I couldn’t help but wonder: Of all the self-chroniclers I’d gone to like a moth in my early twenties, why were so few brown, and Black?
Here is a story you’ve heard before: A young woman gets off a bus in the heart of midtown, New York City. She carries a suitcase and a sheaf of legal pads. Has fifteen dollars to her name. She’s a lover, first of all—probably of cis-white men with artistic aspirations, people disinclined to treat her well. She came here, from Anyways-it’s-not-important, to witness. She’s here to pin, then write, herself down.
In my case, it wasn’t a suitcase so much as a guitar case stuffed with clothes, but every other bit of the arc remains. Like many, I was eighteen once, an aspiring New Yorker once, and once—for a long once—I defined my career goals simply as “Carrie Bradshaw.” I even remember saying so to my high school government teacher, Mr. Freeman, who smelled a rat in the wall before I did. His nose crinkled when I explained my career goals. His advice to me?
“You should aim higher.”
When I was sixteen, I knew these things about myself: I wanted to see, I wanted to be seen, and I wanted those wants to add up to art. I liked claggy sentences and power-clashing. I liked pining for people across great distances. I fancied myself unique in these ways. Luckily this was the mid-aughts, so there was a ready container for every other teen with similar penchants: the blog.
I started with an Expage in sixth grade, then moved to a Xanga in middle school. By high school, Bloggers were the fashion. Under assorted avatars, I wrote earnest odes to my crushes, veiled complaints about my enemies, hagiographies for Broadway musicals. Blogs were distinct from diary entries because—ostensibly—they were designed to be read, ideally by one’s secret admirer.
This lent stakes to the prose. One’s writing style had to be the right mix of pithy, cagey, and plaintive. Even before I’d seen a single episode of Sex and the City, I was versed in the art of performative self-reflection. And then Carrie Bradshaw sashayed into my life. She didn’t just make auto-documentary look glamorous. She made it look like a job.
Of all the self-chroniclers I’d gone to like a moth in my early twenties, why were so few brown and Black?
In recent years, we’ve taken Carrie to task for her problematical fictions from her taste in gentlemen, to the bras in bed. Or better yet: the deification of consumerism, which may deserve some responsibility for the hordes of us led to believe life in the gig economy could ever be compatible with New York City real estate prices, let alone Manolo Blahnik shoes. Worthy shade. But when I was sixteen and watching neutered-for-primetime Sex and the City reruns in my parent’s basement, all I could see were the setpieces of her life—the cigarette poised on the tip of the ashtray, our heroine’s brow furrowed as she brewed up another bon mot. Haute couture, hot sex, holy skyline, all of it leading to a lesson—the column.
It was hard, from the basement vantage, to shake what Carrie and her brunch cohort offered: a lifestyle that applauded the choice to spend one’s life seeking—indeed, getting paid to think about!—one’s own pleasure. It’s still hard to shake, for me anyway. That’s why I got on the bus.
I arrived in New York City with my own collection of secondhand tulle skirts and a Sex and the City poster, which I hung above my dorm fridge. Though I’d thought this choice was unique back in Maryland, I was impelled to change my tune when I immediately met a billion other girls with curly hair, clacking away on their laptops, searching for a Mr. Big. The poster became a bit of a joke; I pretended it was ironic. I told myself I was not kindred to those scores of other would-be Carries, because I was special. Meanwhile, my government teacher’s words rang in my head: Aim higher. Aim higher. Aim higher.
Direction came in the form of my freshman year writing seminar, “Writing the Essay.” In this class, I met Jeanette Winterson and her sexing cherry, Mark Doty and his soul on ice, and one Joan Didion, slouching towards Bethlehem. “Pay attention to her sentences,” my professor said. “The coolly distant observer guiding her prose, the casual ‘I.’”
Oh, catnip. Oh, Kryptonite. I was hooked from the first page of Slouching, the Keats poem framing her fearful odyssey through the sixties. As world-cracking as Didion’s prose was, there was something familiar in it, too. There were moments in her essays—the personal ones—where she might have been writing a blog: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
“On Keeping a Notebook” floored me. To think that such fond self-reflections could amount to an essay—that people would publish. To think that essays—not just a sex column in the New York Star, but respectable essays—could constitute a career. I fell hardest for the narrator in her now notorious New York City swansong “Goodbye To All That.” The nostalgic woman who seemed to be describing my ownmachinations in the East Village, but in a way that made it seem romantic to have misnamed all the bridges and nursed hangovers till five p.m. the next day. So plaintively Didion wrote: “Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.” My hand shot up. Me too, me too, me too.
In my eighteen-year-old arithmetic, Bradshaw and Didion looked like poles of the same spectrum. Though they employed different tones (pithy vs. profound), they shared an essential project of self-mythologizing and a dreamy-looking career. Both women invoked a life spent smoking on the edge of parties, clacking in and out of Condé Nast—all for the sake of self-study. I began to reform my career goals, but with a new waif in mind. Didion wrote for Harper’s, Vanity Fair, so I told myself I’d finally satisfied Mr. Freeman’s mandate. I was aiming higher.
It was still plausible, in the late-aughts, to commence a freelance career writing entirely about one’s self. On blogs like Rookie or Jezebel or HelloGiggles, a writer could parlay musings about, say, one’s sexual misadventures into minor ducats as quickly as such musings could be mused. At the same time, lyric essay collections interrogating one’s own emotional intelligence seemed to be everywhere. In 2014, in my circle, Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams was on everyone’s nightstand, and Sloane Crosley’s canon was given as gifts.
I devoured both the internet “content” and the essay collections, everything that seemed to be negotiating early twenties ennui—casual sex, money trouble, dismal day jobs. From this canon, I drew affirmation. Every personal essay in the vein of “Goodbye To All That” or Bradshaw’s column seemed to prove it was inherently interesting to be (voluntarily) poor and (indiscriminately) sexually active in a metropolis, particularly if one could look cool while doing it.
But as Jia Tolentino wrote in 2017, in a New Yorker piece decrying the end of what then seemed to be the personal essay boom: “After the Presidential election, many favored personal-essay subjects—relationships, self-image, intimate struggle—seemed to hit a new low in broader social relevance.” Rightly, she grokked the changing terrain; the media bubble was imploding, the country was embracing a white supremacist. But even beyond that, Tolentino’s piece (along with a polemic from Laura Bennett at Slate) put the politics of self-excavation on trial. Tolentino praised the genre but threw distinct shade too, writing: “I never got tired of coming across a writerly style that seemed to exist for no good reason. I loved watching people try to figure out if they had something to say.”
I read “The Personal Essay Boom is Over” and clutched my fake pearls. No good reason? I felt personally victimized. It had not yet occurred to me to question the function of the canon I was gobbling, beyond the fact that it shored up the worthiness of my own career goals. So I started taking stock of my shelves.
For my part, I couldn’t help but wonder: Of all the self-chroniclers I’d gone to like a moth in my early twenties, why were so few brown, and Black? What to do with this invocation of “broader social relevance”?
I was twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, and writing as Carrie and Joan showed me how to—stylishly, first and foremost. I wrote pieces about the gigs I strung together to afford my exorbitant Brooklyn rent, the men who broke my heart, and the city I could not quite afford to have fun in. I’d taken what felt stealable from Didion and Bradshaw: the rhetorical question, which allowed me to avoid forming strong opinions, and the prettified observations, trained mainly inward. I abetted my imitation game by borrowing the setpieces of my heroines—the tulle skirt, the cigarette, the edge of the party. I had sold the bus girl story, successfully. To assorted online publications and myself.
But there was something disingenuous in this early self-reflection. Nothing I was writing was especially vulnerable, and I had a habit of generalizing. My pieces tended to resolve tidily. Like Carrie’s column, each had to end with a lesson. By dint of invoking the ‘I,’ my essays presumed a specialness about me, the subject. But notes from teachers and early readers took me to task for sentences that were pretty, but meaningless. Like many young writers in the culture Tolentino would later lament, I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to say yet. Looking back, I think I was avoiding it.
In a 2015 piece for The New Republic, Stacia L. Brown described the double standards in a publishing industry that lauded mostly white women for “first-person writing.” Invoking some of the Didion/Bradshaw acolytes I was gobbling in the mid-aughts—Cat Marnell, Emily Gould—she observed that the personal essay economy rewarded certain things in white women’s writing (the confessional form, lyricism), but held people of color, particularly women, to quite different tropes. Black writers, Brown noted, were more likely to be praised for exploring certain freighted subjects (trauma, triumph), forms (elegy), and tones (mournful, strong, victorious).
The first essay I wrote in which I really tried to explore my relationship to Blackness was for The Toast, in 2016. I was then a ghostwriter of romance novellas, and my white publisher had asked me to write an “urban romance.” I pitched a story about how squeamish this made me. The first draft fell out of me fast and furious. Under the eye of super-editor Nicole Chung, my rhetoricals sharpened into specific questions and claims. On its publication, there was less chaff and more substance in that essay than in any nonfiction I’d written before. When it was out in the world, I was proud but terrified at how honest I’d let myself be. How very un-dreamy.
I was beginning to realize, with that piece, that a lot of what I had to write and think about would fall under the umbrella Brown describes: racism and sexism, trauma and triumph. That which made me curious and angry and puzzled, that which gave my style substance and my brain fire, did happen to invoke the “broader social relevance” Tolentino spoke of. In subsequent years, my writing would want less and less to do with a quest for love and labels in the second most expensive American city. It was thrilling and right and inevitable that I widened the aperture of my self-exploration, but a little sad, too. To admit the extent of my self-as-subject was to realize a lot of pain under all that smoke and tulle.
Elsewhere in her essay, Brown traces a literary lineage for Black writers that begins with the enslaved person’s narrative. “Historically, the expectation of personal writing about black life seems largely rooted in exceptionalism,” she writes, citing the autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass. I found this frame compelling on two fronts.
It was exceptionalist thinking that led me to the personal essay to begin with, as I presumed myself a sufficiently interesting subject to explore over many pages and years. But it was also exceptionalist thinking that prevented me from writing earlier about my specific experiences as a Black woman. I resented having to invoke certain things. Like plenty of other middle-class lightskinned ladies inclined to preserve a narrative about themselves as the only Black person in mostly white rooms, I fancied myself above the heaviness.
I wanted to be a glittery I, a chronicler of nothing but my own damn self. And a part of me still wants this.Like Brown, I see a lot to resent in the fact that Black writers are often asked—explicitly or implicitly, by the culture—to market their trauma and triumph narratives, in lieu of more mundane musings. I wish we did not have to write about pain all the time. I wish we did not have to write ‘we’ all the time, invoking monolith via the third person plural. But the ‘I’ Bradshaw and Didion and their acolytes wielded looks fraught from here, too.
I wanted to be a glittery I, a chronicler of nothing but my own damn self.
The older I get, the harder it is to ignore the inadequacies of my early icons. A Carrie query: Could a Black woman write, with sepia sweetness, about her quest for pleasure or the mistakes of her youth and be merely applauded for it? I remember my friend Michael’s face when he pointed out the suspicion pervading the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the conservative pearl-clutching lurking under Didion’s cool ‘I.’ We were sitting in a bar in the same Village where Didion sometimes chased gazpacho with Bloody Marys, and Bradshaw sometimes bought Vogue instead of dinner. As he informed me of the former’s Goldwater leanings, my friend laughed in my face.
“But how did you miss that?” he said. I didn’t answer then, but will now: I didn’t want to see.
In the first line of “Goodbye To All That,” Didion wrote, “It’s easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” I am twenty-nine now. In the past few years, since assorted thinkers invited us all to interrogate the who and the why of this form, I’ve questioned how a mostly white/straight/metropolitan/feminine vision of auto-documentary was so seductive to me. Often this questioning has come on the heels of finding the essayists who did have something to say, to me specifically: James Baldwin, bell hooks, Zadie Smith, Kiese Laymon.
Recently, an artist I admire described her writing as a tactic: her means of politicizing, radicalizing, and making more visible “complex truths.” Her words made me think—as I am always thinking lately—about intentions and praxis, ethos and possibility. The future I want to be part of building will involve unthinking individualism on the page and in the structures that govern us. I suspect now that to be a Black writer is to labor with community in mind, towards the liberation of a collective. Perhaps this is as much a burden as it is a glorious onus.
And yet. Sometimes, in the middle of a vaguely guilty Sex and the City binge, I find myself wondering what a writing culture that glamorized Black women’s mere metropolitan misadventures could have looked like. What would it have been like, for instance, if I’d gotten off that bus in 2008 and walked into a field saturated with Samantha Irbys? What if eighteen-year-old Brittany had lionized Khadijah James instead of Carrie Bradshaw?
I like to imagine what other structures and styles might have framed these early attempts to write myself down, in the somewhat sideways universe where the Black personal needn’t feel yolked, always and inevitably, to the Black body politic. What non-events in my sex life would I have thought worth trying to publish? How might I have said goodbye to being young? Perhaps the lack of this hypo-canon isn’t such a great loss for letters, but I sometimes lament the weight of legacy on the young, Black imagination. For surely, some silly sweet things are lost when they demand we aim the highest with every word we set to paper.
Brittany K. Allen is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer and library goblin. Her prose appears or is forthcoming in Catapult, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Kenyon Review Online, and Longreads, among other places, and her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her stage plays have been produced and developed at Portland Center Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and elsewhere.