How I Write “Black” for Brands. Hire Me to Find Out.
Around seven years ago, companies started paying for AAVE points. That’s weird.
I’m reading a book called Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour that’s rightly brilliant. It’s about a young Black man named Darren Vender who lives in Brooklyn with his mother after graduating at the top of his class from a specialized high school. Rather than going off to college and meeting the expectations that come with high achievement, Darren decides he’ll keep it simple and work at Starbucks. He is an A-1 employee who runs a team of misfits, a few of them older, to peak coffee-slinging performance. But it’s obviously not his calling. Darren’s failure to launch might be a result of his close relationship with his mother, a widow whose gleam is gone but for the presence of her son, or it might be his need to stay humble and not outpace the people in the area where he grew up. No matter the reason, he’s not satisfying his potential and that truth hangs over his head and the story until he meets Rhett.
Rhett’s the charming white co-founder of a nebulous startup company called Sumwun that alleges it can help companies boost productivity by assigning “assistants” to employees. The assistants are untrained therapists. Rhett woos Darren away from barista life with the promise of money, status, and, of course, the sense of purpose he so sorely lacks. Darren works hard to become a sales rep at Sumwun and his odyssey begins. Sumwun shows him the brutal environs of workplace culture and pulls him from one insular, homogeneous world to another. I can relate to this story so it’s been an enchanting read.
I also grew up in Brooklyn. But I barely graduated high school. I was tagged as “gifted” way too early to know what that meant but on time enough to feel crushed under the weight of the assignment. Somehow, after years of drifting, I managed to start writing for an ad agency in the SoHo section of Manhattan. I rode the local train from Brownsville to the office and would get off at the stop where a famous bakery hugged a 4-star bistro and neighbored a gourmet yogurt hut. Since the 90s, downtown had always been hip and overpriced to me so working there was a mix of intimidation and pride that I’d be earning my keep in a posh enclave. I got this job, writing captions for a cable network, because a friend I worked with at a hip-hop blog thought I could be a fit for their latest client. During the interview, I sat across from the agency’s co-founder, a cool divorced Black man with a pro basketball player’s surname, and explained why I loved Black culture and had written about it extensively.
His gradually widening smirk said ‘You’re hired’ before he opened his mouth to confirm. Within a week, I was working from 8 a.m. and to 11 p.m. making social media posts for the network’s shows, live-Tweeting plot points, replying to viewers, and enjoying every minute. I could write the way I did about hip-hop, in my own voice, blending the argot I used in my own life with a growing knowledge of formal language as well. I was being paid to code-switch and, mainly, it was for an audience who looked like me.
Something about the assignment felt weird though. When I wasn’t at the network itself, seeing Black people walk by my desk, making conversation, I was at the agency, where the employees were, well, mostly White. Even the friend who referred me was a White Midwesterner who loved hip-hop culture but also felt good entrusting me with the account and the ways we’d aim to grow it. I talked to him every day and we sat next to each other. Still, I felt alone a lot in the SoHo office. Once, while the sales team was trying to snag a Black hair and skincare brand’s business, the account manager making the pitch asked me if I’d be all right helping them to prepare the presentation. I didn’t know much about the selling points or what they’d done to cozy up to the would-be client but I did know it had been my mother’s favorite for over 20 years and had recently been acquired by one of America’s oldest cosmetic leaders. Sales needed testimonials from young Black and Latina women with natural hair and I was dating someone who fit that profile so they invited her to do a paid survey. Only one person in the sales group, an account manager who’d been assigned to this specific pitch, was a Black woman. It was her first time on any pitch. I started to sense that my role in the corporate world mimicked the tokenism I’d experienced in prep school decades earlier. Whether or not the merits of my writing did the job, it was much more palatable to have a Black person writing in the cute, New Age slang of the moment than to risk the embarrassment of being caught with a White person doing the same job. I was the insurance policy in an era of social media gaffes converting into PR stains and lost dollars. I was the lone Black voice in an era where fast food giants released mixtapes and Tweets about “clapbacks” and “on fleek” or whatever the fuck moved the needle in the deluge of American cultural moments rushing at us. Fortune 500 companies are so desperate for market and mind-share, they’ll spend several salaries’ worth of marketing on sounding like Black teens for even a moment of connection.
Sadly, this works to captivate consumers more than you might think it does. Fast forward almost a decade after my SoHo job and I can count at least four more times where I was paid well to make my Blackness into a commodity, an angle. Now, whether those companies who wanted the Black voice also wanted my Black voice is another story. It works better for them to lease the culture than to pay the interest of exclusion, pain, and resentment. I appreciate Askaripour’s seminal novel because it gets to the heart of this dichotomy. Darren is the lead character in his world and a star at the companies where he works but he’s still undervalued, unknown, and unsung. Whenever he does reach the heights he’s destined for, a little voice of doubt creeps in to remind him that it may be a fluke. It’s the dreaded imposter moment so many Black people face in the commercial gauntlet that is American 9-to-5ing.
Whether or not I can transcend this kind of work, as Black puppet for corporate ventriloquists, I guess, is up to me. But until I can reveal the soul and memories behind the voice, I’ll always spend a moment adjusting my mask for the stage.