This is To Be Seen and Unseen, a monthly column by Morgan Jerkins on the praise, backlash, and challenges experienced as a writer for the web.
I was boarding the 7 train to Hudson Yards in Midtown Manhattan when I received a follow-up email from an editor at The Atlantic. I had pitched her a week earlier when I saw the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, director and leading actor of The Birth of a Nation, and his days as a star athlete at Penn State was beginning to pick up steam. Initially, said editor passed on the potential piece but now, she was interested, and I already had support from a staff writer who was well-versed in my work. The catch was that I would have to turn the piece around quickly.
The train was approaching and I immediately responded that I would do it before I lost cell phone reception. I gripped my cell phone both excited for the task ahead and unsure that I had the ability to say exactly what I needed to say. Before the editor’s email, I had no other intention but to take the subway to the nearest Bolt Bus stop and spend a quiet weekend with my mother back in South Jersey. All of my energy had to be siphoned into this piece and I had limited space to discuss Nate Parker and why the conversation surrounding rape is a minefield within the black community if the alleged attacker is a black man.
My fingers rested on my keyboard; the blinking cursor inside my empty Word document measured how long it was taking me to begin. I had a usual format whenever I was assigned a pop cultural critique: Provide a gist of what’s happening with the subject, insert links to other reputable publications, and then pivot with a burgeoning question I was leading up to all along. I deliver a thesis sentence like a blow and then proceed to the succeeding paragraphs that will further elucidate my point, but writing about Nate Parker was different.
With each sentence that I wrote in the introductory paragraph, my anxiety intensified. I imagined that the wrong word or a backwards construction would make black people, particularly black men, assume that I had a personal vendetta against Parker. Usually, the further I delve into my assignment, the easier it is for me to write and build upon my argument. With regards to Nate Parker, I obsessed over every word, splintering its meaning into different threads so that no one could misconstrue my words.
My eyes glided over the curvature of every letter. My bedroom fan whirred overhead and the television became indistinct as I endeavored to center myself. What did I need to say? How would I make sure that both black men and women were understood, regardless of their viewpoints? I didn’t want readers to take sides. Or if they were going to take sides, I didn’t want it to be a snap decision.
I submitted the draft at 6:55 a.m. the following morning. My editor responded the same day with edits, the majority dealing with unclear arguments in a few places. Those places were knots that I tried to unravel as I wrote but to this day, there are still spots that could use some untangling. I still don’t know how to adequately center black women without black men feeling as if I view them as adversaries, or that I have “daddy issues,” or that I am poisoned by self-hate. If I don’t create a pristine image of black men to combat the negative ones, am I working against them or depicting reality, one in which two sides may not be wholly reconcilable in the name of racial harmony? Two days later, the piece was published. I assumed that because it was 8 a.m. on a Sunday, no one would read it.
By mid-afternoon, the piece went viral. People from ESPN and The New Yorker , as well as celebrity gossip bloggers, quoted and shared my piece. Director Ava DuVernay began to follow me on Twitter. The public validation immensely satisfied me. I received offers to appear on television and radio. By the day’s end, I was ready to move onto my next challenge although the public was not done with me yet.
It all began with a Twitter mention. A black woman notified me of another black woman writer’s piece about black feminists who, according to this writer, brought about Nate Parker’s downfall. Two of my tweets were embedded in the take: one of which was published several months before The Birth of a Nation was released, and the other was a week before I published my Atlantic piece. The former was me relishing over how attractive Nate Parker was because I made said tweet while watching Beyond The Lights , and the latter was me stating that I had no idea that Nate Parker was married.
Somehow, the writer contrived a connection between the two, arguing that my Atlantic piece was fueled by my contempt for Nate Parker having a white wife. I didn’t respond to her, publicly or privately, because the argument was baseless. However, her take was picking up steam. It was being shared widely on Twitter and I received another message—this time through my email—that the piece included me in it. I ignored it until I stumbled upon a black woman calling me a “bed wench.” This was the blow that paralyzed me.
“Bitch” was as weightless to me as the wind. I could be called bitch by a random stranger on the street or as a term of endearment from a friend; its substance was insignificant to me. I could be called “cunt” and although its sharpness would momentarily slow me down, I’m an owner of one so I would not be too bothered. But I have never been called a bed wench.
In Shakespeare’s day, a “wench” referred to a young woman or servant. Around the fourteenth century, the word began to be associated with “concubine.” But “bed wench” is a loaded term directly for black women, particularly slaves whose legs would allegedly fling wide open for their masters, assuming sex provided access to the benefits of white supremacy. I blocked the woman who said this to me but I’m still haunted by her disyllabic insult.
Bed. Wench. I wrote my piece in my bed and arose from the sheets with a new byline but not as a writer in her eyes, but rather the master’s whore. By exposing an intra-communal issue, I not only betrayed black women, whose words are often exchanged in secret spaces, but also black men, of whom it was my birthright to protect at all costs, even at the expense of myself.
I began to meditate on what it meant to be a black woman artist. Nowhere in my piece did I say for people to not see The Birth of a Nation and yet somehow I was partially responsible for it flopping. By transporting taboo intraracial subjects to the mainstream, I committed a grave sin, allowing outsiders to not only read but penetrate a community that was never theirs. This is the only way that I can rationalize the insult that I received.
I jeopardize my reasoning, morality, and artistry if I engage in selective blindness. I write from a place of lack or perplexity. In the conversations surrounding Nate Parker, it was the latter. Despite social media being a huge reservoir of talent, ideas, and conversations, there is still a breach between certain places—namely Black Twitter—and the overwhelmingly white, mainstream media. I assessed the different viewpoints about Nate Parker, sexual assault, and consent amongst Black Twitter users and said to myself, There is tension here and so there is a story. There is a story and yet no one has written about it . I did not want for these conversations to remain inside Twitter threads where those outside of certain circles could not find this information. I wanted to magnify all of it. My intention was to reveal how mind-boggling this conversation can be because the crucial part—the racial element—was what other writers and critics were neglecting to mention. As I saw it, either a black writer needed to write it or a white writer was going to do so; the latter had more of a risk either from misunderstandings, social media backlash, or both.
Sometimes when I am alone and writing about “black” issues, I imagine that there is a BW as a red mark on my chest. It’s not a superhero label but a scarlet letter. But those letters disappear with each sentence that I write, each page that I tackle. I am nobody’s bed wench. No one is in bed with me when I write.
Fear is the most intimate partner I’ve ever had once I started my writing career. I know when it arrives and when it leaves. Every time I write and publish a piece, I wonder, is this the day that I get mocked and humiliated online and I have to deactivate my Twitter page for a week? Is this the day that someone who I admire and has a much bigger following than me destroys my argument and therefore my credibility? Neither has occurred but it is always a possibility.
I do not only fear that my words underscore insufficient research, but also that readers create an incorrect and awful portrait of who I am as a writer. But then I realize that I cannot control engagement. Readers are going to draw connections wherever they see fit, similarly to how that one writer drew connections from my two tweets. As I write and edit, I continuously have to peel back certain layers within myself because I have to let go and let go some more. Evidently, I am successful at it but that doesn’t mean I don’t fear the day that another insult will knock me back harder than “bed wench.”
About a week later, the conversation surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem began to pick up steam. An editor from Rolling Stone asked me if I would like to write about the topic, after he saw a Twitter thread of mine in Kaepernick’s defense. Just like with the Nate Parker piece, I had to turn it around quickly, but I was hesitant to write about another black man despite my stance being much less diplomatic. I started the piece around 8:00 p.m., turned around a draft about seventy-five minutes later, edited it, and then sent the final copy at midnight. The following morning, the piece was published and it went viral.
I was astonished that I was able to hit the bull’s eye twice in two consecutive weeks but it happened and the aftermath, such as the radio and television interviews, all felt like a blur. I didn’t receive any insults from black people about what I said and to this day, I’m not sure if it’s because Kaepernick is black, a man, or both. I was expecting some kind of backlash, which never arrived, but I realized that if it didn’t stop me before, if I were able to bounce back a week later, that has more to say about me than my anxiety surrounding the fickle nature of internet culture and strangers’ allegiances to me or to other writers. Each piece I write has nothing to do with me being strong per se but rather me being curious, in search of some composite truth. And in the midst of this uncharted territory, I cannot shy away from discomfort on my part or the readers’ part. On the contrary, I welcome it.