This week, we’re sharing stories from Craig Whitlock, Keren Blankfield, Ash Sanders, C.J. Hauser, and Brian Kevin.
The Longreads Blog
In this week’s episode of the Longreads Podcast, The Rumpus Editor-in-Chief Marisa Siegel joins Essays Editor Sari Botton, Head of Audience Catherine Cusick, and Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath to share what they’ve all been reading and working on. They discuss poetry, looking beyond humans to understand human behavior, how our bodies other us and bring out our humanity, and the music we write to.
5:06 “This is small talk purgatory’: what Tinder taught me about love.” (CJ Hauser, December 7, 2019, The Guardian)
12:56 “Spines of the Finwomen.” (Lidia Yuknavitch, October 31, 2019, The Rumpus)
20:50 Aaron’s Music Corner, in which he unironically recommends writing to Chill Out Piano Night Jazz, while Sari does not recommend writing to the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic“
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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in arts and culture.
Jessica Lynne is a writer and art critic. She is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, an online journal of art criticism from Black perspectives.
For Magicians Who Die On Stage (jayy dodd., Gay Magazine)
Benjamin Moser and the Smallest Woman in the World (Magdalena Edwards, Los Angeles Review of Books)
As 2019 comes to a close, I would like to offer up two essays, disparate in conceit, but both worth the return.
First, there is jay dodd’s “For Magicians Who Die on Stage” published by GAY Mag. It is a beautiful meditation on the body, pain and fear, the specters of habit that might loom over our presence in the world, and the material reality of/for Black Trans Women. Using magic as structural metaphor, dodd moves us through her relationship to sobriety and the desires of self-imaging. Here is a line that stays with me: “I don’t believe I am attempting an illusion just by being alive and hurting and outside. Part of being able to be anywhere is crafting a self that feels desirable to me.” In truth though, it might be better to say that every line of this essay has stayed with me. dodd’s sentences are seared with undeniable beauty and clarity.
Secondly, I remain struck by Magdalena Edwards’ essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Benjamin Moser and the Smallest Woman in the World,” in which Edwards recounts her experience working with the writer, editor, and Clarice Lispector translator Moser. Edwards, also a Lispector translator, vulnerably details the terms of a book translation project that, begun in deep admiration of Moser, leads to a reckoning with the ethics (or lack thereof) that guide Moser’s engagement with the work of one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Most importantly, in mining the politics of translation, Edwards centers a necessary question that remains critical for my own relationship to lineages of writing and research: “Who gets thanked for their devotion?” Edwards asks. “Who gets credit for their work?”
Jillian Steinhauer is a journalist and editor whose writing appears in the New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, The Art Newspaper, and other publications. She’s a recipient of a 2019 Arts Writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital.
The Tear Gas Biennial (Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett, Artforum)
Within the world of writing, criticism gets short shrift. Sure, maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a critic, but I do believe it’s true, both financially and in terms of how our society assigns value. Despite the ongoing journalism layoffs and consolidation bloodbath, a lot of great arts and culture writing was published this year. I don’t know if these two pieces were the best — I find myself utterly unable to make such judgments — but both are excellent examples of criticism at its best. And both have stuck with me.
The first is technically an opinion piece, but it does the work of criticism by helping readers better see and understand something in the culture — in this case, the debate over how artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial should respond to protests against the Whitney Museum’s vice chairman Warren Kanders. The situation was pretty specific and probably lost on you if you don’t participate in the contemporary art world, but that doesn’t matter. In “The Tear Gas Biennial,” Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett break down the entanglement of art and politics with incredible clarity and moral force.
The same can be said of “Psycho Analysis,” Andrea Long Chu’s review of Bret Easton Ellis’s new book White. For better or worse, takedowns — let alone good ones — are hard to find these days. This piece reminds me why they’re so delicious when done right. Chu refuses to take Ellis’s bait and get angry. Instead, with equal parts rigor and wit, she entertainingly eviscerates his “deeply needless book.”
Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.
The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter (Sasha Bonét, Topic)
Few of the multitude of articles I read each year stick, and the ones that do tend to hail from magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian. It makes sense: Those are places that not only have the resources to nurture the best writers, but also to carve their work into its greatest form. Which is why I didn’t want to pick anything from those places. I realize that Topic magazine isn’t the biggest underdog of all, but it’s a start. And I had never heard of Sasha Bonét before I read The Artist Who Gave Up Her Daughter. But that’s a story that I remember. It’s a story I sent people. Even just seeing the short description in my Twitter feed — the black artist Camille Billops abandoned her 4-year-old child in the ’60s to pursue her art — I knew it was for me. I, as I’m sure a lot of women artists do, have a particular affinity for stories about women who choose their art first, when they are always expected to do the opposite.
Bonét traces how Billops becomes self actualized as an artist by shedding her past — what she had been taught about black womanhood and its attendant motherhood — including her own daughter. If she hadn’t given up her daughter, the artist says, “I would have died, and if I would have died, she would have died.” In contrast, the piece offers up Billops’ partner, a white man who not only contradicted societal norms of the time, but also provided her the emotional support for her art that she couldn’t provide her own child. Bonét illustrates how Billops, following the initial rejection of her own family, adopts a community of artists as her chosen relatives.
“Her memory collided with the new world she had carefully and meticulously molded,” she writes. The eventual fraught rapprochement of mother and daughter, itself becomes a confluence of emotion and creation. Bonét doesn’t shy away from Billops’ fundamental paradox, which is that she could only nurture that which she chose to create: “Christa had said that meeting her birth mother and her biological family saved her life, but some may argue that it led to her demise.” A devastating but beautiful piece of art about a devastating but beautiful artist.
Danielle A. Jackson
Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.
Forgotten: The Things We Lost in Kanye’s Gospel Year (Ashon Crawley, NPR Music)
For Black Women, Love Is a Dangerous Thing—“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway (Tari Ngangura, Catapult)
Like most people I know, I read a lot of articles and books and listened to a lot of music in 2019, for learning, for practice, for work. When it got to be too much, when work overwhelmed, or the world did, by way of the news or simply duty, I spent a fair amount of time reconnecting to pleasure. I needed to re-learn how to experience the art I love for the sake of sensation, for how it vibrated in my body, rearranged my cells, made me change. I never want to be too busy or too much in despair to remember that my work should be infused with pleasure, too, that what I place on the page, how I think and engage in the world must be infused with heart and feeling. These two pieces immediately struck me and stayed, guiding me through my attempts at staying connected.
First, Ashon Crawley’s examination of Kanye West’s Sunday services and their culmination, the very popular Jesus is King album, is a moving meditation on remembering, or rather, how, in the deluge of so much sensory input and so much hype, we forget precedents, echoes, entire people and eras. We lose the substance, Crawley insists, when we lose the memory. And so, we are so easily deluded, so easily bought. Crawley threads together stories of Zora Neale Hurston, who told us a century ago about the political underpinnings of Black American religious ritual, the author Hans Christian Andersen, and William Seymour, the founder of the American Pentecostal movement, to help us think through the sad, hollow spirit-lessness of Kanye’s endeavor into gospel. More importantly, Crawley proposes that failing to remember costs us in imagination and progress. In his words, “Gospel performance at its inception was the announcement of the practice of different worlds, the fact that alternatives are available, the sounding out of the here and now breaking with the normative and violent world. Sounds of otherwise possibility.”
Tari Ngangura’s Catapult piece “For Black Women, Love is a Dangerous Thing —“Bitter” Showed Me How to Do It Anyway” is a story and analysis of bassist and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello’s album Bitter, but also of Ngangura’s first encounter with it, and how the album allowed her to verbalize and move through the feelings and aftermath of an early romantic relationship. I love Ngangura’s insistence on hope through disappointment, her gentle pleas with herself to stay open. I love that a piece of art can help us do that.
Monica Castillo is a New York City-based film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, RogerEbert.com, Remezcla, The Wrap, Hyperallergic and elsewhere.
Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies? (Wesley Morris, New York Times)
Earlier this year, while many critics and moviegoers were scratching their heads over the outpouring of love for the uncomfortable interracial buddy movie from Peter Farrelly, Green Book, Wesley Morris made sense of the ordeal by examining the way certain feel-good movies about race like Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy tend to win awards over more challenging and honest works like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. The year Lee’s electric film broke out, it wasn’t even up for the Best Picture category at the Oscars. Instead, the award would eventually go to the much more saccharine movie in which Morgan Freeman played a happy-go-lucky driver hired for a racist client played by Jessica Tandy. Through his piece “Why Do the Oscars Keep Falling for Racial Reconciliation Fantasies” and a few episodes of his podcast with Jenna Wortham, “Still Processing,” Morris explores the various shortcomings of the form and why its persistence does more harm than good. For starters, these types of movies always prioritize the character arc of the white character who’s maybe a little bit racist but not explicitly so, and over the course of the film, they learn the error of their ways. Unfortunately, that journey comes at the expense of the Black character who must endure the white character’s racist nonsense as they play second fiddle to the white protagonist’s story. Morris finds a through-line in Driving Miss Daisy and to other movies before and after it like Green Book that offers an easy out for white audiences because they’re not as bad as the worst racist villains in the movie. It was the incisive reading I needed — and still need to some extent, as there are still people who want to relitigate my opinion — to back up my own misgivings on the movie. Green Book won the Oscar for Best Picture that night (and picked up a few extra awards as well), so Morris’ piece will likely continue to resonate for many more awards seasons to come.
Krista Stevens is a senior editor at Longreads.
Trigger (Michael Hall Texas Monthly)
More than anything, I love music and and I love writing that transcends time. For me, music is fifty percent art and fifty percent magic. During this most trying of years it’s been a salve I turn to (or perhaps tune in to?) every day to find solace as the planet collapses and the news cycle brings to mind Yeats’ center that cannot hold. Of all the pieces I’ve read this year as part of my curation work for Longreads, there’s one that particularly resonated with me as a keen student of guitar and bass. Back in the January 21st edition of Texas Monthly in 2013, Michael Hall wrote a lengthy ode to Trigger, Willy Nelsen’s faithful musical sidekick.
Wille’s been playing that same Martin N-20 classical for 50 years. In it, Hall chronicles Nelsen’s career through the battle scars literally etched into Trigger’s worn neck and battered body as well as the careful tending and regular repair the guitar has undergone in the span of five decades.
Reading the piece, my own small instrument family suddenly meant even more to me and it made me happier about the countless hours I’ve spent studying music. For is there anything more worthwhile than to make a bit of magic?
Keren Blankfeld‘s New York Times story about Holocaust survivors David Wisnia and Helen Spitzer being reunited in Manhattan before her recent death at 100 is so heartwarming, it’s easy to overlook a foreboding reality: Wisnia is one of scant few survivors remaining to tell their stories, at a time when we need them more than ever.
On her death bed, “Zippi,” as she was known, confessed that five times she’d used her position as a privileged inmate and a graphic designer at Auschwitz to keep Wisnia from being shipped to a worse camp. Now he’s telling his Holocaust story to keep the memory of it alive — and hopefully help keep history from repeating itself.
Now, about once a month, he gives speeches where he tells war stories, usually to students and sometimes at libraries or congregations.
“There are few people left who know the details,” he said.
In January, Mr. Wisnia plans to fly with his family to Auschwitz, where he has been invited to sing at the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. He expects to recognize only one fellow survivor there. The last big anniversary, five years ago, which he attended, included about 300 Holocaust survivors. The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany estimates that only 2,000 survivors of Auschwitz are alive today.
As the Holocaust fades from public memory and anti-Semitism is once again on the rise, Mr. Wisnia finds himself speaking about his past with more urgency. This is quite a turn for a man who spent most of his adult life trying not to look back. Mr. Wisnia’s oldest son learned only as a teenager that his father wasn’t born in America. (His father worked hard to lose his European accent.)
Megan Stielstra | Longreads | December 2019 | 22 minutes (5,562 words)
I spent last December taking care of my 70-year-old mother after surgery. She doesn’t like being taken care of. She takes care of herself. She lives happily alone in an impeccably decorated condo near Ann Arbor full of art and books and a fireplace that turns on with a remote control. She does Pilates every morning. She visits my 93-year-old grandmother every afternoon. She wears vegan “leather” and doesn’t eat dairy and goes to her doctors’ appointments and canvasses for the Democratic party and Facetimes her grandson in Chicago on Sundays so I can have a merciful extra hour of sleep. We have the same last name; sometimes her former students read my stuff and email through my website to ask if I am related to the Ms. Stielstra who taught fourth grade and totally changed their lives. I’m her daughter, I say. She’s wonderful, they say, and I say, I know.
“I need surgery,” she told me in September. We were on speakerphone, me stuck in traffic trying to get from the university where I teach to my son’s elementary school. In my head was every movie ever made of a child sitting sad and alone because their mother is late to pick them up. The word surgery hit like a baseball bat: I thought of the inoperable tumor in my best friend’s daughter’s brain, my father’s heart attack on a mountain in Alaska, my friend Randy’s emergency quadruple bypass, the cancers that took both my grandfathers, the hip replacement my grandmother had never recovered from, and the tumor they peeled years ago off my ovary. Please don’t let it spread, I thought.
“Not that kind of surgery,” my mother said, responding audibly to my inner monologue. We talk three or four times a week and she knows how I think. Or maybe it’s a mother-daughter thing, our bodies tied together across miles and molecules. Maybe she’s really a witch. “It’s foot surgery,” she said. “Again.”
Five years before she’d had a cyst removed from the bone in her foot and something hadn’t healed right. The pain was constant. She used a cane. She couldn’t drive long distances. She’d been to countless podiatrists, orthopedists, physical therapists. “Looks okay,” they said after X-Rays. “Try this exercise, this ice pack, this orthotic.” She bought special shoes. She bought a stationary bike. Nothing got better and no one could say why. “These things happen as we get older,” they told her, another way of saying It’s all in your head. “I know my body,” she told them, another way of saying Fuck that noise. Of course my elegant mother doesn’t use the word fuck. “Ladies can say shit, damn, and hell,” she always told me, reciting the sentence like it was gospel, like she’d read it in Emily Post. “But they can never say — ” She didn’t finish the sentence.
“Foot surgery is good, right?” I said into the speakerphone. My relief was near-tangible, a thing I could hold to my heart. “Maybe they’ll find out what’s wrong.”
“That’s the plan,” she said. “But I won’t be able to walk for a month and — ” She hates asking me for help. I have a kid and a job and she doesn’t want to bother me even though I tell her repeatedly that it’s the furthest thing from. Of course I’ll be there. This is how we take care of each other.
Early on monday morning/police arrest my brother/for working for the black community/monday afternoon/went to see my brother/police man treated me like a donkey/I say to police man you’ve got a bad attitude/oh no/I am no criminal/ I am a good black woman.
—Brenda Fassie – Good Black Women
Brazil is a country layered and complicated by realities, set up like a Matryoshka Doll. The moment you think you have unravelled and understood one particular kind of politicized social structure, another one is always deeply embedded under it. It’s a country built off government instituted eradication of blackness — not unlike Fidel Castro’s attempt in post-revolutionary Cuba, when he set about banning Afro-Cuban religions, Afro-Cuban social clubs, and blues music. Castro believed that such things were divisive, and stated that the only colour which mattered was the “Cuban Colour.” In Brazil, it was miscegenation that was always seen as the best possible way to deal with the “black problem,” and efforts to whiten the country over the decades have been widespread, intentional and historically violent. Recently, in the lead up to the most divisive election in recent memory, Hamilton Mourao, a candidate for Vice President, attributed the beauty of his grandson to branqueamento de raca — whitening of the race.
There is a widely circulated trope in the liberal West, which is that the mixing of races will undoubtedly lead to the end of structural anti-blackness and systemic racism. The hope is that when no one is darker than a brown paper bag, anti-blackness will effectively be rendered obsolete. Brazil is the living embodiment of that fallacy. An estimated 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil during the Transatlantic slave trade, accounting for 40% of the Africans who were shipped to the Americas. Dismally little is known about the experiences of Afro-Brazilians whose lives are daily overshadowed by the historical legacy of slavery and racism. This void is exacerbated by a vehement government refusal to acknowledge Brazil’s slave history and the generational ramifications it has had for its black citizens. It is against this background, that black womanhood has had to fight, survive, and thrive.
In a country where officially 56% of the population is recognized as Black/Brown, in the state of Bahia, and specifically, its capital city of Salvador, black and brown people make up over 90% of the population. One of the most pulsing points in Salvador is the historical city of Pelourinho, made up of cobblestones, Portuguese colonial architecture and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Built by enslaved Africans over the dead bodies of their kin — many of whom were buried where they fell — the name Pelourinho means whipping post; a telling but obscured reminder of the city’s dark history. It’s a city of angels and demons with every corner marked by a church. Down the cobblestoned hills, and tucked away in a three-storey house, lodged between the House of Cinema and a clothing store, is the home base of the first black female percussion group in Brazil. Known as Banda DiDa (DiDa Band), for twenty-five years this band has been teaching young black women how to drum. In the process, Banda DiDa has slowly set about challenging the constricting gender and racial norms that exist in Brazil’s deeply Evangelical and machista culture.
I was first introduced to DiDa in November of 2017, during Salvador’s annual Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo (March for the Empowerment of Kinky Hair), where they sang songs by popular Afro-Brazilian female artists along with their own compositions, and dazzled the crowds with their playfully bright outfits, engaging smiles and undeniably badass drumming skills. At different times throughout their routine, one or two of the girls would raise the drum (surdo) above their heads and while its elevated, continue dancing and at times spin in circles. Swaying side to side, they thrilled spectators with not only their drumming skills, but the tricks they did with their drum batons, all while in motion. It was electrifying. Here were young black women making music on the very instruments their ancestors had used to spread messages, announce the birth of a child, the death of an elder, the encroachment of an enemy, imploring for rain or celebrating a wedding. As a musical instrument, the drum calls for a total and complete abandonment of the body, integrating into the beats, and realizing that one does not perform on this instrument, but collaborates with it; carving gestures and telling stories which are intimately close to the subject.
Banda DiDa was founded in 1993 by Neguinho de Samba — who is largely regarded as the Father of Samba-Reggae — along side Viviam Caroline de Jesus Queiros, Adriana Pereira Portela and Neguinho’s daughter Deborah de Souza. He is also the founder of Olodum, which you might know as the drumming group in Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us music video. DiDa was a response to the glaring exclusion of black women within the percussion community. Neguinho de Samba realized that as much as young black men needed a space to participate in the cultural traditions which are theirs by birth, black women too deserved to have their own stage. Neguinho passed away almost a decade ago, leaving Queiros, Portela and Souza with the mission of teaching percussion to young black women and children. Queiros and Portela are now instructors at DiDa, and Souza runs the administrative side of the organization. In the twenty-five years since its creation, over 2000 young women have passed through DiDa, forging not only life-long friendships, but an inextricable link with their African heritage.
Laila Castro’s afro frames her face like a halo dipped in cotton candy. She dyed it pink after seeing a picture of another black girl on Tumblr rocking the same style decked with flower crowns at the alternative music festival, Afropunk Johannesburg. “E legal ne?” “Yeah it’s really cool,” I responded to her rhetorical question, as she fluffed her hair, making sure it has maximum volume. The day we met, she had travelled from her home in the neighbourhood of Cabula, which has a population of about 24,000 people. Located an hour away from Pelourinho, her commute can easily turn into two hours when the buses are running behind schedule. “The buses here have no schedule,” she says. “They come when they come and when they don’t, they don’t.” It’s a long journey, and one she takes twice a week to make it to the band’s practices. We were sitting by the Pelourinho square, overlooking Igreja dos Rosario dos Pretos (Church Of The Rosary Of The Blacks); one of the oldest churches in the city built for African slaves by African slaves.
Castro has been a part of the group for over four years, starting when she was eighteen after seeing a video of DiDa performing online. She’s now twenty-two. “It sounds unbelievable, but I had never heard about DiDa, even though I live in the same city they are in. I knew about Olodum, but I didn’t know there was also one for women, so when I saw them I was so surprised and very, very excited.” When Castro first came to DiDa, she didn’t think she would be allowed to stay because she did not have any prior training in percussion. “I thought they would tell me to come back when I knew a bit more or tell me to take classes, which I could not afford, ” she says, wringing her hands together as if reliving the fear of possibly being denied admission into something she passionately wanted to be a part of. “But my first day, they gave me a drum and told me to sit in a class with about five other girls, and that is how I learned. They made it so easy for me. For all of us.”
Queiros, the longest serving band member of DiDa, who also happens to lead the band’s culture classes, was sixteen when she started with the group at the very beginning of its formation. Eighteen years later, she remains fiercely dedicated to making sure that all the girls who want to learn percussion have the opportunity to do so. “All of our classes at DiDa are free. A few years ago, when we were more financially stable, we had classes every day,” she said. “We would also offer the girls transportation back to their homes. But now we can’t do that and we only have classes Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Along with being a member and Professor at DiDa, Queiros is also working on her PhD in Samba-Reggae ethnomusicology.
Most of the young women in DiDa come from similar backgrounds as Castro, with accessibility always hindered by their proximity to poverty, their gender and their race. “In Brazil, a lot of people do not expect black girls to be anything. They want us to disappear, which is why you don’t see us anywhere,” Castro told me, with frustration in her voice. “When you grow up seeing this empty space, you start to believe it’s because we do not deserve anything good. That this is our fault. But being in DiDa showed me that I could do great things and be a part of something that was important and beautiful.” When Castro plays, she becomes someone else, by her own admission and that of the people who have had the opportunity to watch her. “It’s like she becomes one with her drum,” says Queiros. “She becomes this person who is experiencing almost like a trance. And it is a powerful thing to see.” In a world where black women’s bodies and voices are censored to the point of gross ridicule, it’s a particular kind of freedom that comes from knowing that in certain spaces, you can move as you please, exist as you please, react as you please, and your black life will still have value.
In Brazil, drums are present in every facet of Afro-Brazilian culture. In the religious ceremonies of Candomblé, they are used during chants and prayers. In Samba-Reggae, they are the fulcrum on which hangs the soul of the rhythm. And during Capoeira matches, the drums signal the changing pace of a game; marking the rapid fire urgency, the slow steady moves, and the swift kicks. Drums are arguably the definitive African instrument as they are visible in nearly every African country, and in countries inhabited by any number of African descendants. As with all things which hold cultural relevance for people of African descent, when seen through a white lens in Western media, the drum has been distorted and manipulated to suit racial clichés. The bastardized sounds of the drum are the background echo you hear in the imperialist, white saviour trope portrayed in Tarzan, or in mind-numbingly racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters. When stripped of their cultural significance and reduced to simply being an exotic addition to a lacklustre production, the drum ceases to be a symbol of resistance. It becomes merely an entertainment object, appropriated by the white masses and force-fed back to its original owners as bland amusement. You will sooner hear Ringo Starr labelled a drum master, than a young black girl from a Brazilian town who travels 120 minutes twice a week to learn something intrinsic to her cultural survival.
A few weeks after my first meeting with Castro, a torrential rain fell hard on the early morning of September 7th. This just happened to be Brazil’s Independence Day. Almost two centuries before, the country had declared itself independent from Portugal, and as the people in Salvador gathered to celebrate, a seemingly ceaseless amount of rain continued to fall. The day before, ultra right-wing Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro had been stabbed in the abdomen during a campaign rally and rushed to the hospital with what had been described as near-fatal injuries. The election was set for October, and Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed ‘The Trump of The Tropics,’ by North American media, was commanding the polls with a political rhetoric that would fit well in the congress that makes up Trump’s governing elite. And yet Bolsonaro represented a particular kind of ultra right-wing sect whose beliefs are deeply rooted in Brazil’s slave legacy, its 1964-85 military dictatorship, and a growing base of radicalized evangelicals. The latter view queerness, reproductive rights and Afro-Brazilian religions as social aberrations. If this former military paratrooper were to emerge victorious in the presidential election, his policies would adversely affect the lives of women like those I met in Banda DiDa.
Three days before the election, I headed over to the DiDa headquarters to sit in on one of their late-night classes. About twenty young women were waiting in the narrow, brightly-lit entryway, painted a palm tree green and whose walls were etched with drawings of the DiDa girls drumming. The hallway turns into a staircase on the left side which leads you to the second floor that acts as a theatre space, drumming space and culture lesson space every Thursday. From 7 until 9:30 pm, classes are run, and it’s mandatory for the girls to attend all of them. Tuesday’s lessons are solely percussion based and take place on the streets of Pelourinho with a live audience. Theatre starts first and as the class progressed, the sounds of elevated voices practicing lines and improvisation could be heard from behind the closed door. And yet it wasn’t until the drum class which followed soon after, that the energy became palpable and active. Professora Portela was leading the class and her head, with her trademark black and red jumbo twists, was moving steadily to the beats of the drums. As the first female leader of a bloco-afro (African block) in the city of Salvador, Portela carries herself with the pride of someone who’s proven so many wrong, and also bears the weighted expectations of not only those who want her to fail, but those who desperately want to emulate her.
For Portela, being a black woman in Brazil has been a lesson in survival that at times feels futile. “It’s not easy, and there are some days — no many times really — where it feels like the work I’ve done and the dreams I have will never amount to anything. Because I’m black in Brazil, that means being at the bottom all the time.” In Brazil, to exist as a black female percussion player is to court derision while claiming the space that is rightfully yours. Twice a week, Professora Portela equips young black girls to maintain the legacy for which she continues to carve out a space — not only for herself, but for those she is bringing along with her. As of right now, there are eighty-five members in DiDa and this includes the young children who make up the junior classes. The children peek into the senior class every few minutes in clear anticipation of the time when they too will be able to join the ranks of the seasoned performers.
After the drum lesson, Queiros comes in to lead the last and final lesson — aula de cultura — ‘culture class’ that looks at the Brazilian landscape, its social structures and how they relate to the women congregated in the room. The feared but much anticipated election is only seventy-two hours away, and so much of the class centers around the moments in history that led Brazil to this particular point of existing on the brink of electing someone so enraged by the idea of fairness, equity and basic respect. “This is a dangerous and very important time in Brazil,” said Queiros as she sat in front of the girls who were staring at her intently while sitting in a semi-circle. She tied her honey-coloured locs behind her head and then adjusted her rings as she continued speaking. “A lot of people in Brazil don’t know the laws and they don’t know the constitution. Black people especially, look at politics and think it is not for people who look like them, and that it’s only for rich, elite white men.” Salvador has elected only one black mayor in its entire history, and the state of Bahia has never had a black governor. Brazil is yet to have a black President and just early this year, Marielle Franco, a black queer woman and city councillor, was murdered in Rio de Janeiro. To be black means being political even when unwilling — and in Brazil, active political participation for Afro-Brazilians is filled with countless landmines; least of these being visibility.
As Queiros talked to the young women around her about what was at stake in the next few days, they asked questions and also offered their own analyses on the state of their country. “Whenever I go online, especially on Twitter, I am amazed at how popular Bolsonaro is. He is always trending; 35000 tweets or 45000 sometimes,” said Castro, looking around the class to share her disbelief. “Gente que loucura. This is crazy.” Queiros nodded her head in agreement, while the girls talked amongst themselves sharing stories about the Presidential candidate and the possibility of his victory.
The country has been down this difficult road before, but all the women in the room, myself included, were not yet born or saw the final years of that rule. The Brazilian military dictatorship lasted from 1964 until 1985 and it was two decades of torture, political instability, corruption and mass fear of the state. Looking at Brazil in 2018, certain parts of the nation will be fearful of what a Brazil led by a former military man will look like. A man who has publicly shared his support for Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most feared and infamous torturers during Brazil’s military rule who died in 2015.
“For me personally, Bolsonaro is the only one who has actually talked about security. I would feel so much better with a gun as a woman because all the gangs have guns. I want to feel safe,” said Vanesca Louana, a 25-year-old from the Santa Monica bairro. One of Bolsonaro’s most popular platforms is a campaign against those deemed “criminal” or “suspicious,” particularly those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. He has also promised policemen the liberty to use violence as they please, making it seemingly inevitable that civilian involved police shootings will continue to rise. In 2016, police killed an estimated 4224 people in Brazil. A staggering number when you consider that the US, which has a population that is 35% larger than Brazil had an estimated 1134 people killed by police in 2015. The majority of these deaths in Brazil are young black men. And just late last year, Brazil’s congress passed a bill that would make it impossible for members of law enforcement accused of unlawfully killing civilians to face prosecution in civilian courts. Louana’s sentiments are similar to those shared by black people voting for Bolsonaro who have applauded his law and order stand, while discarding his anti-black discourse, whether its explicit or covert. Early this year in reference to the black descendants of warrior African slaves (quilombolas) Bolsonaro said, “They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.”
A few days after the class, on the seventh of October, Brazilians headed to the polls for the first round of the election. In Brazil, elections happen in two parts unless a candidate is able to receive over 50% of the vote in the first round. The final tally gave Bolsonaro 46.3% of the votes, with the second place progressive candidate Fernando Haddad almost twenty percent behind. Although Bolsonaro lost in Bahia, he took most of the Northern States. It seemed Brazil had made its decision, which would be finalized in the second round set for October 28. There were no classes the Thursday following the election. Friday was a public holiday and so the professoras decided to give everyone an extended weekend. The election result had also taken an emotional toll, so the empty class at DiDa felt less like a long weekend and more like a deep breath before jumping into the eye of the storm.
Professora Adriana Pereira Portela was once a Mulher de Olodum (Woman of Olodum). During Salvador’s carnival, Olodum, a Bloco-Afro (African Block) used to choose one black girl to dance during their performances. In 1992, she was the chosen one. “It was a big honour and it was so much fun. I had the chance to dance for millions of people during carnival. But what I really wanted to do was drum,” she tells me while we sat inside DiDa headquarters a week after the election. “I saw those drums and I fell in love. But the instructors did not want to teach women. I begged and begged and I would ask every single class, until one day Neguinho [de samba] pulled me aside and told me we would start a percussion group for women. I was so happy!” Her joy is evident, and twenty-five years later her eyes still sparkle when she talks about drumming. “Before DiDa, everyone was used to seeing only men drumming, and they would drum with force and power. Neguinho wanted us to do the same thing, but I wanted us to do something different, and so one day he let me lead the class.” Portela then got up and proceeded to show me how exactly she created the rhythmic blueprint DiDa has become renowned for. “I wanted us to dance as women. To show our sensuality and our African expression.”
Rock and roll, like drumming, was granted sensuality when black women chose to reclaim their own sexuality by harnessing the genre as a vehicle to sexual liberation. Thornton, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson are black women who subverted the anti-black notions of over-sexed black female bodies, and instead amplified their autonomy to celebrate not only their inventive musical genius, but their radical body positivity. Portela’s desire to reclaim black sensuality was likely not linked to a desire to imitate these African-American performers, and yet these women shared the same notion of wanting to frame black womanhood not as a cautionary tale, but as a glorious expression of beauty, life and defiance. Most percussion groups in Brazil have separate sections made up of those who drum and those who dance. In DiDa, everything is done at the same time by the same people. “We dance while we drum, and we drum while we dance,” said Portela. When you see DiDa, live or online, you will be drawn to their movements — and the effortlessness of their synchronized choreography is belied by the fact that they spend hours practicing; at home, at school, in the street and at the DiDa headquarters. “This is how we practice our militancy,” says Portela. “By being a part of movements that change the conversation on what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman in Brazil.”
On the 28th of October, exactly three weeks after the first election round, Brazilians headed back to the polls to make the final decision that would determine which candidate would lead the country for the next four years. After Bolsonaro’s first round victory, many had already resigned themselves to his eventual victory, yet there was a clear surge in the days leading up to the election that saw widespread mobilization by mostly women in Salvador, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with simultaneous waves also happening online through Twitter and Whatsapp. The latter social network had largely been used by Bolsonaro’s campaign to spread “fake news” regarding his opponents. It proved to be an incredibly powerful and effective tool in a country where nearly 67% of the 200 million population uses Whatsapp as their primary source of communication. By 6 pm Sunday night, the election count was done and Jair Bolsonaro had defeated Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro received 55.1% of the votes and Haddad came in at 44.9%. This was closer than the first round — a testament to the last minute campaign rush — but it was not enough to deter Bolsonaro’s appeal to over half the voting population. The women of DiDa would now be living in a Brazil whose leadership and goals would largely undermine their ways of living. Everything had changed, but one thing still remained constant; drumming was, and is, the avenue they would continue to use to punctuate their deep pride and love in their black existence and affirm their African heritage.
Living in Salvador, I’ve found myself privy to the fact that there is something about this city and the ways blackness has fought and survived here that has led to compelling musical innovations. Globally, for black communities, music has always presented itself as an avenue of limitless expression. From the pan-Africanist radicalism of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti and the South African songstress Brenda Fassie, to the lyricism of Bob Marley and the caustic wit of Mighty Sparrow. The singular ingenuity of Aretha Franklin, the raw appeal of Poly Styrene and the carefree joy of Scary Spice. Music and blackness have lead to stunning collaborations resulting in genres such as jazz, hip hop, rock, samba-reggae and afrobeat. Music, blackness and the specificity of the Afro-Brazilian experience in Salvador has meant that an unprecedented number of Brazil’s greatest musicians have come from the city that is home to DiDa. The likes of Virginia Rodrigues, Margareth Menezes, Tiganá Santana, Gilberto Gil, Luedji Luna, Lazzo Matumbi, and Carlinhos Brown all call Salvador home. Banda DiDa runs along the same musical lineage as these artists, and so it was preordained that their groundbreaking artistry would lean so heavily on their African heritage and outsider experience as people whose skin colour forces them to live on the margins of Brazilian society.
Inside DiDa’s building there hangs a poster of Neguinho de Samba in the hallway, with his trademark sailor cap over his braids. Below is written, “Arma a banda, a batalha ja vai comecar” — “Arm the band, the battle has already begun.” This was something he would say before a show, and it could be read as a more eloquent way of saying “break a leg.” Yet in the context of Salvador and blackness on a global scale, the messaging is clear; for black people, culture is armour, the band is our community, and the fight is one which has been ongoing for centuries.
The women of DiDa are one link in a long chain of cultural resistance, and to see them drum in front of millions of people during carnival is to see resistance in motion. Beautiful, glorious, black motion.
Tari Ngangura is a journalist and photographer based in Brazil. She documents black lives around the globe, their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE, Catapult, The Fader, and Rookie Mag.
This story originally appeared in Issue 3 of Gusher, a print rock music magazine written and created entirely by women and non-binary people, and focused on longform music journalism and criticism. Gusher is based in Sydney, Australia.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in science and nature.
Deborah Blum is the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undark magazine.
‘We Have Fire Everywhere’ (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine)
Our Secret Delta (Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, The Post and Courier)
One of the most interesting trends in climate change reporting is the way writers now quietly and deftly weave its effects into the background of natural disaster stories, from the rapid intensification of hurricanes in the Atlantic to the increasingly explosive wildfires in the west. I’d like to pay tribute to two outstanding examples of this in the past year.
One is environmental writer Jon Mooallem’s stunning narrative portrait of last year’s devastating Camp Fire in northern California, which killed at least 85 people, burned through nearly 240 square miles, and destroyed almost 20,000 buildings including almost all of the small, wooded town of Paradise. Mooallem’s story “We Have Fire Everywhere” is a vivid, terrifying, edge-of-your seat reconstruction of desperate attempts to escape a literal inferno. It moves so beautifully and is so well-paced that you almost don’t realize that he’s also slipping in a lot of very smart fire science, exploring the ways in which climate change is making wildfires exponentially more dangerous. Describing one harrowing moment in a line of burning cars, he writes, “Fisher wasn’t just trapped in a car; she was trapped in the 21st century.”
The other is “Our Secret Delta,” a haunting exploration of South Carolina’s threatened Santee River delta, published this September in the Charleston paper, The Post and Courier. It’s a real pleasure in these days when we worry so much about the fate of local journalism to see this paper shine in so many important ways. This project, led by Tony Bartelme and Glenn Smith, is visually gorgeous and told with the grace of an old-time Southern story, allowing the delta, its history and culture, its fragile waters, to gradually unspool like the winding path of a river itself. The writers create a memorable portrait of an old and essential ecosystem under new threats. Perhaps the most ominous threat is the rise of coastal waters as they reshape the state, yet another reminder that climate change stalks our present as well as our future.
Climate Signs (Emily Raboteau, The New York Review of Books)
When Emily Raboteau’s son becomes obsessed with extreme weather events after a family outing to the “Nature’s Fury” exhibition at the natural history museum in New York, she wonders how much she should shield her five-year-old from conversations around climate change. It is a query she carries with her as she embarks on a city-wide pilgrimage to visit each installation of a public art project called “Climate Signals” wherein the artist hijacks highway traffic signs, rewriting their commonplace warnings with uncanny proclamations of new hazards ahead. In Saint Nicolas Park in Harlem, the sign reads: CLIMATE CHANGE AT WORK. At Hudson River Yards, the yellow lettering spells out an even more dire threat: CLIMATE DENIAL KILLS. In this expertly rendered essay –– gracefully weaving between the personal and critical, the scientific and political –– Raboteau attempts to make sense of what it means to raise a child in a world that is coming apart. It is a question many have but that is all too often addressed in reductive, late capitalist logic in which our human hearts are not taken into consideration.
Emily Raboteau is a professor of creative writing at the City College of New York, and the author of several nontraditional longform essays, including a year-long Twitter thread on climate change, @emilyraboteau.
After the Storm (Mary Annaïse Heglar, Guernica)
Mary Annaïse Heglar’s “After the Storm” stood out to me as a knockout personal essay on climate this year. Heglar is building a body of important work marrying climate awareness with social, environmental, and racial justice. In this piece, which ran in Guernica in October, she frames her harrowing experience of Hurricane Katrina, along with her family in the Mississippi River region, as the lens through which she now sees the climate movement as an activist and director of publications at the National Resources Defense Council. She weaves together the overtly racist news coverage of that storm, the fact that it made landfall the day after the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder, and the inequitable suffering of New Orleans’ Black population to illuminate the layers of historical injustice magnified by the climate crisis, “covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy. It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically ‘left out,’ but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers.” This should be required reading for those interested in how equity and equality are pivotal to successful climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Mary Annaïse Heglar
Mary Annaïse Heglar is a climate justice writer and communications professional based in New York City.
The End Times Are Here, and I Am at Target (Hayes Brown, The Outline)
Perhaps the most perplexing paradox of climate change is its ability to be both overwhelmingly terrifying and mind-numbingly ordinary. Especially in the past few years, as denial has become less of a viable option and even delusion has slipped from our fingers, the climate crisis with its alarming headlines and horror stories has become… normal. The steady drumbeat to the banality of our lives. Hayes Brown manages to capture that drumbeat in this masterful essay, isolating its sound out of the symphony with surgical precision. As he runs regular errands in a regular Target on a regular, if unusually hot, summer day in Brooklyn, the climate crisis reverberates in the back of his mind, filtering into every choice of every item, if he allows himself to think of it. As someone who exists as a bonafide “climate person,” I love the fresh eye that Hayes brings to the subject. He gives voice to the haunting bewilderment, the guilt of surrender, and the uncertainty that lies within the cracks of the certainty. His essay reminds us of the dullness of our collective heartbreak as we stare into our manmade abyss.
Mikael Awake‘s work has appeared in GQ, Bookforum, ArtNews, The Common, and most recently McSweeney’s 58: 2040 A.D. He teaches at Lafayette College.
Indigenous Knowledge Has Been Warning Us About Climate Change for Centuries (Malcolm Harris, Pacific Standard)
This piece by Malcolm Harris has stuck with me for a few reasons. It came out in Pacific Standard, which was an important outlet for environmental writing before it was shut down this past August. (How the crisis in media has interacted with the climate crisis is a subject for another day.) The essay is an elegant synthesis of entomology, economics, and colonial history that places indigenous knowledge at the foundation of the climate conversation — not as ornament, but as central anti-capitalist critique, as timeless technology. Such a piece could inspire the allotment of more time and money — in academic, political, media, and cultural spaces — for deeper dives into indigenous environmentalism and systems of knowledge. It made me dream of a 1619 Project-style series devoted to un-suppressing those narratives, and made me think about Standing Rock and Mauna Kea and how the violent suppression of indigenous activism works hand-on-musket with the suppression of indigenous thought. Harris is a sharp and funny writer, which is why this story seemed something of a departure in approach and tone, and I appreciated it. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who posits the crucial idea that what we call climate change is not a new challenge, but one as old as the New World, “part of a much longer series of ecological catastrophes caused by colonialism and accumulation-based society.” The piece resonated with my feeling that imagination is a function of collective human memory, or as Harris says, paraphrasing sociologist Nikitah Okembe-RA Imani, “[t]hose who study what has been suppressed can see the future.”
We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in crime reporting.
ProPublica senior reporter and New York Times Magazine staff writer.
Show of Force (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker)
Every Rachel Aviv story is a marvel, and “Show of Force” — which looks at the intersection of domestic violence and law enforcement — is no exception. In language that is both spare and foreboding, Aviv builds detail upon detail as she sketches the contours of a troubled new marriage in Spalding County, Georgia. She notes that Jessica and Matthew Boynton, the protagonists of her story, left their wedding reception “after less than an hour” and that “Matthew wore a titanium wedding ring with a blue stripe, to signify that he was in law enforcement.” As these small but revelatory details accumulate, so, too, does a growing sense of dread. Aviv illuminates the real human cost behind the chilling statistics that suggest law enforcement officers are more likely to abuse their spouses, making it clear that Jessica, despite being in grave harm, has nowhere to turn. By the time I reached the story’s denouement, my heart was in my throat.
Editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project. Chira worked for The New York Times for nearly 40 years as a reporter and editor, and shared the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment.
The King of Dreams (Christie Thompson, The Marshall Project)
This grippingly-written and deeply-reported story exposed the scams of a Texas con artist who made millions promising prisoners’ families their most cherished dream: bringing their children home. Thompson, a staff reporter for The Marshall Project, describes how this conman falsely promised them he could obtain reduced sentences and led them on to exhaust their life savings, in many cases. It’s a window into the desperation and vulnerability of the millions of Americans who love someone who is incarcerated.
Taken: How police departments make millions by seizing property (Anna Lee, Nathaniel Cary, and Mike Ellis, The Greenville News)
One of the great truisms about criminal justice is that it’s local. At a time when local journalism is increasingly endangered — along with the prospect of accountability for local wrongs — here’s an example of a compellingly reported and written investigation by the intrepid staff of this Greenville, S.C., newspaper. They examined statewide civil asset forfeitures over three years and found that not only did the state seize more than $17 million in property, but also that black men were disproportionately the targets.
Investigative immigration reporter at Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting
Bound by Statute (Ko Bragg and Melissa Lewis, Reveal)
When reporter Ko Bragg spotted a story about a 13-year-old who was being tried as an adult in Mississippi, she wondered if there were others like him. Her investigation, meticulously examined with data reporter Melissa Lewis, uncovered that nearly 5,000 children were charged as adults in the state in the last 25 years. They found that racial discrepancies abound: three in every four of the children are black; sentences for black minors tried as adults average twice as long as sentences for white minors charged as adults; and even when white kids are handed longer sentences, they’re released much sooner than black kids.
Bragg’s elegant writing follows the devastating story of a child named Isaiah who spent nine months in pretrial detention — sometimes in solitary confinement, other times with adults — before being dragged into court shackled at the waist and ankles. Photographer Imani Khayyam captures intimate moments between a son and mother who illustrate the toll that the state’s laws have taken on their family. But perhaps most compelling is the way the work seemlessly reaches into history to find the origins of this inequity in chattle slavery. The writing explains how the practice of robbing black children of their childhood was upheld through Reconstruction, then made a feature of white mob violence, and finally codified into law — the same law that prosecutors and judges say bind them to perpetuate the inequity today.
False Witness (Pamela Colloff, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine)
Pam Colloff’s story on jailhouse informants is one of the best stories I’ve read this year. It’s a topic that sounds like it could get technical — Pam’s reporting drew on thousands of pages of public records, covering half a century of criminal cases in Texas and Florida — but in true Pam fashion, this piece is completely and totally fascinating. It’s also enraging. The main character is a real piece of work, manipulative and charming and unrepentant. The ways in which he’s charmed women, cops, and juries, destroying peoples lives in the process, must be read to be believed. Incredible reporting, remarkable storytelling. I remain in awe.
Sign up to get email updates from Pamela Colloff about her investigation into jailhouse informants and how she reported the story.
Author of The Real Lolita and editor of crime anthologies, including the forthcoming Unspeakable Acts: True Tales of Crime, Murder, Deceit, and Obsessions
The Minnesota Murderess (Christine Seifert, The Atavist)
Seifert’s historical yarn starts out as a true crime tale but looks more broadly at the ways in which media has always incited panic about women exercising any form of independence in their lives.
He Cyberstalked Teen Girls For Years — Then They Fought Back (Stephanie Clifford, WIRED)
How judicial conflicts of interest are denying poor Texans their right to an effective lawyer / How the Unchecked Power of Judges Is Hurting Poor Texans (Neena Satija, Texas Tribune and Texas Monthly)
In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required, under the Sixth Amendment, to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who are unable to afford their own counsel. How states should pay for this defense, crucially, is left up to the states. For Texas Monthly and the Texas Tribune, Neena Satija exposes the undeniable structural flaws that prohibit funding indigent defense properly in Texas. Satija has done readers an incredible service by recreating the bewilderment of encountering these judicial paywalls from both sides of the bench, bringing much needed humanity to straightening out so many convoluted conflicts of interest.
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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2019 | 12 minutes (2,912 words)
I wouldn’t call Canada racist. I’m not being nice when I say that, I’m being polite. Canadians are like that. That kind of polite where you hear a racial slur and pretend it didn’t happen. Or you see some bro get too close to a woman and you walk right by because it’s not your affair. This is not a confrontational country. I remember one recent Toronto subway ride where a white workman fresh off some job site, boots muddy, reflector bib on, interrupted two men — one brown, one white — who were about to brawl. You could feel the entire car getting progressively more tense as their voices escalated. But the workman got between them. “Come on guys, we’re all tired. Chill,” he said. And they did. And when it was my turn to get off, I thanked him. “It’s just what you do,” he said. I assume he was from out of town.
With all the free health care, the gun control, the less-extreme wealth disparity, Canadians can convince themselves that they’re superior to Americans. But none of that makes them any less racist, it just makes the racism easier to overlook; with a country that does so many things right, how can they be wrong? Our media is a microcosm of this denial, a lesson in what happens when your industry contracts to a handful of major newspapers and magazines, one major national broadcasting corporation, a smattering of websites, and one watchdog — and is only getting smaller. More than one fifth of Canada’s population is made up of people of color, but the popular press acknowledges that about as much as it acknowledges that the industry itself is overpoweringly white. The result is a media landscape that is overwhelmingly conservative — politically, and in every other way — and overwhelmingly lacking in perspective about it.
Outside of broadcasting, our newsrooms are supposed to self-regulate and yet there are no — zero — updated reports on their demographics. But a new study published by The Conversation last month analyzed two decades of the country’s three biggest newspapers, looking specifically at news and politics op-ed pages where journalists’ identities are clear. “Over the 21 years, as the proportion of white people in Canada’s population declined, the representation of white columnists increased,” Asmaa Malik and Sonya Fatah reported. Since 2016, whites have been overrepresented by 11 percent in these newsrooms. As Maclean’s Andray Domise, long one of the few black columnists in the country, writes, “Too many of my white colleagues in journalism still seem to believe their profession and the assumed stance of objectivity places them at a distance from white supremacy.” That these journalists can’t see their own means they can’t see anyone else’s. This is why I don’t work in Canadian media. It doesn’t really see me or anyone else who isn’t white.
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I was genuinely shocked to get this job. I had written one story for Longreads — fittingly, a reported feature about Justin Bieber’s vacillation between Canada and America — and a few months later, the site’s editor called me from New York and offered me a weekly column. For most of the phone call I was confused. I think I literally said, “So this is an actual job?” I didn’t understand how this could happen. Thirteen years into a journalism career and I had never once been handed anything. Not even one story. I was inured to 13 more years of proving myself over and over and over again, even with the same editors at the same publications. And yet this guy had decided, after I had only written once for his site, that I deserved an actual job. That would NEVER happen to me in Canada. It HAS never happened to me in Canada.
In a now 14-year media career, I’ve landed 14 job interviews in Canada (that I can remember) and only once secured a position. I was repeatedly told not to take it personally, but from my first internship on, it’s been Sisyphean. I was recently told by an old journalism professor, unprompted, that I was one of my graduating year’s most promising, but the industry kept insinuating the opposite. I just assumed the white guys in my class, and a good number of the white girls, were getting jobs because they were exponentially better than me. I wrote for white editor after white editor, met with white exec after white exec, and nothing seemed to stick. Not too long ago, a friend of mine at the CBC — an older white guy — helped me get a job interview, which went well … until it veered into the details of my Pakistani history. Another (white) editor asked me to coffee, invited me to pitch, and never took anything I did, while their (white) spouse continued to appear prominently in their pages. Yet another group of editors, all white, declined to give me a job (which went to a white journalist), then offered me a short series of articles — about race, obviously — one of which they mismanaged so badly that we never worked together again. One major newspaper commissioned so many features from me in a row that I asked my editor to be made a permanent employee; they tried to lower my rate instead. As the years passed, I watched white woman after white woman, younger, less experienced, get staff job after staff job and thought: Oh, shit, do I just suck?
Canadian media is designed so that journalists of color give up. In 2017, black columnist Desmond Cole loudly resigned from The Toronto Star, having had his space reduced and his activism questioned. “My contributions to the Star are in sharp contrast with the lack of tenure, exposure, support, and compensation I have received in return,” he wrote on his blog. (Cole’s first book, The Skin We’re In, is out next year). Also in 2017, freelance journalist Septembre Anderson revealed she had given up journalism and was turning to web development after hitting her head against a walled-off industry for seven years. “Racialized voices just aren’t being heard,” she wrote in Torontoist. “They aren’t making decisions nor are they carrying them out.” In 2018, The Globe and Mail reporter Sunny Dhillon also resigned, despite having nothing else lined up. “I have worked as a journalist in this country for the last decade and with the solutions as obvious as they are unacted upon — hire more people of color, hear their voices, elevate them to positions of power or prominence — I cannot say I am particularly optimistic,” he wrote on Medium. Shriveling newsrooms usually shed their newest, usually more-marginalized staffers first, but a 2017 Public Policy Forum report on Canadian media questioned “exactly how many jobs have been lost in journalism — and how much frustrated talent has fled.”
I’m still in journalism not because of Canadian media but in spite of it. It was the editors outside of the country who hired me for their newsrooms: as a film and art editor at Time Out Dubai, as an entertainment editor at The New York Daily News. In Canada, it was the women who threw me a bone, mostly freelance assignments (though one woman actually hired me as an editor for AOL Canada). To fill in the blanks — too many to count — there was my mother. Because as much as this is about media with a dearth of opportunities for nonwhite journalists, it is about which journalists have the financial support to keep going anyway. Early last month, an Excel sheet circulated in which a number of American journalists anonymously revealed their salaries. Most of the journalists were white, and many of them reported wages too meager to survive on in the big cities where they were living. A number of people noted the discrepancy and wondered what kind of financial support these journalists were getting from their families that so many people of color were not.
So here it is: I am a woman of color and my mother is the reason I could do an unpaid internship in California, which got me my first job, which got me my second job, which got me my third — and, in between, she floated me when I couldn’t quite make ends meet. I wasn’t living off of her, but she was keeping me alive. On the one hand you could call her a patron, on the other hand she’s a vexing reminder to a number of journalists who are probably better than me that they do not have this extra support — a disproportionate number of whom are people of color like me. An extreme version of this leg up, of course, is nepotism, something I have not experienced but that so many white journalists in Canada have. Highly positioned media people whose families are also highly positioned in media, include: Toronto Life editor in chief Sarah Fulford, whose father, journalist Robert Fulford, has the order of Canada; former Walrus editor in chief Jonathan Kay, whose mother is National Post columnist Barbara kay; not to mention all those CBC staffers’ spouses who secured CBC contracts.
In September, the publicly funded Canadian educational channel TVO aired an episode of current affairs program The Agenda with Steve Paikin, asking, “Is Canadian Media Losing Its Touch?” The panel was made up of Paikin, who is white, and two other journalists, a man and a woman, both also white. All three of them focused on the shrinking industry, never once mentioning its racism. But just three months prior, several mainstream media organizations were excoriated for belittling the landmark National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Final Report, the more-than-1,000-page document of 2,000+ testimonials outlining how colonialism in Canada has systematically destroyed First Nations communities. Instead of white Canadians grappling with the country’s long-awaited admission that they not only live on stolen land but have also helped decimate the people to whom Canada actually belongs, they diverted attention to the term “genocide.” Canada’s two largest newspapers, the Globe and the Star, published board-wide editorials denying those three syllables, while the Post had a Catholic priest doing the same. As journalist Justin Brake tweeted: “Colonialism is ubiquitous. Even in journalism.”
That was already clear two years ago when the (now ex-)editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, in an issue meant to celebrate Indigenous writing, called for white journalists to aspire to a nonexistent “cultural appropriation prize” in order to enrich their work. In response, high-ranking members of the country’s leading media companies — the Post, Maclean’s, CBC, Rogers — offered cash for its coffers. More recently, there have been several incidences in which newsroom photographs have circulated on social media showing a sea of white faces. In October, the Globe was side–eyed for hiring a white woman, Robyn Urback, from the CBC to add to its prodigiously white team — reporter Robyn Doolittle quipped, “Robyn, I look forward to everyone confusing us in the years to come.” — which only got whiter once Indo-Caribbean columnist Denise Balkissoon left earlier this month for a higher-ranking position at Chatelaine magazine.
“Since working my first paid jobs as a journalist in 2007, I have been constantly told, explicitly and implicitly, that nobody will care about stories about people who are elderly, Aboriginal, racialized, queer, living with a disability or chronic health condition, or living with an active addiction or mental health concern,” University of British Colombia writing instructor and former magazine editor Jackie Wong told rabble.ca in 2016. This irresponsible coverage is being predominantly identified by journalists of color, who are also the ones principally assigned to write racialized articles. The Star’s Tanya Talaga has named the requirement to constantly advocate for and be a workplace’s symbol of diversity “the invisible workload.” Journalists of color are often siloed into multicultural media spaces like the Aboriginal People’s Television Network or smaller publications. Vicky Mochama, now the culture, society, and critical race editor for The Conversation, had a column for Metro until 2018, while Sarah Hagi wrote for Vice until she didn’t, then a site called Freshdaily, until it unceremoniously dumped its entire editorial staff after two weeks. Meanwhile, Kyrell Grant, the freelance writer and Twitter deity who coined the term “big dick energy,” occasionally publishes in places like Vice. “Black women are consistently thought leaders whose uncited ideas regularly appear in mainstream media,” Anderson wrote in Torontoist, “but it’s increasingly apparent that our bylines don’t.”
White journalists, meanwhile, are increasingly insulated from critique. Maclean’s’ Domise apologized for being a gatekeeper, for instance, while those who actually created the gate to keep the likes of him out remain silent. It’s virtually impossible to fix the problem in mainstream Canadian media because it won’t even acknowledge that there is one. What it will do is apologize for suggesting that white people could be at fault for anything. Last month, correspondent Jessica Allen of The Social (Canada’s The View) was forced to apologize for saying hockey players tended to be white and tended to be bullies, both of which are true. “We would like to apologize to everyone who was offended by the remarks,” CTV announced in a statement. In a recent interview with the newsletter Study Hall, BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul admitted she was professionally ostracized after she tweeted in 2016 that BuzzFeed Canada was looking for pitches, particularly from “not white and not male” writers: “I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with executive-level editors in Canada who wouldn’t work with me because they thought I was racist against white people.” Koul now works in New York.
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I suppose it follows that my favorite place to work in Canada is not in fact a media company. Hazlitt is an online literary magazine run by a publishing company, Penguin Random House, and its long-form nonfiction skews experimental. It’s probably no coincidence that Hazlitt is where Koul got her start and where plenty of other people of color like me can write long, rambling essays on the nature of everything, something a media landscape as homogenous as Canada’s has no appetite for. Both of the editors I worked with — the editor in chief and senior editor — are white, but they’re what you might call allies if you’re so inclined, and they understand writing at a molecular level. Hazlitt is equivalent to a magazine like The Believer or a site like Grantland. It’s there that I got my only National Magazine Award nomination in 2016. But the site is small, and you can’t live off it. My job search to supplement my work there included a failed interview to write news for an elevator screen and naming 500 color swatches for a marketing company. Then Longreads called. Did I mention the guy who hired me is not white?
I’m not really sure what to say to Canadian journalists of color who don’t have that opportunity or the support to create it. Because it’s not really about them. It’s about the white Canadians who are hogging all the power positions and refusing to admit that, let alone step aside. It’s about their refusal to make it a priority to hire people of color from top to bottom because they refuse to see these journalists’ absence as an issue. Domise has credited his column at Maclean’s to a “handful of editors” who recognized the magazine’s lack of diversity. But the columnists around him are still majority white. Our media seems to have a really hard time reflecting 20 percent of our population, of not overrepresenting whiteness to the point of implying its supremacy.
In June, the CBC and Radio-Canada announced that by 2025, they would have at least one non-white person working as a key creative — producer, director, writer, showrunner, lead performer — on each of their programs. One. More recently, a friend who works at one of the bigger media companies in Toronto mentioned that they were hiring but that all of the applications “sucked.” Knowing the number of journalists who have lost their jobs over the past 10 years, I was baffled. Considering the same white people are often shuffled around the industry over and over again, I asked if they had gone beyond submitted applications to ask peers, to check social media, to look into other publications that have recently closed down. My friend looked at me in embarrassment. That’s the look that I think every white journalist in this country is missing.
Canada is racist: there I said it. My country is racist and its media is racist and its journalists are racist. Not saying it doesn’t make it any less true. Canada is multicultural, yes, that doesn’t mean its media is; the industry that is supposed to inform this country is whitewashed, and its information is whitewashed too. Politically, socially, economically — in every way — Canada misrepresents itself. What results is an entirely misinformed public but, more than that, a public represented by an industry that cloaks itself in white and believes that saying nothing will make it invisible. You’re not invisible. You may not see us, but we see you.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.
Emi Nietfield | Longreads | December 2019 | 11 minutes (2,834 words)
If you’ve read a newspaper, you know me: I was the high school senior who overcame unbelievable odds to win swell prizes.
They could have shot a made-for-TV-movie: gone dad, hoarder mom, foster care, homelessness, so much adversity the Horatio Alger Association gave me $20,000. I snagged $10,000 more in a writing contest, won $3,000 to visit Europe, and landed a full ride to Harvard (valued at approximately $210,000, plus $1.6 million in expected extra lifetime earnings, and 27 free, corporate-branded water bottles).
They called me “one-in-a-million.” I was proof of the American dream. On May 24th of 2010, when I smiled in my gray cardigan in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, I carried the torch of an eternal narrative.
Until five weeks later, when I was raped.