We Write to Change the World
“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t…”
I have this half of a James Baldwin quote (from a 1979 New York Times interview) on my wall, in my notebook, on a shirt, and on a few desktop backgrounds. The often-cited longer version adds some more hopefulness to it and changes the meaning by omission, but this is the clause I prefer. It acknowledges that writing can be a toil and a toll, a struggle without end. It admits the likelihood of falling short, but extols the process as noble even if the world keeps on turning the same way when all is said and done. And there is that modicum of hope, that acknowledgement that writers and storytellers can change the world-little by little and chance by chance-even if the odds ain’t all that great.
Perhaps I am drawn to this bit of literary defiance because the chances for me were never all that great. I am dyslexic. Worse still, I grew up as a dyslexic kid in North Carolina and rural Virginia. Even worse, I grew up as a Black dyslexic kid in these places. Words did not come to me easily — quite literally, since I did not speak until well after most other children. My earliest memories of school life were of a disjointed, jumbled mess, of a series of school systems that treated me in turns as gifted, “special” (in numerous senses), impaired, and threatening. By the time I learned basic handwriting I had skipped a grade, been suspended, spent time isolated in special counseling, changed schools, and had taught myself how to read, but in reverse.
It may not be a product of race, but the fact that all of my teachers — aside from a few stints by my own mother — were white is not lost on me. After teaching myself how to read stories I developed on interest in telling them. I was going to be a writer. I don’t even think I knew what the job entailed, except for the fact that my father was working on his dissertation for a good portion of my childhood and I wanted a desk like him.
I created my own children’s stories, written on stolen scraps from his legal papers and stapled in secret when my mother was away (a few stapled fingers made the device highly off-limits). My family was thrilled in the way that only family can be. When I hand made copies for my teachers, they were less thrilled. “Wouldn’t you like to do something else?” happened more than once. My writing just wasn’t so good. But I kept at it. At its earliest, the act of putting a pen to paper has been both an act of defiance and the proudest skill that I have acquired. Not only did I have the power to create my own universes, I had the power to stand in the face of the odds and tell them no.
Even so, through the years, writing became more of a hobby than a goal. I was drawn to science and then to stats because I was undeniably good at them. Moonlighting as a freelancer and reviewing concerts in college for whomever would pay for gas to go was fun, but I still felt like an impostor. I wasn’t a real writer. I was just a guy who tried hard and was on the decent side of terrible. Despite the fact that I yearned more deeply than anything to tell the rich stories inside of me and the people I loved so much, I pursued the sensible option at every turn.
My current career path through graduate school at UNC and into a position at the Kaiser Family Foundation has been a manifestation of that philosophy. Even as my writing career expanded, so the impostor syndrome remained. I read articles from folks like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones and thought these are real writers. What could I offer the world that had stars like these but my own imitations, a candle shining in the sunlight?
Things shifted last year. I sat in tears at my office here in D.C. trying to figure out what to do as I watched the world turn upon itself in Ferguson. I watched the streets burn. We led protests here, but I couldn’t help but feel like the place for me was chronicling the nascent Movement churning and bellowing in the middle of the chaos and tear gas on those Missouri streets. So I wrote more to ease the pain. And I finally began entertaining the thought of following the passion that burned inside of me.
There are good folks in my life who stoked those flames. My parents still keep copies of my old stories deep in their archives. My wife, Kerone, has been at turns comforting and motivational and has encouraged me with the fullness of her heart to do what I love. My brothers and sisters at Seven Scribes, the publication that Josie Duffy and I started when the call became too intense to ignore, have been a constant source of encouragement and have taught me more than I could imagine. Josie, Trey, Eve, Erika, and Frank have been the greatest team imaginable. Other people too numerous to mention have influenced me on social media and in real life. Each with the same call: do what you believe you are here to do.
Today’s the day that I finally do that, full-time. I am leaving my current position to become a staff writer at Daily Kos, where I will join up with Josie and a team of world-beating, passionate writers who endeavor to set the world right. I will be inheriting some of the duties that my Morehouse brother and constant inspiration Shaun King recently filled as a champion for justice and the modern movements for marginalized lives, Black lives, and for the future of humanity. I hope not only to help lift the veil on the issues facing us, but to tell the stories of the light and the hope. This is how I interpret the journalistic duty to tell the truth.
This post may seem like a bit of self-indulgence, but I know that among the people I interact with and some who I’ve had the pleasure to mentor, many have struggled with the same issues. I hope that everyone who reads this and who keeps some tabs on what I do in my career with Daily Kos, Seven Scribes, and as a freelancer and fiction writer will remember Baldwin’s words and mine.
If you want to write, write. You are a writer. You were made for this time. You are a master of this world, and if you hail from the global underclass or advocate for them, your voice is one of defiance. Most importantly, if you do not tell your truth, there are so few people in this world who will. And this nation and this world cannot change without truth; they cannot become more perfect places without those truths. So we do write to change the world.
But, from me, know perfectly well that you can.