The New Year’s Eve before I was leaving home for good I sat in my near empty apartment full of boxes waiting. It was our last NYE together as best friends turned lovers who were holding on to something we both knew had to end. I waited. I called. I texted. Waited some more. He was out getting plastered and I was the last stop of the night. When he finally walked through the door in the wee hours of the morning, I chastised him about how he had ruined what was supposed to be a memorable night, our last one together. By the time we finished arguing we sat on my cream leather loveseat with our thighs nearly touching. The January breeze whistled through the sliding patio door.
“Bené, I have to let you go. If I don’t I’ll be holding you back.”
Like all of the other important men in my life, he was full of I love yous and tears but wouldn’t stay. My second favorite poet, Nayyirah Waheed, says, “Stay is a sensitive word. We wear who stayed and who left in our skin forever.” I tried to fight it, fight for us, but somehow my brain knew what my heart couldn’t yet understand. It was best this way. I was leaving home, destined for greatness, and deep down we knew I was never coming back. And he was never going to leave. We salvaged the early morning by making love for the last time.
A few days later I drove my little two-door Chevy to the cornfields of Indiana to embark on what I thought would be the solution to me throwing away my dream of becoming the female Johnnie Cochran.
As a little girl I don’t remember knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up. I only dreamt of being rich and famous. Someone’s name everybody knew. To have the means do some good in the world. I always did exceptionally well in school, but I didn’t like science or math. The medical field was out. I didn’t like kids enough to want to teach. I was into the arts, which is why I’d auditioned for dance and drama for Nashville School of the Arts and was accepted for both. Thoughts of attending Julliard to become a professional dancer were shot down with the “dancers don’t make no money” my family had repeated like a psalm. Misty Copeland says hi, Ma. So when I graduated high school in three years I’d settled on being a lawyer. I was a great debater, which is the clean way of saying I loved to argue. I found the law to be interesting enough, and a six figure salary seemed like having it all back then. Besides, I wasn’t going to be just any lawyer; I was going to be the female Johnnie Cochran. When I stepped onto Tennessee State University’s campus in the fall of ‘02, I declared Chemistry as my major. I’d let my mom convince me I could become a pharmacist, a career that didn’t require med school and I could make 100K a year out the gate. The way she saw it, like most people of our parents generation and the one before them, you go to school to get a good job and you work that job until you retire. But by my second semester I’d changed my major to English.
English was always my favorite subject. And although I’d always written from a young age— raps, poetry, essays — I wasn’t majoring in English to become a writer. I’d read somewhere that law schools preferred English majors over Political Science majors because it meant we could write, analyze and think critically. It never dawned on me that I could be a writer until I was on my way to grad school at 23. The LSAT had proven to be much more challenging than I’d expected. I’d always done so well in school that I underestimated the difficulty of culturally biased standardized tests like the LSAT. I did horribly. In my defense, I didn’t really study for it either. I retook it while in grad school after taking a LSAT prep course and did better, but not good enough. There were also the bad decisions I’d made in my wild early 20s that would have to be disclosed when it came time for me to pass the bar exam, so that was that on my law school ambitions. It took me a year into grad school to box up my LSAT prep books, law school applications and all the information I’d collected about law schools over the years. A sadness of finality washed over me that day as I closed the chapter on who I once thought I’d become. New dreams were on the horizon and I was now committed to becoming a journalist, more specifically, a writer. I believed I could be of service to the world by writing for the marginalized, the people overlooked, underrepresented and stereotyped. The media had gotten our communities wrong so often, and I was going to be the one to right those wrongs.
Once I’d conquered grad school I set my eyes on New York City. My one and only media internship at VIBE had solidified NYC was this dreamy fantasy that I had to make a reality. I’d make it in NYC then I could make it anywhere. In the summer of 2010, fresh out of grad school, I visited my then boyfriend, a New York native, and never left.
It took me until April 2012 to land my first full-time media job. I substitute taught and took a gig at Harlem Children’s Zone as I waited for my big break. In hindsight, that delay and rejection would come to be symbolic of how I’d spend the next eight years working in NYC media. In between August 2010 and April 2012 I was making a name for myself freelancing for sites like the now defunct thefreshxpress.com and clutchmagonline.com. My opinions were bold, confrontational and sometimes loud and wrong, but people were paying attention. An editor for Essence.com had become familiar with my byline through me constantly churning out my opinion on everything from relationships to feminism to race. When people say you can’t pay bills with opinions I can tell they don’t know any writers. I paid many bills from doing just that. Eventually I was able to parlay those op-ed pieces into reported pieces for ESSENCE, the site and later the magazine. Print clips were King because as we saw it, anybody could write online but you had to really be skilled to write for the mag. ESSENCE was the first bucket list publication I checked off my list. VIBE was the second.
VH1 called in the spring of 2012. I went all out for my interview and writing test because I had to get this job. We’d grown up watching VH1 Behind the Music. It was home to the iconic Flavor of Love and For the Love of Ray J. Having the network’s name on my resumé would be a game changer. I killed my interview and within a week I’d accepted the job offer, moved to my first Brooklyn apartment, alone, and left my Long Island dwellings and boyfriend behind.
Nothing about VH1 was a traditional media job. I was the go-to girl for the network’s ratchet reality shows that I still watch. I worked with talent. I produced video content. I did live web shows, on-camera interviews. Most days I was writing at least six pieces a day and editing photos for each one. It was a bootcamp of sorts. A faux cool pop-culture vibe, but still corporate America. It was also my introduction to The Industry. The open bars. Free concerts. Interviewing artists in their studios. The album listening parties. Not many people can say they were at Kendrick Lamar’s NYC listening party for his classic debut, good kid, m.a.a.d. city. But I was there listening to the album on blown out speakers before it was released.
Being in the streets at events Monday through Thursday got old. Quick. And I’d noticed people only wanted to get close to me because of where I worked. The same people who’d ignored my emails when I was a freelancer were on my dick when I suddenly had that VH1 title behind my name. I vowed then I’d never put my job in any of social media bios, or mention where I worked unless it was absolutely necessary. I wanted to be known and respected as Bené, not Bené who works at whatever company.
In the years since those early VH1 days I’ve added more household name brands to my resumé that most people would never know, and a few niche sites like The Frisky (RIP) where I did some damn good work. I also was never not freelancing. Multiple streams of income. One by one I was knocking off bucket list goals: GQ, New York Times, historic magazine cover stories, interviewing my favorite artists and eventually ending up on a magazine Masthead as an editor. But in the midst of some pretty dope achievements, shit wasn’t all sweet. By year three I hated The Industry. You couldn’t pay me to attend events. The scene was the same ol’ people and I found a lot of them to be phony. There are some really good people in media, but I struggled with folks caring more about being popular than wanting to master the craft. Regular ass writers behaved like they were real life celebrities. It was a smart hustle though. Social media popularity and clout-chasing turned into some big bags and opportunity for folks. I can’t hate on that. Instead I turned my focus away from being the radical chick with opinions and started doing only reported pieces — profiles, cover stories, Q&As, longform journalism. I didn’t want editors hitting me up to do hot takes every time some racist did some racist thing. I made it my goal to insert myself as a black woman in the spaces people deem prestigious. Sadly, there is a hierarchy in media and black publications are at the bottom of the totem pole. Several white editors did not take me seriously until I had clips from mainstream publications.
After being laid off from Centric TV (now called BET Her), I’d become jaded and uninspired. It was my second lay-off (a total that grew to five), always due to budget cuts. I was in what I call a professional hell from 2015-2018. The highs were extremely high but too infrequent. And the lows were so low I had to drive right over to the SNAP office on Myrtle Ave. to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Depression knew me intimately and insomnia may as well have been my lover. Rejection was eating away at my insides like a ravishing incurable disease. I’d ask God why She didn’t give me a gift that didn’t involve rejection, or at least one where me having a Master’s meant I could have some sort of stability.
Money was the number one source of all my problems, but the inner turmoil of my career not being what I thought it should be was a close second. Sacrificing so much for a career that’s not producing the results you’d envision takes a toll on you mentally. I had to pay my university to intern at VIBE. I paid out of pocket to live in NYC for that summer. When I landed VH1 that was all me. Nobody made any calls on my behalf. I got it out the mud like all hustlers do.
The growing jadedness and feeling of defeat made me self-isolate. Friends mean well, but they give the worst advice. “Everybody can tell you how to do it; they never did it.” Friends legit told me I could write my way out of my circumstances as if a pile of money would magically fall in my lap if I just sat down and wrote. Other “friends” and associates dipped because it was no longer beneficial. When my cover stories were going viral, or I’d written for some new white publication, it was great to cheerlead for me and do the “I’m so happy to know you” spiel. When I stopped posting any milestone achievements people ghosted. It was no longer cool to be next to me or even show public support on the rare occasion I would promote my work. An editor I’d written for for over six years as a freelancer, and had worked for their brand for two summers in a row, had the power to hire me and acted clueless when I asked her why she hadn’t. I desperately needed the job and I was over qualified for it if anything. That kind of betrayal from every angle scarred me, but it made me appreciate all the people who still go up for me even though instead of career announcements I mostly post bad bitch pics on the ‘gram.
No sane person would choose the life of a creative. Writing is not like singing or songwriting. Our favorite artists have created their greatest work in times of heartbreak and doubt and loneliness and fear. We only want a Mary J. album if she’s going through it. Kendrick was admittedly depressed while making To Pimp A Butterfly. Lemonade is the result of Jay Z’s trifling community dick. Well, this ain’t that. This is the first thing I’ve written since May. Any creative who creates dope shit will tell you you become paralyzed, unable to create, when you’re trying to survive. What sane person would choose this life? And what do you do when writing is the only thing you think you’re kind of good at?
January marks ten years since I left the place I’d called home for ten years. And it’s once again time to pack up and leave the place I’ve lived the longest since leaving home.
Our souls know when it’s time to close a chapter. For about the past three years I’d been feeling like I was over NYC, but as much as I’d say it I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. Every time I was sure was the time I was out of here, another job would come through at the last hour. This time I’m certain. My lease ends on December 31st. There’s no way I’ll find another one-bedroom in BK for even close to what I’m paying when I moved in this apartment almost five years ago. But strangely, even with all the stress of of planning a major move during the holidays, having the date feels like confirmation from the universe. It’s time. I came, I saw, I conquered. I loved and lost and loved again. I gave NYC everything I had in me. We had the best of times and the worst of times. I did everything I set out to do except, well, that one thing. But it’ll happen. And I don’t need to be here for it to manifest.
What’s next is a question that consumes me day and night. It’s as terrifying as it is freeing. What I want is constantly changing as I evolve. And truthfully, I don’t know. I think it’s time for palm trees though. And beaches and space and serenity and maybe a cute little puppy. Somewhere for my old ass to lay down roots where I don’t feel like every day is a hustle and struggle just to survive. I’m tired of surviving. I’m ready to live.
Ten years ago when he told me he had to let me go I didn’t understand. How do you love someone and let them go? Now I get it. He didn’t really let me go as we’re still best friends. But he had to let go of how we were at that particular time in order for me to flourish. He knew I would not have experienced what was necessary for my growth had he stayed. And I was too much of a recovering undercover over lover to have the strength to say goodbye.
Ten years have passed since that New Year’s morning and it’s time to leave again. I smile because he was right. Nayyirah was right too. We wear who stays and who leaves in our skin forever. But sometimes we’re the ones doing the leaving. And sometimes to leave is to live.