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epiphanies of a black freelance writer

June 3, 2019

There was not a more vulnerable time for me than when I was a freelance writer. I wasn’t just vulnerable in the ways that are common knowledge; being freelance in many industries can be feast and famine. It takes time to get your groove and routine when doing anything freelance, but this is especially true in the landscape I was operating in where many of the places I wrote for were mainstream platforms like New York Times, Buzzfeed, Essence, and Vice — or at the least very popular albeit niche platforms like Bitch Media, Catapult, and even here at my current full-time home, AFROPUNK, where the platform was significant to my audience even if it didn’t necessarily compete with the commercial significance of the aforementioned platforms.

The vulnerability I was pushed into has served me. I don’t think I would produce this article if I hadn’t become so well-acquainted and comfortable with being in multiple places of vulnerability. It was through radical modes of communication like actually expressing when I needed help or opportunities instead of internalizing the hardship and suffering alone, that has forever shaded how I move in the world. Because I had to ask for help and community in moments of need — intense vulnerability — I’ve built a muscle that I still find value in my life now outside of freelance writing.

In other ways, the vulnerability suffocated me. For a long time, both my body and my imagination were left uninsured. My body was caught between the horrendous healthcare system that America is infamous for, but my imagination — my work — was left even more vulnerable than my body, I believe. I was giving my most valuable asset, my ideas, to the most carnivorous industries in the world, American media.

Toni Morrison said of the industry Portland State University in 1975, “The media originates nothing; it simply digests what exists.”

This is a powerful revelation, but even more powerful when you find yourself inside a thing that needs to digest you, your ideas, and your life experiences in order to survive — and you must, too, in many ways, be digestible in order to survive inside of the industry. And it must do it at the lowest cost possible with the highest measurable (re: viewership) as possible. When freelance writer, Steven Underwood, revealed that he had been scooped on a story he had pitched for VICE’s I-D, a  familiar rage came over. Enraged because anytime a Black writer is, or even feels stolen from, it invokes rage. Even if this an honest coincidence as expressed by the editor, it is still infuriating to know that we work in an industry where theft has become so common that this is even an option or a viable concern for a Black freelance writer.

The rage was familiar because Black production has always been in high demand, but not valued. Even when I reflect on chattel slavery, I think of how imperative enslaved Africans were to the economic and political advancement of this country and simultaneously, and how the African bodies were so easily terrorized and humiliated as if they have no value. This relationship with Black value, production and humanity has not changed much in the psychology of how we treat Black people that create valuable things even when the Black person themselves are treated as not valuable.

A similar reveal was made when Gillette introduced a series of advertisements targeted towards  Black men and introduced a “safe guard” which is an appropriation of the technology that a Black-owned shaving and grooming company, Bevel, introduced to us all that prioritized the needs of the skin and hair of Black men. Again, we see the Black production being valued, understood, and even studied; at the same time we see Gillette using their power in white supremacist-capitalism to simply crush Bevel out of competing.

The answer to this on an individual basis is be relentless about the public criticism and discerning about what and when you offer yourself, your ideas to be digested. Everyone is not worthy or ethical, especially when profit is valued above integrity or humanity. The systemic answer is grim: this is not a version of the industry’s culture, this is the culture of the industry, and to me, we must be relentless about reimagining how we share information, art, and how the Black freelance writer can be of use to the storytelling machine — the media — but avoid being food. This looks like readers, writers, and editors having an alliance where the life — not just the production — of Black people is valued and centered. It should be the standard. This also looks like pushing platforms and creating new platforms whose highest priorities isn’t making a profit, but telling stories well in compelling ways that serve the readership. When this happens, it’ll definitely be news.