And we are programmed to self-destruct, to fragment.
—Jayne Cortez, “There It Is”
A few short years ago, I wanted to end my life. Suicide, yeah. You see, there is nothing worse nor more humiliating than to move to a metropolis like New York, become a writer both prolific and known during your very hip twenties, then lose it all—your cushy magazine job, your phat apartment, your instant access to money—by the age of thirty. I suffered through this period privately, telling a small knot of comrades of my predicament, while feigning sanity to others. That I am able to write this essay is testament to how far I have come since falling so low. I am not remotely confident where to start other than to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald who said famously, “All life is a process of breaking down.”
Like Fitzgerald’s roaring 1920s, the naughty ’90s were my time to live and play irresponsibly. Upon moving to upper Manhattan—Harlem—from Jersey City, New Jersey, my hometown, in August 1990, I wrote in my diary, somewhat egotistically and in spite of my few years of toiling in obscurity as a freelance news reporter, that I wanted to be remembered as one of the best, and best-known, writers of my generation. As the elders say, be careful what you ask for.
Two years after my unheralded arrival on Manhattan’s shores, I would be drafted to costar on MTV’s hugely popular docu-soap The Real World, and soon thereafter I found myself writing the cover story for a new magazine founded by Quincy Jones named Vibe. I had become a staff writer with a national byline and face recognition at twenty-six. I wore this freshly minted notoriety akin to how a homeboy wears his straight-outta-the-box Timberland boots. I admired it in the mirror. I scrubbed that notoriety regularly. I deemed my self-generated franchise better than anyone else’s. And I got caught up in the hype of the entertainment industry: the fluffy parties, the air kisses, the synthetic let’s-do-lunch rhetoric, the rubbing of slippery elbows with icons like Spike Lee, Tommy Hilfiger, General Colin Powell, and many, many others. At Vibe, the demand to produce articles like a well-oiled machine wore on me. I binged on liquor to keep the motor going; I drank more liquor to make it stop. I did not take a legitimate vacation during my four-year association with the glossy. I felt guilty for thinking of one, and I found myself becoming an insomniac who slept by inhaling loads of liquor or alcohol-laced NyQuil.
Then, in May 1996, I was fired.
In the nature of these things, my firing was the twin two-edged sword to my hiring. When I started at Vibe it was a magazine that promised to boldly, beautifully showcase the journalistic element of the culture I lived and breathed, which I’ll roughly define by that elusive term of art: hip-hop. But almost from the start it betrayed the source of its power. Many of us people of color at this ostensibly urban, people-of-color magazine were miffed that management could never seem to find “qualified” Black editors. Moreover, it bothered us that while the col- ored folks—chiefly the mostly female cadre of editorial assistants—carried workloads comparable to those of the White men at the monthly, the salaries and perks were hardly in the spirit of egalitarianism. Among ourselves, at the water cooler, outside the office during lunch breaks, or even within earshot of some of our White coworkers and superiors, we began mocking the Vibe headquarters as “da plantation,” because, as coarse as it sounds, we felt like the latest in history’s line of slaves, picking the cotton only to watch the masters reaping the profits from our labor.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. We were supposed to be a chic, multicultural collection of the best and the brightest, inventing a way to do hip-hop in words on the pages of a glossy, national magazine on a weekly basis. That’s what Quincy himself promised at the magazine’s launch (geez, how rapidly I figured out that Q may have been the founder, but it was not him running things day to day). But the scene lost its sexy allure—with a quickness—once it became plain as the African nose on my face that Vibe, for all its freshness, was run the old-fashioned way, by a strictly enforced racial hierarchy with White male editors at the top, including a grumpy old dinosaur that Time Warner (the original owner of Vibe) deposited as the editorial “consultant” for the magazine. But this stifling hierarchy was more than just business as usual to me; it was patently obscene in the context of the culture we were ostensibly representing, not to mention that more than a few of those White male editors were ridiculously incompetent and, we suspected, only using Vibe as a launching pad to “better opportunities” at mainstream White-oriented periodicals. On the other hand, for most of us Black and Brown writers, we knew damn well that Vibe was as good as it was ever going to get. We were committed because the magazine was more than just representative of our culture; we had started to see it as the only refuge for our professional survival.
The old dinosaur habitually marked up pieces with a pen adroit at minimizing commentary that flirted with race and racism in America. Indeed, there was a time when one could write an article for Vibe and after it left one’s Black hands, no Black hands—not those of the editor, the researcher, the copy editor, the editor in chief, or the consultant—would touch that article until another set of Black hands purchased the magazine. It would be years later before Vibe began to consistently hire editors of color, including for the post of editor in chief—a change brought about largely because of the unrest we sparked during those first years.
The potency of our sense of injustice—my sense of injustice—might seem silly to some, but to think of this as just one writer’s problem at one magazine is to miss the larger point. Yes, this is the story of my personal breakdown, but it’s also the story of the maddening endurance of White-skin privilege—even in as unlikely an arena as hip-hop—and how this persistent, insidious force worms its way into lives and psyches, forcing us to deal with it, to take a position on it, to make choices of consequence even when our judgment isn’t clear. Sometimes, when we’re tired from the fight, it can drive us crazy. Most of my White peers saw nothing wrong with the Vibe power structure, which spoke to how comfy they were in their White-skin privilege. How could I be mad at that? If your whole life has been spent on top with doors flung open for you at every turn, regardless of whether you are qualified to go through those doors or not, why on God’s vast earth would you think to challenge something like that? For in defying that, you would be messing with the very basis of your day-to-day existence. This realization became a hot coal in my chest every time my disgust with the editorial plantation was dismissed by my White colleagues.
One of their key arguments involved conjuring up the distorted legacy of integration, the hideously naive or hideously cynical notion that merely having people of different colors in proximity at the table of humanity would be sufficient to eradicate centuries of ingrained white supremacy. What is conveniently omitted is that Dr. King, the alleged architect of integration, by the end of his life was calling for economic justice (remember the Poor People’s Campaign, beloved?) and was rethinking integration as the best route for Black America, especially if it meant Blacks would remain mired in bottomless self-hatred and confusion, fundamentally powerless. I count myself among those who believe the Civil Rights Movement was about changing policies of legal desegregation, freeing African Americans to exercise their birthright of free movement in this social order without the fear of attack or retribution. In other words, to realize, without legal restraint, the full experience of human freedom. At some point in the transmitting of the civil rights narrative the script was flipped: The hardheaded fight against segregation was swapped for the warm symbolism of integration. Over time, this symbolic integration has found its goal in the triumph of the myth of multiculturalism. But even though the colors of the rainbow can all chill together—at least in Gap commericals—they are not all sharing in the power. So what’s the point of multiculturalism if it is reduced to folks eating each other’s foods, marrying each other, having multiracial children, and proclaiming myopically that interracial relationships, be they friendships or loveships, will rid the country of its historically paralyzing racial quagmire? Or is that the point? As presently practiced in the majority of American circles, this kind of Happy Meal multiculturalism allows us to avoid yet again the neces- sity of scrutinizing, in a grab-the-collar, eyeball-to-eyeball manner, the power dynamic this country was founded on.
America was “multicultural” right from the very beginning, given the presence of Native Americans (the original owners of this land you call your land), Europeans, and captured Africans. America is a mulatto family, has always been, and will always be—this is neither news nor a cause for celebration. But why must the head of the household ceaselessly be a White male calling the shots? Rich White males are still the straws that stir the drink, and the rest of us are supposed to just smile and go along for the ride, content that we have employment, 401K plans, and health benefits. Even if we don’t have these middle-class accoutrements—even if we only see them on TV—we are supposed to be content that those dreadful For Coloreds Only signs have disappeared. But while the physical signs have come down...