For Black writers everywhere, Black History Month can be a time of personal and professional jubilation, when Black creators have a greater opportunity to craft stories about our communities and experiences. However, for many Black writers, including myself, Black History Month has a more troublesome side: pressure to create as much content as possible, feelings of Black stories being disposable, and other issues.
I’ve been a freelance writer for the past four years with a majority of writing focusing on Blackness. Thankfully, I have had the privilege to write for Black and BIPOC publications that center and care for nonwhite perspectives and stories. Unfortunately, for every online magazine that values Black voices wholly, there are three more that aren’t interested in our perspective.
Given this dynamic, Black History Month means a coveted chance for Black writers, especially newer ones, to break into larger publications interested in publishing Black content. Black History Month can be an exciting time to explore stories that traditionally wouldn’t be accepted and watch read the amazing work of other Black writers.
However, with more opportunities, there is a stark increase in pressure to write and publish. For white publications, the investment and excitement about Black stories has a countdown clock, forcing Black creators to squeeze out as much content as possible.
The stakes of writing more during Black History Month aren’t just professional. It’s also financial. With the lull in pitch acceptances that some Black writers face (especially Black writers writing about Blackness), Black History Month is a time for Black writers to make as much money as possible.
“I’m unemployed so I make most of my money through freelance virtual assistant work and also writing so I feel like if I was going to make money during the year, it would be this month,” said Nia Tucker, who has been writing for the past year.
With such limited opportunity the rest of the year and a halfway chance during Black History Month to get published, Black writers hustle to take full advantage of the moment.
But it’s not just the quantity of what’s being written. It’s about the quality too. Given how many first working relationships emerge during Black History Month between writers and editors, there’s the pressure to write pieces perfectly. Mistakes with executing a piece could mean jeopardizing relationships with receptive publications.
There’s an entire other responsibility to write stories that do right by the Black community. Of course this responsibility exists year-round but is heightened given the symbolic importance of Black History Month. Black writers must craft pieces that don’t tokenize Black experiences for newfound opportunities. This often means writing stories that don’t flatten Black experiences while also committing to writing about Blackness (with authentic interest and care) throughout the year.
“(There’s a responsibility when) going after these stories in a way that not only protects the integrity of what the story is but also my integrity and not feeling like I am tokenizing these people during a specific month,” said Shelby Smith, a communications director at a Memphis nonprofit for the past six years.
With those responsibilities in mind, Black writers also have to craft our stories to fit the demands and expectations of mainstream publications. Telling our stories to white publications may mean overexplaining aspects of our existence to white audiences. Prince Shakur, a freelance writer of almost four years and memoirist, spoke about his experience writing a story about Black, queer men during Black History Month last year. After submitting his piece, he received heavy edits to change the tone of his piece and make it more “educational.”
“The fact that the pitch was accepted and then I was asked to change the tone just shows how inauthentic editors, websites and publications can be and how they can feign interest during Black History Month,” Shakur said.
Black writers also must deal with the concern of having to mine our trauma for mainstream publications, the kind of stories whiter publications are oftentimes more interested in. “It’s definitely exhausting to constantly write about, ‘I’m a Black person, I’m a queer person, please treat me like a human being,’” said Ashleigh-Rae Thomas, a freelance writer of four years.
Given the myriad of contending concerns facing Black writers, there is always the lingering question of why white publications only choose to only showcase Black writers during Black History Month. Why do our stories only matter to you now?
Notable publications cast aside Black writers all year, momentarily bringing us into the fold for a month, only to be thrown away again. Our treatment makes us feel disposable, like tokens for publications to brag about their progressiveness.
“(Publications) just see (Black History Month) as an opportunity to show off that they take pitches by Black people. The pieces I’ve seen from Black writers this month have been so, so good but I’m not sure that the publications they get released under support them,” Tucker said.
The sensitivity and thoughtfulness (effort that can equate to increased pressure) that Black writers approach Black History Month with isn’t the problem. The problem is the way that Black writers are only picked up during Black History Month and relegated the rest of the year. We work so hard and worry so much about our presentation during our month given the limited number of shots we have during the rest of the year. The temporary status of Black writers during Black History Month is an indication of a much larger problem, one that calls for fundamental change to the way the industry views Black storytelling.
“A better world for Black artists and writers would be for us to get the support we get during Black History Month all the time because … (Black art, culture, and writing has) given us the best parts of what we have,” Shakur said.
This all calls for systematic change. More Black editors who can plug in Black writers, as Tucker suggested. More opportunities year-round. Allowing Black writers to write about a variety of topics rather than traumatic stories connected to race.
But for Black writers, this month also calls for self-care. There is unseen stress associated with this month where Black writers hustle endlessly and open up old wounds for the attention of publications. These actions deserve a special kind of loving and validation. It’s not about the kind of self-care one practices but setting aside time to meaningfully engage with your needs.
“If you’re gonna (devote) one month to uplifting Blackness, you need to uplift yourself and take care of yourself in the way that you want to take care and uplift all these other Black people,” Smith said.
Despite the complex nature of Black History Month, it still is an opportune time for Black writers to produce exemplary work and truly use our craft to center Black people and our experiences. Giving Black writers our due throughout the year instead of forcing our work into the shortest month can only further improve the quality of content and our wellbeing during this celebrated time.
“In February, I spread myself thin … I’d be in a much better position (if) I could be sharing my ideas all year-round instead of just cramming them into the shortest month of the year,” Thomas said.