Quick personal update: I have Covid! I’m pretty mad about it, and not in a good way! I was so careful! How did this happen! Exclamation points!!! Since starting hardcore quarantine (or HARDQUAR, as I like to call it) last week, I’ve written two essays about testing positive for coronavirus, and revising a third essay I had just finished about the lack of physical touch during the pandemic. So! A hefty helping of writing about to be served to you, but first it needs to marinate, then sear, then rest. (Sorry, it’s lunchtime and I’m hungry.) Stay tuned.
Three months ago, I grappled with how to respond in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and my response was to revisit books I’d already read and write about the complicated nature of that response. I wrote about finding comfort in rereading during uncertain times, echoing Hanif Abdurraqib’s thoughts on listening to familiar albums. Yet I knew and noted how, in this case, choosing comfort is exactly what causes us to wind up in the same space, over and over, wondering why the situation has not yet changed.
We wake up in August and find ourselves watching yet another video, but instead of George Floyd, it's Jacob Blake. Instead of Minneapolis, MN, it's Kenosha, WI. The dates, names, and places change, but the senseless killings remain.
Five weeks after I wrote and posted the piece, it was chosen by Medium’s editors and featured on the homepage of the website. In one weekend it received 2,000 views, which is far more than the norm (my stats range from 11 views, to 194, 424, 874, or 2,500 in six months, and views are far higher than the number of actual reads). What I like about Medium is its clean interface—reading without the interruption of ads—and it also doesn’t hurt that the website distributes membership fees back to writers, compensating per read. A piece chosen by Medium’s editors was a compliment in and of itself, and arrived with unexpected compensation.
Like many, my freelance income dried up during the pandemic. I squeeze by each month on the income from my part-time job (where I’ve worked for three years, grateful for the consistency when so much of freelancing is feast or famine), some support from family, and then a state grant. Writers do one another a disservice by not discussing finances, which is why I've always felt the need to be transparent. Halfway through 2020, I’ve only earned $400 in freelance income, part of which was a “kill fee” for a piece that was pulled from a publication—meaning I spent more time and money researching and writing the piece than I would probably recoup, as attempts to place it elsewhere hit dead ends. I keep my overhead low and remind myself I’m one of the lucky ones: at my part-time job I now receive emails and phone calls from folks telling me they’re out of work or shuttering their business.
So receiving $95.68 from Medium for a piece of writing was not nothing. And yet I knew that $95.68 was not mine to keep. I am not an antiracist educator, and white people should not be profiting off of racism and Black suffering.
The piece I wrote was intended to amplify books by bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Claudia Rankine. In that piece—and each day since—I grapple with the question of how to move beyond the page. It’s a question raised and addressed by Tre Johnson in his piece for the Washington Post, “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs.”
Writing and publishing are my realms. A good book club is important to me—I once started a book club to make new friends in a new town and ended up launching an indie bookstore with two amazing women. Reading a work in conjunction with other people and congregating to discuss it sharpens my understanding of a text, shows me what I might have missed, and forges connections to those in my community. So it was difficult yet necessary for me to read Tre Johnson’s piece, and to consider how I can dismantle both the external structures and the internal ones.
Johnson wrote, “The right acknowledgment of black justice, humanity, freedom and happiness won’t be found in your book clubs, protest signs, chalk talks or organizational statements. It will be found in your earnest willingness to dismantle systems that stand in our way — be they at your job, in your social network, your neighborhood associations, your family or your home. It’s not just about amplifying our voices, it’s about investing in them and in our businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art. It starts, also, with reflection on the harm you’ve probably caused in a black person’s life. It may have happened when you were 10, 16, 22, 36 or 42. Comforting as it may be to read and discuss the big questions about race and justice and America, making up for past wrongs means starting with the fact that you’ve done wrong in the past, perhaps without realizing it at the time: in the old workplace, neighborhood, classroom, softball field. Maybe even the book club.”
I was presented with an opportunity to move beyond the page: not just amplifying, but investing "in businesses, education, political representation, power, housing and art." If I cashed that $95.68—earned from a piece of writing about books written by Black authors—I would continue a pattern of white people exploiting and profiting off of Black suffering. I would continue to be complicit and hypocritical—and doubly so, by cashing in on a piece which unpacked my personal complicity.
Writer Joseph Capehart posted on Instagram, “Should white people be talking about racism to other white people? Yes, of course. But no one should be cutting them a check for it. Most of the time these white people are quoting black people who are alive. Who are writing books and speaking. You should not be building a platform on anti racism work if you’re white. You should be relinquishing your platform for the goals of anti racism work. To get paid for anti racism work when you’re white is the most backward shit I’ve ever heard in my life.”
In a video for Vogue Italia, the curator Naeem was asked what could be done in fashion and publishing to “challenge stereotypes and increase awareness” (pretty broad terms). Naeem answered, “It’s about deplatforming the people that have been in charge of this industry that got it to this point in the first place. I think those roles need to be fulfilled by people who understand intersectionality and the importance of every voice being heard, and everybody being and feeling seen.”
Asked about their biggest dream for the future, Naeem said, “For social, racial injustices—all the injustices of the world—to stop being intellectual exercises, and ways for people to virtue signal on social media and instead be an action. An action people feel empowered to take in order for things to actually change.”
My essay was not intended to be an intellectual exercise. It was not an invitation for applause, as I clearly outlined where I was culpable and complicit. And now, here, I’m outlining where I continue to be culpable, in the moments where it matters most. That essay was a challenge—an invitation to read and reread and interrogate what we read. And its reception and subsequent monetization presented an additional challenge—which then becomes an opportunity—and begs the question: What will you do when there’s money on the line? When your livelihood is at stake?
When you think no one is watching, what will you do?
The $95.68 was long gone before it arrived. $79.95 purchased five copies of Thick by Tressie McMillan Cottom to donate to a book club, $15.08 went to The Loveland Foundation and $25.08 to the Eau Claire Justice League (donations matched by Margaret and Jill at Dotters Books). And I will personally continue to redistribute any subsequent funds from that essay to organizations and resources amplifying and uplifting Black stories and voices. It's the absolute least I can do.