. My father climbed up the ranks with the state of Arkansas, while my mother worked at a city-funded hospital. Both knew what it felt like to dutifully train the new, younger white man who would eventually become the boss. They were people who deserved to relax after a long day.

Between my early childhood and my first adult romance, something about the soft, lovelorn cuts gave me comfort, too. At some point, I found a tape my sister made of Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee’s “Make It Last Forever” — just that sole track, playing on repeat on both sides. Sweat’s lead vocal is sweet, vulnerable — it’s the first piece of music I remember giving me a physical reaction, a warm feeling, a fluttering. Now, probably because it was my older sister who brought it to me, who’d made the tape in the throes of her own early college romance, it sounds like what I imagine adolescence to sound like: rough at its edges, yielding and tentative deep inside.

* * *

Late in 1994, Madonna’s album Bedtime Stories came out. It had smooth, moody pop-R&B songs like “Take a Bow” and “Secret,” and songwriters Babyface, Dallas Austin, and R. Kelly were at the helm. The next year, the Whitney Houston-led film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale released, and Babyface wrote most of the soundtrack. It was a commercial success, and with slow grooves from Whitney, Toni Braxton, Faith, Chante Moore, and SWV, an homage to the slow jam. In some ways, so was the film. In its first few seconds, we hear the low, dulcet voice of an actor playing a Quiet Storm DJ. We hear him again at the film’s ending, framing events in the lead characters’ lives over the course of a single year. I was 14 when the film came out and didn’t share the heroines’ middle-aged love panic, but they were glamorous and aspirational, and the story’s main romance seemed to be the one between the characters, the friendships among the women. In turn, the strain of black pop on the album, one of many pivotal 90s film soundtracks that made an imprint and endure, created a mood, an ambiance that was soothing, a place from which to have conversations and communion with my own friends. In letters we circulated between classes, in bleary eyed late-night phone conversations about our fears, we lived with each other, we lived with the music.

The term “slow jam” became widely popular when a song performed by Midnight Star and written by a young Babyface came out in 1983. Midnight Star was a slick funk band heavy into synths, and “Slow Jam,” a cut from the album No Parking on the Dance Floor, was a duet. The male narrator “asks” a partner for “her hand” and for the party’s deejay to play another slow jam / this time make it sweet. Brenda Lipscomb, the woman narrator, consents. It’s a forthright demand for intimacy, for private time, in a public setting.

It was definitely for people like my parents, who’d become adults in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights legislation that changed the kind of work they had access to, but did not go far enough to protect them from the vulnerability a society stratified by race guarantees.

Obviously, “slow jams,” the sentiment and request inherent in them, both precede and extend beyond Midnight Star. My mother remembers swoony slow dances to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and “blue light” basement parties in Chicago during her adolescence in the 50s and 60s. She said the psychedelic lighting in tight spaces made the parties feel sexy. Smokey Robinson was one in a constellation of artists who made sensualist soul music in the 70s. The best singers know all about tone modulation, but Minnie Riperton, Syreeta, and Deniece Williams mastered a style of vocalizing that often settled into a soft hum or murmur. You can hear them in the colors and emotional frequencies Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and Solange tap into in their recordings.

These soft, tender soundscapes are, for me, tightly woven with images of black intimacy. Of two black people tuning into themselves and each other. When my mother paints the picture with her memories, when Kerry James Marshall paints a dance in a lived-in room — they are images that demand humanity in a way we may not realize is a demand. They insist on the body, on its flesh and blood. They gather and soothe the nervous system. They allow for a tender masculinity. They are obsessed with survival, generations, and continuity.

We slow dance, or attempt any kind of social dance, less these days. I think that’s why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dance videos made us stir. The comfort and delight she took in her body were, for some, profane, the antitheses of how a leader should comport herself. And yet, I do not need to return to any era that came before this one. There is no idealized black past: women and queer people have suffered too much for too long at the hands of those we love. This isn’t even about romantic love; it is about the impulse. This is a reminder that our desires for sweetness and connection are and have always been a salve. The urge means we are not dead inside.


Faith and Reproductive Justice Are Not in Opposition

Illustration by Chloe Cushman

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | March 2019 | 7 minutes (1,853 words)

“The patriarchy begins at home,” acclaimed Atlanta-based novelist Tayari Jones told the Atlantic last year. “They call it ‘patriarchy’ because it’s about your father and your brothers and your family.” My brother became a conservative Republican in the late ’80s due in part to a strong moral opposition to abortion. He’s 16 years older than me, and one of few men in our family. We were raised in the same missionary Baptist church in North Memphis our family belonged to for three generations. I was baptized and went to Sunday School there; my grandmother had been a white glove-wearing, note-taking member of the Baptist Training Union 50 years before. They taught Baptist doctrine to congregants. I found pages of her meticulous notes in a closet in my auntie’s house decades after she died. Despite years of service and prominent roles in the church, women couldn’t sit in its pulpit, much less aspire to ultimate leadership. In all of my time there, I can’t even recall having a woman from another congregation speak to us as visiting pastor.

The seeds of whatever belief system my brother came to uphold must have been planted in that sanctuary. Later, when I was a teenager who’d developed her own thoughts on the matter, we spoke about the biblical underpinnings of his values. We didn’t talk about our grandmother, who may have had an abortion in the ’50s when she became pregnant for the ninth time. Or our mother, who, with me, had a troubled delivery, with preeclampsia, induction, and a caesarian section. I spent my first days in a neonatal ICU. My mother was 21 when my brother was born and 37 with me — an “advanced maternal age.” By the time my brother and I were talking about the “sanctity of life,” it was the ’90s; yet, even now, when male pundits and politicians speak about pregnancy, abortion, and God, I do not hear a concern for the lives and experiences of would-be mothers, for women, that is as strong as their concern for the unborn.

Attorney and scholar of race, gender, and the law, Dorothy Roberts, describes “maternal-fetal conflict,” as “policies that seek to protect the fetus while disregarding the humanity of the mother.” It’s a concept that helps explain how many of the same states with the most restricted access to abortion care have also refused to expand Medicaid, denying uninsured, low income people access to contraceptives and other healthcare services. It helps explain how rates of maternal mortality have increased while rates of infant mortality have fallen.

It’s likely, since Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy and the Supreme Court’s ideological balance shifted, that federal protections guaranteed with Roe vs. Wade will disappear. Several cases that would prompt its annulment could make it onto the Court’s docket. Many people already effectively live in a post-Roe future. In states throughout the South and Midwest, including my home state of Tennessee, more than 90% of counties have no clinics that provide abortion services. Mississippi and six other states are down to a single one. The Hyde Amendment prohibits use of federal Medicaid funds for elective abortions; 11 states restrict abortion coverage in private insurance. Twenty-seven require waiting periods of 24 to 72 hours, meaning two visits to a provider that is possibly already a prohibitive distance away.

New York’s Reproductive Health Act passed on January 22, 2019, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It codified the Supreme Court decision into state law, removed abortion from the criminal code, and relaxed some restrictions on abortions after 24 weeks. Last month, Virginia’s legislature considered a bill that would also expand abortion access at the state level. Since then, the phrase “late term” abortion, an imprecise, lightning rod of a term used to describe a set of complicated procedures that account for less than 2% of abortions, shot through the discourse to, it seems, reignite a moral conversation about abortion in general. New York and Virginia are part of a rash of states that rushed to pass bills clarifying their positions. On February 20, the governor of Arkansas signed the “Human Life Protection Act”; it will “abolish abortion” in the state, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Tennessee’s legislature introduced a similar bill in February. Both would become effective should Roe v. Wade, or its supporting decisions, be nullified. Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota already have comparable “trigger laws” in place.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

* * *

“We lose people when we center and focus on abortion,” Jalessah Jackson told me on a phone call from Atlanta. She’s the Georgia Coordinator for SisterSong, a national, membership-based network of organizers focused on reproductive rights. Founded in 1997, one of SisterSong’s main aims is organizing in support of people all along the gender spectrum who are living in the South.

A major priority for SisterSong is “culture shift” campaigns, which develop partnerships with faith organizations and leaders. “We recognize the role of the church in people’s lives,” she said, so their organizers “meet with progressive church leaders to talk about their responsibility in making sure their congregation is living and thriving. They should attend to the part of their congregation that might want to have children as well as those that might not want to.”

Jackson and team hope to “change narratives,” because many people “think faith and reproductive justice are in opposition, and they’re not.” Indeed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), started by a coalition of ministers after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott and led, at one point, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a policy document for the federal government’s family planning program in the mid-60s. Before that, in the ’30s, W.E.B. DuBois thought black churches should invite leaders of birth control organizations to speak to their congregations. DuBois had a progressive-era classism then, and believed in population control especially among the “least intelligent and fit.” But there’s something to his call for “a more liberal attitude” within the black church that remains salient. 

According to Loretta J. Ross, an activist and one of the pioneers of the concept, and historian Rickie Solinger, the core of reproductive justice is the right to have a child or not, and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments. Using reproductive justice as a frame for thinking about women’s health exposes the limits of the pro-life / pro-choice binary. It makes room for concerns about mass incarceration, public education, affordable housing, air pollution, and the ability to earn a living wage — all of which influence what choices people actually have, and determine whether the children they carry to term are able to thrive.

Nearly 60% of women who terminate pregnancies are already mothers. About half of patients seeking abortion care live below the poverty level. Black women in the US are almost three times more likely than white women to have abortions; Latinas have them nearly twice as often as whites. Since a growing majority of US blacks reside in the South, and poverty rates for blacks, Latinx, and indigenous people double that of whites, abortion access is a “race issue,” and a Roe annulment would disproportionately affect brown and black people. Many black pro-life organizations and church congregations have co-opted the language of progressive movements to buttress their opposition to abortion, linking reproductive rights and family planning with genocide. It’s an old but powerful strain of thinking that acknowledges medical racism and the early associations of Margaret Sanger, a founder of Planned Parenthood, with leading eugenicists. But it fails to note Sanger’s reliance on W.E.B. DuBois’ research, and it does not account for the lived experiences or needs of actual women.

Nikia Grayson, certified nurse midwife and director of midwifery care at Choices, a reproductive health center in downtown Memphis, told me their providers like to “talk about all of a woman’s options,” to unearth and address what kind of care she needs. They aim to provide “high quality, non-judgmental” healthcare in which they remove the stigma from abortion and serve the needs of the city’s LGBTIA population. They are one of few clinics providing the HIV preventative medications PrEP and PEP in a city that is eighth in the country for rates of new HIV diagnoses.

Choices is a model of full spectrum reproductive care, offering prenatal and postpartum care, pap smears, pelvic exams, STI screening and advice, and (through coordination with a local rape crisis center) treatment specifically for sexual assault survivors, all under one roof. It’s the midwifery model, in which women are attended to “from menarche to menopause.” Abortions are also provided at the facility. One of only two back certified nurse midwives in Memphis, Grayson said the majority of Choices’ patients pay for their services at least partially with Medicaid, and the center often raises funds to cover what the state will not. If all goes according to plan, later this year they’ll open the city’s first standalone birthing center, where women who could not otherwise afford a home birth can have an alternative to hospital delivery. Advisers to the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund recommend “integrated comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services” like this “for women and girls to enjoy their human rights.” It decreases the likelihood of unintended pregnancies, addressing concerns about abortion closer to the root.

I asked Grayson about church groups, and she said Choices receives support from social justice oriented congregations, like Christ Missionary Baptist Church. “They understand that the work Choices does saves lives.” Christ Missionary’s senior pastor, Dr. Gina Stewart, is one of the first women to lead a Baptist congregation in the city and its surrounding areas.

If Roe is dying, it is, so far, a slow burning death, with gasps for breath and short, hopeful bouts of recovery. Several weeks ago, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the decisive vote in blocking a law in Louisiana that would have further restricted abortion access in the state; the week after, the Trump administration published a “family planning rule” that would block providers who provide or counsel on abortions (such as Planned Parenthood and Choices) from access to certain federal funds. It is is helpful to note how institutions like Planned Parenthood, Choices and SisterSong already do their work in a climate of opposition and disinformation. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about abortion.” Jaleesah Jackson said. The disinformation comes from everywhere, nowhere, and the top — the president falsely claimed in his latest state of the union address that later term abortions “rip babies from the mother’s womb moments from birth.” As Jackson said, “SisterSong advocates for comprehensive sex education, and comprehensive sex education would cover abortion. All genders, all folks need access to this information because they’re all charged with the responsibility of making decisions about their reproductive lives.”

But abortion is, in many ways, beside the point. “We’re autonomous human beings.” Jackson told me. “And part of having bodily autonomy is being able to make whatever reproductive health decisions we deem fit for ourselves and our lives and for our families.”

What to Read After ‘Leaving Neverland’

Washington, DC. 5-14-1984 Michael Jackson with President Ronald Reagan and FIrst Lady Nancy Reagan at ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House where the President awarded "The King Of Pop" with the Presidential Public Safety Communication Award for allowing the song "Beat It" to be used in a public service campaign against teen drinking and driving. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

What struck me about Leaving Neverland, the harrowing, two-part, four-hour HBO documentary about Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck’s sexual abuse allegations against superstar performer Michael Jackson, is the mechanical similarity of the men’s stories. Almost play-by-play, their accounts of what happened, how they, along with their families, became dazzled and then ensnared in Jackson’s web, hauntingly mirror each other. I noticed the same thing while watching both Surviving R. Kelly and Kidnapped in Plain Sight — predatory techniques to woo most often follow a similarly uncreative, toxic formula. During Oprah’s follow-up interview special, Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed called the film a deep look into “what grooming child sexual abuse looks like.”

Unique to Robson’s and Safechuck’s dilemma is the sheer magnitude of their accused perpetrator’s fame. As Robson said to Oprah, “the grooming started long before we ever met him.” Michael Jackson entered the national spotlight as lead singer of the Jackson 5 in 1969. Thriller, from 1982, remains the second best selling album of all time in the US. After 50 years in entertainment, the reach and influence of Jackson’s music cannot be overstated: it is difficult to listen to any pop radio and not hear him in its melodies or harmonies, to watch any pop star dance and not see his movement in the shadows.

After a police investigation into allegations brought forth by then 13-year-old Jordan Chandler in 1993, Jackson wasn’t formally charged, and he was acquitted on multiple counts related to child sexual abuse in 2005. In both cases, he settled out of court with his accusers. Before his 2009 death, Jackson denied all allegations of misconduct. His estate and family have issued vehement denials in Leaving Neverland’s wake. Still, no one defending Jackson would go as far as to say he did not behave inappropriately with children: he admitted to some unconscionable behavior himself. Robson’s and Safechuck’s accounts are detailed, credible, and difficult to bear in one sitting. To make sense of the story, and to begin to make sense of how we, the public, fell short, a selection of readings follows, about Jackson, Leaving Neverland, geniusand the toxic cult of celebrity.

1. A Complete Timeline of the Michael Jackson Abuse Allegations. (Kyle McGovern, February 28, 2019, Vulture)

McGovern details every public allegation against Jackson dating back to 1993 — Robson and Safechuck appear and reappear multiple times among many other young men in Jackson’s orbit.

2. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Reveals the Monster We Didn’t Want to See in Michael Jackson. (Niela Orr, March 1, 2019, BuzzFeed)

Orr, a Jackson fan while growing up, says watching Leaving Neverland produced “the shock and pang of betrayal,” and was “a visceral reveal of insidious behavior.” She reckons with Jackson’s duality: the harmless childlike mythos versus his ability to shapeshift into monstrosity.

3. It’s Too Late to Cancel Michael Jackson. (Carl Wilson, February 27, 2019, Slate)

Wilson says Jackson, “was to modern popular music and dance what Dickens was to the Victorian novel” and ponders whether he is “too big to cancel.”

4. Michael Jackson Cast a Spell, ‘Leaving Neverland’ Breaks It. (Wesley Morris, February 27, 2019, New York Times)

I’ve stared at a lingering shot of a photograph of Jackson, who would have been around 30 and Safechuck who was about 9 or 10, and Jackson is beaming in sunglasses and a military jacket, flashing a peace sign, and James, in a too-big baseball cap, is turning to the camera, looking alarmingly ruminative for someone whose life should be rumination-free.

5. He’s Out of My Life: Letting Go of Michael Jackson. (Kierna Mayo, March 6, 2019, Afropunk)

Eye-spying racism should never be the reason we don’t call a predator by his name.

Mayo reckons with the denial and protectionism offered to Jackson and his memory by some in the black community.

6. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Asks an Uncomfortable Question: How Culpable Are the Parents? (EJ Dickson, March 4, 2019, Rolling Stone)

Some have interpreted Leaving Neverland and Abducted thusly, arguing that the parents of Jackson’s victims are just as culpable as Jackson in perpetuating the abuse. And to a degree, Robson and Safechuck seem to share that view: as Safechuck says, he has never fully forgiven his mother for allowing the abuse to continue. “Forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you take,” he said at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.

Yet Leaving Neverland and Abducted can be seen less indictments of bad parenting than as a condemnation of the cultural mechanisms that allow the individual power of personality to go unchecked. Even though Jackson was a pop superstar hailed as a musical genius, and Berchtold a small-town salesman and Mormon dad of five, both were, by all accounts, men who knew exactly how to wield their charisma as a weapon; both were highly skilled at disarming and seducing adults (in Berchtold’s case, literally) in order to gain access to their children.

Dickson teases out some of the similarities between Leaving Neverland and Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight.

7. She Wrote the Book on Michael Jackson. Now She Wishes it Said More. (Anna Silman, March 7, 2019, The Cut)

So if he is guilty — what do we do with the music? What do we do with Michael Jackson?
There are two aspects. One is what kind of restitution is needed. If it’s financial, that’s fine by me, but is that sufficient? I just don’t believe the art should be quote “banned” forever. But if banning, let’s say, R. Kelly’s work for a certain amount of time from the radio, is a way of getting money from his estate, to help give those girls and young women some kind of settlement, that’s absolutely fine with me. I feel the same way about the Jackson estate.

As for what we do with the music — that “we” splits into just millions of people, doesn’t it? There’s no one way to answer that. I got an email from an editor who just said in passing “My God, I’ve loved him all my life. I still do. Would I feel comfortable buying his videos or even his music around my 8 or 9-year-old child? Right now, no.” We’re all sifting through that.

The larger question with every one of these artists is how do we simultaneously keep in our heads and hearts this information and this material and at the same time continue to respond as we feel their art justifies. Those two processes aren’t mutually exclusive at all. And it’s going to keep happening so we need to start finding language and feelings as well as practical, legal ways of coping with it.

The Cut speaks to Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, two days after she watched Leaving Neverland. 

8. No One Deserves as Much Power as Michael Jackson Had. (Craig Jenkins, March 1, 2019, Vulture)

It’s hard to explain the relationship between the superstars of the ’80s and their fans to people who weren’t alive or old enough to remember the decade. They were like demigods. They sang about love, peace, politics, and matters of planetary significance. Their art paused time and advanced culture. Their shows incited hysterics. It all seems religious in retrospect. Belief was the core of the bond, belief that these figures acted in the interest of bettering the world no matter the cost, belief that people who do good aregood. Their methods and their presentation were questioned, but the idea that pop stars were out to save the world was quite often taken at face value. This was not wise. We didn’t know any better.

More on the art and crimes of dangerous men:

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

Nina Subin / Bold Type Books

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.

* * *

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.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

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.

‘Black Flight’ out of Chicago

CHICAGO - AUGUST 23: Alison Saar's "Monument to the Great Northern Migration", sits on South King Drive in Chicago, Illinois on AUGUST 23, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In a cover story for the Chicago Reader, urban planner Pete Saunders writes about how Black residents are fleeing Chicago in large numbers for suburbs and metropolitan areas in other regions as the city’s white, Asian American, Latinx, and multiracial populations increase. This “Black flight” reverses demographic trends of last century, which saw an estimated 7 million African Americans pouring into cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast from the rural South during the Great Migration. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says that more than 500,000 of those who left settled in Chicago; according to Curbed, “At some points during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, more than 1,000 new arrivals a week came through booming areas such as Bronzeville, many of them hoping to work in the heavy industry and steel plants on the city’s southeast side.”

Saunders suggests a combination of factors have caused the current exodus, including slow declines in Chicago’s violent crime rate, school closures and a lack of investment in important local institutions. Shifts in the kinds of jobs available and, perhaps, a pull to the South of generations before have driven Black Chicagoans to Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego are also losing Black population, but the decline in Chicago, at “four to ten times the rate of the other three,” has been most dramatic. According to the Urban Institute, by 2030, it’s estimated that Chicago will have lost more than 500,000 Black residents in 50 years. Saunders believes that systematic racial discrimination, the biggest driver of Blacks to cities during  the Great Migration, is the key driver of the new pattern as well:

Segregation has created a lack of economic mobility. I’d argue that Chicago is economically stratified to the extent that upward mobility for blacks here is particularly difficult. The CMAP [Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning] report noted that the unemployment rate for blacks in Chicagoland stubbornly stays at more than twice the region’s rate, and that more than 60 percent of blacks who left the region were without a local job when they did so. Networks are hard to penetrate. The power structure is rigid. There’s also a lack of residential mobility. Chicago and its suburbs are more open to people of color than ever before, but blacks here are acutely aware that people still attach stigmas to places we move to. This has the impact of stagnating or lowering property values and rents where blacks move in large numbers, often wiping whole chunks of the region from the minds of many. The south side and south and southwest burbs don’t even occur to many whites seeking affordable options.

The hallmark of Chicago (and rust-belt) segregation has been black avoidance. Since the Great Migration the practice has been to explicitly or implicitly contain blacks within certain areas. But as metro areas got bigger, transportation more of a challenge, and city living more desirable, new attention was given to long-forgotten places. Here in Chicago that started with former white ethnic areas (Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, etc). Within the last ten to 20 years that expanded to include largely Latino areas (Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen). But for the most part the pattern of black avoidance remains.

In places with stronger economies, like New York and Washington, D.C., there’s been more direct engagement—even conflict—between white newcomers and longtime black residents in many communities. Spike Lee famously ranted about gentrification arriving in black neighborhoods in Brooklyn five years ago, and the area surrounding D.C.’s historically black Howard University has witnessed significant change in the last decade. But the rust-belt pattern is one of indirect conflict. Places collapse, then new groups come in.

Read the story