June July 2016
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The Advocate

How the 'Ungrateful Black Writer' Saeed Jones Is Rewriting Culture

Saeed Jones

It took Saeed Jones, the executive editor of culture at BuzzFeed, over a month to write “Self-Portrait Of The Artist As Ungrateful Black Writer.” This wasn’t due to writer's block or a lengthy word count. The game-changing article, published in April of this year, highlighted how racial disparities in the publishing industry, which according to a Publisher’s Weekly report is 89 percent white, limit opportunities for writers of color. Jones, a black gay writer and Pushcart Prize-winning poet, feared his livelihood could be at stake.

In the essay, the MFA graduate of Rutgers University recounts the recent experience of an “exclusive literary party I once dreamed of attending, but never thought I would actually be invited to.” But the dream quickly dissolved into a nightmare of microaggressions. He ran into a colleague, who touched his hair without his permission. Another poet, who is black and gay, revealed that he’d been nervous that the publication dates of their books had been so close to each other, as they would be compared “in both flattering and troubling ways.”

“Racism doesn’t vanish the moment we set foot into the ivory towers and glittering soirees of the literati,” Jones declared, while citing mastheads full of white male editors, a watermelon joke made at last year’s National Book Awards, and his own infuriating feeling of being “intensely, almost exhaustingly grateful to just be there.”

“I was terrified to publish it,” Jones tells The Advocate. “I felt often when writers speak up — you certainly see this happen to women [and] LGBT people — you become known as the whiny, angry person. And slowly but surely, the opportunities go away, because people go, ‘There’s that writer, that black writer who’s just angry about race all the time.’ I’ve seen that happen. I was very nervous.”

However, his worst fears were not realized. The article went viral among members of the literary world. (“It traveled,” Jones says.) Other writers, including writers of color who attended the same event, reached out to him and shared similar experiences.

“That kind of blew me away,” Jones reflects. “Because I think when you encounter microaggressions, whether it’s homophobia or sexism or racism, one of the first things you do is say, ‘Oh, that didn’t really happen.’ Or, ‘Oh, I’m whining.’ Or, ‘Oh, I misread the moment.’ There’s such an impulse to think you’re kind of crazy. So it meant a great deal to know that other writers were grappling with these questions too and appreciated the essay.”

But the traveling didn’t end there. In a meeting with publishers a few months afterward about a forthcoming book, several mentioned to Jones that they had read his essay. For Jones, this was “the entire point,” because his message about the lack of diversity had reached the ears of the editors and gatekeepers who have the power to change the industry.

So does he see hope for the publishing world?

“Possibly. I’m very skeptical,” he says, pointing to a time in the 1980s that many also thought was a breakthrough moment, when black women like Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, and Toni Morrison were at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. But today, decades later, when he can recall only two black editors and one black publicist in all of New York City, he sees how much of a contained “bubble” a perceived change can be.

“I think when I talk to some people, they do seem to act as if concerns about race and diversity are some kind of trend that just has to be weathered and eventually it will go away and things will go back to normal,” he says. “I don’t want them to go back to normal. These conversations are difficult and nuanced and thorny, and my hope is that we keep having it and it leads to substantive changes.”

Jones did not always envision a career at a media organization. Before he was hired at BuzzFeed, the last full-time job he held was as a teacher. But his voice as a poet, as an avid writer of essays and cultural criticism, and his passionate observations on his perfectly titled Twitter account @theferocity garnered the attention of BuzzFeed’s editor in chief, Ben Smith. “He saw all these moving parts in a way that I had not quite connected the dots,” Jones says, and Smith hired him to work as the site’s first LGBT editor in 2013. In this capacity, he helped launch and grow the company's queer news coverage, team, and culture.

As BuzzFeed — once a home for cat memes and Ryan Gosling listicles — grew into something greater, so did Jones. He calls this relationship “a kind of synergy.” In addition to his editorial work, he was able to publish his first book of poetry, Prelude to Bruise, in 2014. The book, which took an unvarnished look at race and sexuality, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a hit with both critics and readers. 

“Mr. Jones undoubtedly dipped his pen in fierce before crafting these stanzas that rock like backslap,” raved poet Patricia Smith. “Straighten your skirt, children. The doors of the church are open.”

The success of the book did indeed open doors. “I found myself being much busier, and travelling, and doing all of the wonderful things that get to happen when readers respond to your work passionately,” Jones says. And “right at the moment that I started to feel myself a bit stretched” between LGBT news and the literary world, Smith and other managers at BuzzFeed were able to offer a happy compromise: several months of leave to finish his memoir, and a new role as literary editor.

(RELATED: Saeed Jones Picks 6 Books for LGBT Readers)

“Why do we have to assume Saeed at BuzzFeed and Saeed as a writer are separate roles?" Jones asks. "What if we did find a way to combine them? And that’s what we’re doing.”

“I felt I was ready to find a new role,” he adds. “I think there’s no conversation that moves faster than the LGBT conversation. The velocity of history in terms of LGBT rights and the United States is pretty amazing, and I’ve always wanted to be honest with myself as an editor about knowing when I’m getting to kind of the edge of what I have to offer.”

Last month his new position expanded even further. Jones is now BuzzFeed’s executive editor of culture, where his job is to be “the beating heart at the center of cultural coverage here and increase the flow of blood so that we can do more.”

“I think this is such an amazing cultural moment in American history in so many ways: conversations about gender, about police brutality, about race, about immigration, about popular entertainment and diversity,” he says. “And I think the conversations we’re having in our everyday lives should be reflected in the way we’re writing about culture.”

And writing about culture is only part of the equation. Jones also wants to influence it. In his conversations with his BuzzFeed mentors, he stressed how the company should be part of the systemic change in media that he observed was so desperately needed in his essay.

“I was tired of talking about diversity,” he says. “You can only write so many essays. You can only tweet so often and see substantive change.”

He succeeded in pitching a new program: the BuzzFeed Emerging Writers Fellowship, whose mission is “diversifying the broader media landscape by investing in the next generation of necessary voices.” The fellowship program, which begins in January, will provide four writers who are “traditionally locked out of opportunities in media” with funding, mentorship, and writing experience in New York. It received 558 applications, which Jones says is “a testament to the paucity of these kinds of opportunities.”

“If these writers are successful, they’ll be out in the literary landscape,” he says. “They’ll be out in the media landscape. Maybe working at BuzzFeed. But just as crucially, working at other publications doing all kinds of work. And we all benefit from that.”

“My hope is that if the program is successful, it will be mirrored by other organizations,” he adds. “Wouldn’t it be great if every media outlet was able to create some kind of fellowship? I think that would be a great norm as opposed to the assumption that unpaid or poorly paid internships are the only way emerging writers can get experience.”

As LGBT people know, representation is one of the key components in the fight for equality. The work that Jones does is part of the equation, but he stresses that “there’s still a lot of work to do,” particularly in awakening members of different minority communities to the reality that the fight for visibility and equality are shared.

“The work that remains, in terms of employment discrimination, in terms of youth homelessness, in terms of transgender rights and transgender health care, in terms of HIV/AIDS and broader health care concerns for the LGBT community, a lot of that has to do with seeing beyond people who look just like you,” he says.

This fight also requires LGBT people who have privilege to acknowledge it, and use it to help those who have less.

“As a gay man living in New York City who has a full-time job and health benefits, my life is good,” Jones says. “My life as a gay man is very, very good. My job cannot fire me because of who I am. I have all of these protections. I can get married. There comes a point when you have to look beyond your own security and say, ‘OK, I know I’m good.’ Or, ‘I’m better off. But what’s going on with other people?’ I just think that’s a crucial debt we owe, especially when we’ve spent the past however many decades asking straight people to do the same thing for us.”

“We’ve spent the last however many decades you choose to define the LGBT movement asking straight, cisgender people to get over the fact that they are not queer and recognize our own humanity,” he adds. “I think it’s such a betrayal to do that journey and have that conversation and then turn around and allow racism or sexism or transphobia to prevent us from having a conversation with ourselves.”

(RELATED: BuzzFeed's Saeed Jones Picks 6 Books for LGBT Readers)

These conversations aren’t always easy. Frictions between various parts of the LGBT community (“If you want to call it a community at all,” Jones says) endure and divide, as evidenced by the “very fraught and passionate conversation” that emerged with the release of this year’s Stonewall, a film by Roland Emmerich that critics said whitewashed LGBT history by placing the movement’s first stone in the hand of a white gay man.

“I think that was a really good example of seeing these tensions that emerge, and that was all about race and gender and these assumptions we have on who gets to be the icon, who gets to be at the front of the crowd,” Jones says.

Jones explored these tensions while writing his memoir, tentatively titled How Men Fight for Their Lives, a queer coming-of-age story that is set for release in 2017. Much like his entry into the literary world, his coming out into the gay community fell short of expectations.

“I thought coming out of the closet would be like running into the open arms of this tribe of other queer people who been through, on some level, a similar experience, and that was not the case at all,” he says. “I felt very, very lonely as a black gay man in the South. And that loneliness led to me being in a lot of vulnerable situations, one of which, a straight-acting lover, had an absolute crisis of masculinity and tried to kill me.”

“I think there’s a meanness that sometimes comes into play that exists in equal parts to our own insecurity and our own lack of self-worth and self value,” he adds of gay culture. “Often, I think gay men are still working through or struggling through their confidence and their self-perception and their self-worth, and I think sometimes, or perhaps more than sometimes, I think often, we turn on each other. We absolutely turn on each other in a very hurtful way.”

As LGBT people, we are all tasked with overcoming these impulses to hurt one another, of acknowledging privilege, of stepping outside our comfort zones and seeing the plight of others who are less fortunate. And, Jones stresses, no one gets a pass, including LGBT media.

“The work of diversity, the work of following through on LGBT rights, which is ultimately a conversation on human rights, that impacts conversations about police brutality,” he says. “Police brutality is an LGBT issue. The gender wage gap that is impacting queer women, that is an LGBT issue. Immigration is an LGBT issue.”

“I really feel we have to make that connection, and again, follow through on what we’ve been saying for decades now: ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to us.’ Well, now we need to get used to following through on our own promise. And the promise means speaking to every part of our community, and honoring the needs of every part of our community.”

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