It was October 2011. I was in New York City for an Essence magazine photo shoot and feature on relationship bloggers—a collective that included Demetria Lucas (A Belle in Brooklyn), Jozen Cummings (Until I Get Married) and Anslem Samuel (Naked With Socks On).
The shoot was at 5. I got downtown early so I could stop at McDonald’s and grab something before heading up to Essence, which lets you know I still considered McDonald’s a viable option for quick food and was still so new to the “doing things for actual magazines” thing that I didn’t stop to think they’d have much, much, much better food at the shoot, too.
After leaving McDonald’s—my head down, double-checking the directions to Essence on my phone—I literally bumped into two women on the sidewalk. I stopped and turned to apologize (and they stopped and turned to wait for it), and we each had an “Oh shit!” moment. It was Jamilah Lemieux (whom I’d known for three years already then) and Geneva Thomas (whom I’d never met in person but immediately recognized).
After the shock of running into one another so randomly wore off, Jamilah revealed that they just left a meeting at Ebony magazine, where they’d both been hired as part of Ebony’s push to revamp and enhance Ebony.com. She also shared that my name was brought up for some mysterious honor (which I’d later learn was VSB’s placement on Ebony’s 2011 Power 100 list) and that she wanted to call later to discuss something else.
We talked after I was done with the Essence shoot, and she mentioned that my name was also brought up as a potential writer for Ebony.com and asked if I wanted to work there, too. I told her I’d think about it. Which was a lie, because my real answer was, “Hell yeah, fucking right.”
I started there in January 2012—first as a biweekly columnist and a frequent contributor to Black Listed, which aggregated and summarized relevant news stories. After a month, I was put in charge of it and given a bump in pay and a title: contributing editor. This was huge, for reasons both literal and existential.
Although VSB already had a decent-sized audience, following and name, it still existed in a relevance purgatory. We were very popular with a very, very, very small group of people and not even on the radar next to the radar with anyone else. If I was asked what I did for a living and I said that I founded and ran a blog called Very Smart Brothas, I’d either get a look that said, “So basically you live in your aunt’s basement?” or I’d get a follow-up question: “So what do you REALLY do for a living?” The gig at Ebony and the important-sounding title provided my career an immediate legitimacy that VSB just couldn’t then.
Also, my Ebony.com workload didn’t require eight-hour days. I needed to be available from 9 to 6, but most days, I only spent maybe three or four hours doing Ebony-related work. Which was a perfect arrangement for me, since it allowed me to continue building VSB while also getting paid to work and learn at Ebony.
I remained a contributing editor for three years, learning valuable lessons on how to manage a digital magazine and forming close-knit working relationships (and, eventually, friendships) with my colleagues there—Jamilah, Kierna Mayo and Genese Cage in particular. In 2015, when Kierna and Jamilah left digital and were placed in charge of the magazine, they brought me with them. The Colored Section was my first (and still only) regular print-magazine column.
Perhaps it’s hyperbole to say that I owe my career to Ebony. But I’m not quite sure if the professional accolades that have come since 2012—most notably the book deal from Ecco (HarperCollins) and VSB becoming valuable enough to be acquired by GMG—would have happened without Ebony’s (and Kierna’s and Jamilah’s in particular) influence.
I also know that when I first read the spate of tweets and articles this year exposing Ebony magazine’s pattern of either paying contributors late or not paying them at all—stories captured by the hashtag #EbonyOwes—I remembered the time a month-late paycheck in late 2012 resulted in a series of mishaps that led to my car getting repossessed. I remember becoming so frustrated with a two-month-long gap in pay in 2014 that I started cc’ing then-CEO Desiree Rogers on the emails I sent to accounts payable, only to receive a terse and unkind reply from Rogers herself on New Year’s Eve, saying (paraphrasing), “Your money will come when it comes.”
And I remember being talked out of writing an #EbonyOwes type of piece and publishing it on VSB twice: once when accepting that in doing so, I would probably effectively fire myself from Ebony, and once when I was comfortable enough financially and creatively to burn that bridge but realized that writing that type of piece would just hurt the people I knew who were still there—the writers and editors and even the accounts payable people, who had no control over what the company’s leadership did.
Now Ebony is facing a suit from a group of 38 freelancers alleging $70,000 in unpaid work. (Over the past year, I’ve been asked by several different people if Ebony owes me any money still. My answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”)
In a cruel irony, the people who are most equipped to freelance are people who don’t actually need to. Who have other sources of income, and aren’t constricted by the immediacy of digital media—allowing them to devote more care to their work—and don’t need to spend a sizable amount of their working hours chasing and stressing over pay.
The quote above is from a piece I wrote earlier this year about the metaphysical control that money—the work for it, the pursuit of it and the lack of it—has on the lives of freelancers. This is a dynamic that large publications happily take advantage of. Some are much, much better than others, but all make use of the fact that there will always be a large pool of people wanting—sometimes wishing and dreaming—to get published on their pages. They are the dealers, and freelancers are the addicts, willing to do whatever the market demands they do because the inherent power imbalance distorts the concept of choice.
I’ve been that freelancer. And I’ve been personally victimized by Ebony. There are few things more embarrassing than calling the police thinking that your car was stolen, only to realize that it was collected (and then the frantic patching together of funds to get it back). But I haven’t felt any schadenfreude about Ebony finally receiving a very public comeuppance. Because as fucked up as Ebony’s leadership in Chicago had been—and as much as I wish that the dozens of unpaid contributors get their money—this spotlight as some singular example of invoicing triflin’ness is somewhat unfair.
It has not gone unnoticed that Ebony’s financial struggles have received an attention that the editorial successes they had both digitally and in print between 2012 and 2016 did not—achievements largely due to the women mentioned earlier. A recurring frustration that many of these colleagues felt while working at Ebony.com was that their work was done in the dark. The most attention we’d get was when either Hoteps or racists were angry at Jamilah.
I could write the exact-same article for Ebony.com that I did for VSB, but the piece would get much, much more traffic and engagement on VSB despite the fact that Ebony was paying me. Naturally, some of this was Chicago’s fault for not prioritizing digital. But as I watched #EbonyOwes go viral, I wondered what would have happened if Ebony’s digital (and print) work from that time had been supported and retweeted and shared with the same fervor.
Also, anyone with any sort of experience freelancing can recite the horror stories of attempting to get paid by platforms large and small, mainstream and predominantly black. Sometimes it’s an unexpected delay in payment. Sometimes you’re asked to work for free. Except instead of “free,” they’ll say “exposure” or “experience” or the free chicken and tote bag you’ll get while attending an event. Sometimes you learn that a colleague was paid more to do less work. Sometimes the invoicing process is so labyrinthine and draining, you just say “fuck it” and stop trying to get paid.
For instance, there’s a ginormous media behemoth that has owed me $1,000 for some work I did in February of 2016, and after what felt like the 18,000th different form I had to fill out, I just stopped trying. I spent more effort trying to get paid than I did with what I was supposed to get paid for. But Ebony now stands alone as the scapegoat while platforms with their own shady invoicing histories publish work on their demise.
Writing this feels somewhat anachronistic already because all of the people I knew at Ebony have since moved on, and it’s now owned by different (and inarguably worse) people. The Ebony of 2017 is not your grandmother’s Ebony or the Ebony I worked at, and this feels like a defense of a ghost. Or, even worse: a brand. A brand that doesn’t deserve any sort of attention today other than “Fuck you, pay me.”
I’m still not even sure why I’m writing this and what I’m attempting to accomplish with it, since I hope that the freelancers suing get every cent owed to them. It’s just sad that corporate mismanagement led to Ebony becoming what it is today: known more for being trifin’ than for the amazing work that was done there. And I’m sad to see so much attention—mostly (and deservedly) negative—devoted to a platform that desperately needed and deserved it when it was still viable.