On Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Very Real Danger Of “Writing While Black” » VSB

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On Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Very Real Danger Of “Writing While Black”

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for the Stella Adler Studio of Acting


I wouldn’t dare compare my level of popularity to the very real (and much scarier) fame Ta-Nehisi Coates possesses. But when reading his “On Homecomings” yesterday — where he lamented that he was forced to back out of buying his dream house in Brooklyn because of safety concerns stemming from his address being widely publicized — two recent experiences came to mind.

1.  While in the airport two weeks ago waiting to board a flight to New York for the Black Lives Matter panel, I stopped at Bar Symon to get breakfast. I sat at the bar. While there, I noticed two White women sitting towards the end of the bar. One of them looked at me, smiled, and then said something to her friend. I kept eating. Glance back a few moments later, and the same thing happens. And, a few moments after that, once of them spoke:

Hey, are you Damon Young?

It turns out that both women are fans of VSB. One even expressed that she got into arguments with her family over Wendy Bell, and really appreciated what I said about her. Apparently they recognized me from a picture they’d seen of me. (Which surprised me because I’m much hairier now than I am in my profile pic. Also, I was wearing a suit that day, not one of my “I Love Bougie Black Girls” uniforms.) We talked for a few more moments, and then I left and walked to my gate.

2. I’m walking my dog at midnight. I sense a car slowing next to me. Before I even turn to see who it is, I clench up, my heart starts racing, and I start mentally preparing for what to do next. Even quickly scanned the sidewalk for shit to throw if I have to. I look through the driver’s window. It’s dark, though, so I can’t really see anything. Right when the “so…should I be running now?” thought hits me, I hear a voice:

Hey, are you Damon Young?

Apparently this guy is a fan of VSB, and recognized me. He knew I lived in the area, thought it was me, but wanted to confirm. As my heartbeat slowed to a manageable rate, we talked for a few more moments before he drove off.

As VSB has grown — and as my own name has become more known — the thought of safety, both what it means and the relationship my work has with it, has become more prominent. If fans can spot me at 6am in airports and on poorly lit streets at midnight, people who know who I am but are definitely not fans could do the same. Which is especially disconcerting because I write very often about race and racism and the police and many of the things I say are, well, uncomfortable for many to hear.

And I live in a predominately White city. And I have a wife and a daughter.

And I’ll admit today that while my increased prominence has led to numerous opportunities, I’ve passed some up specifically because of those concerns. Most notably an invitation to appear on WTAE to speak on a piece I wrote about police dogs. I just didn’t feel it was very smart to have my face attached to that topic.

Complicating things — internally, at least — is the fact that I feel self-conscious about admitting any of that. Even as I write this I don’t quite feel like I should. Because what kind of Black writer am I if I’m not fearless? If I’m not always willing to put my face on TV and in hundreds of thousands of living rooms and actually speak the uncomfortable words I write? Also, I’m a man. Which means whichever threats to my safety — real or perceived — I feel pale in comparison to what Black women who write about race and racism face. Me being concerned about any of this feels, well, weak.

This dynamic is also a bit of a paradox. Because both the increased prominence and the opportunities that come from it often lead to more opportunities to make money. Which gives me a greater flexibility to provide for my family. And an enhanced ability to protect it.

But I can’t deny the reality. This is a real concern. Does it permeate my every thought? No. Does it determine what I decide to write about? Not really. But does it exist, and it is something that lurks when I’m walking my dog or driving with my daughter? Yes. Yes it does.

A paragraph in Coates’s piece expresses this dynamic — which, admittedly, borders on a neurosis — perfectly:

But the world is real. And you can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history. And you can’t really be a human being and not want some place to retreat into yourself, some place to collapse, some place to be at peace. That’s just neurology. One shouldn’t get in the habit of crying about having a best-selling book. But you can’t really sell enough books to become superhuman, to salve that longing for home.

I don’t really have a solution here. The only thing I plan on changing about what I do and how I do it is building this platform and having it reach an even larger audience. Which means there will be more hate mail, more angry tweets, and more racist comments and Facebook messages. Which, I’ll admit, tend to entertain me. I’m tickled, even, by some.

Until its midnight and a car pulls up next to me, and I remember these were sent by real people.

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Keisha

    “Until its midnight and a car pulls up next to me, and I remember these were sent by real people.”
    Exactly! :-/ Hopefully you never encounter anyone that means to cause you harm.

  • Tambra

    Good going. It tells me that you are doing something right. Continue and congrats!

  • PDL – Cape Girl

    We live in perilous times, stop walking your dog at midnight. It’s too dangerous. The good book tells us about these times, how the love many will wax cold and iniquity will abound. We have these writings for keeping out of harm’s way. Find an alternative for the dog getting relief.

    I don’t mean to sound preachy, but crime and heartless folks are real. We see it play out EVERYDAY, every news cast, every city. Fortunately it was a fan, but really you can’t be too careful.

    • LMNOP

      Maybe the dog can go before bed and then just hold it until the morning? I actually just assumed that was how dogs worked.

      • PDL – Cape Girl

        If that will save a life, it make sense

  • Jennifer

    I read the Coates piece this morning and my heart sank for him. His success has brought a lot of really great opportunities, but the situation with the brownstone was frightening. Nobody’s success should mean people just show up to your front step expecting to have a word with you. Nope.

    • mr. steal your costco samples

      for us, stress over success is just as bad as stress over failure. man, life just one thing after another.

      • Tambra

        Our race is hard one to run.

  • Coates’ piece was really sad to me. I remember reading him around 2009ish before he started at the Atlantic. Anonymity is akin to freedom. It’s a harsh trade-off getting a wider readership with your dwindling privacy.

    • protocoach

      I got super into his blog and the Golden Horde back around that time too. His writing now is more powerful, more focused, and obviously reaching a much larger audience, but he’s less free to take chances, talk about when he doesn’t know or isn’t sure about things, and interact with the community. I miss the Golden Horde days, when it was all a little more free-wheeling. It’s been awesome to see him go supernova, because it was obvious even back then that he had the talent to do so, but the trade-offs make me sad.

      • I was there too, watching more than contributing because work. That was a great comment section at that time. There were people there who were as smart and smarter than Coates, who challenged him and his thinking. Hanging out watching his blog is what taught me to engage the opposition in good faith; that racists love their children too.

        That was before it descended into a cesspool.

        • protocoach

          That was seriously probably the smartest commenting section I’ve ever seen (no disrespect to VSB, which I love very much, but the Golden Horde was on another level). Lotta mental firepower in that crowd.

      • I miss the freewheeling days too. Once they disappeared, I faded out.

      • Jennifer

        I love VSB’s comments section (we go together now!), but the Golden Horde was my first love. It was such a lesson in how internet anonymity didn’t necessary bring out the worst in people (with the help of some good moderation). I learned a lot on those comments.

        • protocoach

          > (with the help of some good moderation)

          So true. You can’t have a good community without being willing to break out the mallet when it’s needed.

        • The Horde was dope. I occasionally loved giving it to lost causers on some of those Civil War posts.

    • Val

      ” Anonymity is akin to freedom.”

      So true, Dara. Which is why I am very careful how much personal info I reveal in these e streets. It’s so nice to be able to freely express thoughts and feelings without worrying about how it will affect you irl.

      • Yeah

      • truthseeker2436577@yahoo.com

        That’s great advice.

        • Val


          • truthseeker2436577@yahoo.com

            You’re Welcome Sister and Goodnight.

      • MSNY

        At this point, I don’t believe anything online is actually anonymous so I still censor myself as if my isp is being tracked…maybe paranoid buuuut it’s true.

        • Deeds

          That’s not paranoia, nothing is truly anonymous.

    • I found Coates before he blew up by the oddest of circumstances. I’m a huge fan of the Libertarian blogger Megan McArdle, but she tends to change hosting websites every few years. I found her on The Atlantic, and that’s how I found TNC initially, because the two were good friends. When he first started out, he seemed to be open minded, but with his fear, I understand where he’s coming from. Hmmm…

      • Hugh Akston

        “I’m a huge fan of the Libertarian blogger Megan McArdle, but she tends to change hosting websites every few years.”

        Almost by the same circumstance…though I am not a libertarian..I do follow quite a few of them…

        “When he first started out, he seemed to be open minded, but with his fear, I understand where he’s coming from.”

        I think he is very opened minded, and the comment sections on his articles used to be open for comments. Some of the responses were discouraging to say the least. Too many never engaged him intellectually. I may be wrong on this but I think he is the only author on that site where articles are not open for comments.

        • protocoach

          Yeah, he stopped allowing comments when he started to blow up. Apparently they were turning into a non-stop shitshow and he didn’t have the time and energy to keep moderating that seriously.

      • raul

        As did I. I really like his style a lot more back then. He’s at his best when he’s being inquisitive and more or less thinking out loud. Now that he’s just issuing edicts from high above if feels like he’s just preaching to the bobble head choir.

        • mhicks

          That’s the thing though: he doesn’t necessarily *want* that, but that’s the perch a writer gets put on when they blow up.

          The perception changes. He’s writing and sharing his vision, doing the same things he was doing when the checks were smaller, but people now *perceive* him as preaching to them because you see his face more on TV and the interwebs.

  • mr. steal your costco samples

    there was a piece with TNC on NPR where he was chatting with his boon from the 90s (or so) and the boon was like “we got such different lives — is we even friends?”

    it was low key heartbreaking

    • IsitFridayyet?

      I remember that piece. It really was heartbreaking to see a friendship fizzle out.

    • That’s some cold ish.

      • mr. steal your costco samples

        it wasn’t cold exactly, it was introspective if a little distant but touching on the boon’s part

      • Tambra

        Some people can’t deal with the successes of others.

        • Kas

          It’s not that they are hating on their friend’s success. Just their lives are moving in completely different circles.

          • LMNOP

            I think, honestly, we all have old friends like this, whether we’re successful or not, people just have very different lives sometimes.

    • Kas

      Short answer, yes but not so much.

    • VivianDarkbloom

      yeah, that was tough to listen to

      • Jennifer

        It was uncomfortable, but really good radio. I’ve wondered what has happened to their relationship since that story came out.

  • Ess Tee

    After I read TNC’s piece, I could only ask “What now?”

    He and his family backed out of the brownstone purchase because that information became widely know. Aren’t all RE buys (kind of, sort of) part of public record? How do TNC, his wife, and his son ensure that whatever move they make next doesn’t get published in whatever blog? That’s fear in perpetuity right there.

    • Kas

      It’s called LLC/shell corporation. You don’t buy under your own name.

      • Ess Tee

        I was thinking that right after I hit send. TNC needs to set a up a trust and buy through that or something.

    • Tambra

      I never understood what is so good about doxxing people.

      • Ess Tee

        On this one, though, I don’t know if it’s doxxing, per se, since you can go onto a number of real estate sites and find out information about homes (current selling price, what it last sold for, the exact address, etc).

    • Brooklyn_Bruin

      They do it like celebrities and buy the house using a shell entity. Most of those condos in Manhattan owned by Russian oligarchs and Arab oil money are done that way. Incredibly naive is my first reaction, especially given his rarified circles, but I’ll give him a pass.

      It’s more interesting to me that mainstream media is all up on him like that. Nobody cares where Thomas Friedman lives, and he’s much bigger than Coates by a couple orders of magnitude.

      I got my suspicions about the N.Y. Post on this one.

      • Ess Tee

        On your second point, it might be that he’s the Heavy Weight Thinker on Race currently in ways that aren’t happening for middle-aged White men. TNC is the crown prince as it were.

        But I do agree that it was naivete on his part thinking (wanting? hoping?) that he could still live life as he had before the global recognition.

    • Lego

      I thought the same question. Except I wonder how this affects the will to produce; how does this situation shape the thinking and writing of a public intellectual/writer? Hate mail, stalking, trolling, etc., are all acts of oppression and I fear the suppression that follows.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      Most of the time, retail home purchases are buried in the paper unless you are buying an expensive piece of property.

      Spike Lee’s moving out of Brooklyn is very similar to TNC’s experience.

      • Ess Tee

        Yeah, I heard Spike Lee tell the story of someone coming to his home while he was away but his wife wasn’t. That’s gotta be scary as heyll.

  • John Shannon

    It’s a chance of the Force to Leave where you Come From- not because you my think or feel like you are Better, but simply because it’s not Safe to go back/stay any longer.

    I’m curious about if that might be a case for the Obamas; POTUS may have said that they want Sasha and Malia to finish school in DC so they are staying, but I would not be surprised if many folks back in Chicago- White, Black, etc- aren’t pissed at him for whatever has happened there that he didn’t do or prevent as President, his closeness with Rahn Emanuel, etc. Think about the many athletes that can’t go back home because it was places they busted their butts to get out of, even if they got family and friends still there.

    It is crazy how even being good at what you do, and being Black as well, has such an effect that no other ethnicity will ever relate to or understand in This Country- not religious, not just gender or by sexual orientation/identity but merely the Tone of your Skin….

  • Andie

    “But I can’t deny the reality. This is a real concern.” I think even for commenters.

    ‘Alot of talking like it’s just you and me’

    • PhlyyPhree

      Even for commenters.
      I woke up this morning to a text of a prior comment attached to my avi pic. It literally scared the entire sh it out of me. I can’t imagine if it were someone who had hostile intentions.
      After reading this piece and the TNC, I understand why stars like Bey are said to change cell numbers every 6 months. It’s scary and disheartening to think that artists are forced to this extent because they feel compelled to give of themselves.

      • Tambra

        That’s scary as shid.

      • LMNOP

        Dam, that is scary. What happened?

        • PhlyyPhree

          I basically ignored it. It came from someone already saved in my phone as “Do NOT Fucking Answer”. I just realized if it was that easy for someone that simple to find me, I probably need to be careful because others that I do want to talk to might find me.

          • LMNOP

            That is creepy, especially since it’s someone you’re intentionally not talking to and he’s being like “haha, you can’t get rid of me,” which is some psycho stalker ish.

            It has occurred to me before that if someone felt the urge to read through every single thing written by LMNOP they would know an insane amount of personal ish about me. I always thought I was kind of paranoid about this kind of stuff, but I guess not.

            • fxd8424

              And sadly, there are some nut jobs who would gladly take the time to read through your posts.

            • L8Comer

              I’ve had the same thought

      • Kas

        Not only do I use an alias, I set up a dummy email address for it.

        • Tambra

          Smart. I may have to do that. It may mean deleting my profile.

          • LMNOP

            You can switch to a new email in disqus. I did it mostly to avoid getting emails from disqus.

            • Tambra

              Ok, Uncle google here I come.

            • Tambra

              Thank you done.

          • Kas

            You can change the underlying email without changing the profile. It’s what I did after major pressure from my s.o.

            • Tambra

              Thank you. Done.

            • Tambra

              Checking out for now. Going back to put in a couple more hours into the boss of my life.

            • Other_guy13

              I’ll be doing that once I get to the house. I changed mine the other day because of this very concern. Someone I know hit me up like she saw me on here I since stopped caring but it’s still a good idea to be incognito.

        • PhlyyPhree

          I never even gave it much thought. I created this profile soooo long ago. And I’m only a commenter. It’s not as if I write for the site or anything. And at this point, I don’t even know how to untangle myself. Smh

        • Hugh Akston

          I usually delete mines altogether after a year or two. Facebook group debates taught me a valuable lesson.

        • MsSula

          I set up that address for all my blog-commenting eons ago. It has proven very useful. :)

      • miss t-lee


      • Mortal Man

        It’s terrifying, the lengths people go through to feel some measure of control in this world.

      • PinkRose

        I also learned how being a commenter on pro-Black spaces on the web comes with some risk. After one threat too many where it was clear this racist nut had somehow tracked me down, I finally responded with ONE last sentence him: Red. Dot. Hollow. Point.

        Needless to say the stalking/threats ended.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      It’s the beauty and the curse of VSB; Champ, Liz, and PJ made this space so that we could feel like it’s just you and me. As the site has grown, it still has that feeling but it’s now on the radar for people who don’t have the same agenda.

  • kingpinenut

    “Which surprised me because I’m much hairier now than I am in my profile pic.”

    this ish…^^^^

    even more recognizable now

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