Illustration for article titled I'll Be Around
Photo: Me

This month makes 10 years from the weekend I drove from Pittsburgh to D.C. for a party to celebrate both the three-year anniversary of the launch of VerySmartBrothas—the blog Panama Jackson, Liz Burr, and I created in 2008—and the release of Your Degrees Won’t Keep You Warm At Night, a self-published compilation of satirical dating and relationship advice from VSB. That night would also be the first time Panama and I met in person.

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A 2010-ish reminder of the era when I literally wouldn’t leave the house without some VSB apparel on my chest
A 2010-ish reminder of the era when I literally wouldn’t leave the house without some VSB apparel on my chest
Photo: Me

I was 32, surviving on the long-term unemployment benefits I’d received after getting laid off from Duquesne University in 2009, and terrified that the decision I’d made, after I lost my job, to pursue a career in writing, was the wrong one. VSB was steadily growing in audience and scope, but my anxiety about money—specifically, whether I’d be able to make enough of it through writing to live off of it (and whether I’d get good enough at writing that people would be willing to pay me for it)—had become all-consuming. And shaming. And this specific anxiety just joined the assemblage of anxieties I already lugged around with me, including the fear of being so awkward, in person, when meeting people who’d read my work, that they’d stop reading.

Watching the video of that party feels like I’m watching a different person. I was physically different. Leaner, less hairy, less tattooed, and I dressed like someone who forgot, in Pittsburgh, the clothes he planned to wear to the party, and had to stop and shop at the Hagerstown Outlets on the drive down. But mostly I see someone struggling to fit in his own skin. It’s like, you know how it feels to put a glove on backwards, where your thumb gets stuck where your pinky’s supposed to be? And maybe people can’t tell your glove is fucked up, but you can? That’s how I felt. That’s who I was.

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VSB’s homepage, in 2015, a year after receiving a grant to finance a redesign
Photo: Me

The things that have happened—in my life and in my body—in the 10 years since that party, and in the 13 years since we published the first blog on VSB, are still so mind-blowing that it feels hallucinatory. For most of my life, I’ve been broke. For some of it, I’ve been poor. I’ve been evicted. Homeless. Expelled from school for not living in the right district. I’ve had cars repossessed. I’ve watched my parents, after they temporarily crawled out of poverty, lose their house to foreclosure while I was living there, too. I watched how America killed my mom—and, just this year, almost killed my dad. I never made more than $30,000 in a single year until I was 30. And then I got laid off. And then I didn’t make 30 in a year again until I was 34.

And then, in 2016, I signed a multi-book deal with Ecco for $1 million. Eight months later, Panama and I sold VSB to Univision.

In DC in 2017. Hopefully I was there to get a haircut.
In DC in 2017. Hopefully I was there to get a haircut.
Photo: Me
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I’ve written for, and I’ve even been profiled by, the newspapers and magazines I’d seen on Nana’s coffee table and Sister Roberta’s desk at St. Barts; the ones I’d read in dentists’ offices and libraries and fantasized about seeing my byline in. EBONY. Time. GQ. Esquire. The New York Times. The Atlantic. People pay me to speak to them about things other people paid me to write. Brilliant and envy-inducing authors occasionally ask me—ashy-shinned, bowlegged, eggheaded, gap-toothed, post-broke Pittsburgh nigga me—to blurb their books, because my public endorsement of their work will help convince strangers to buy it. Me. (Me!) I still can’t stand to listen to my own voice for more than 13 consecutive seconds, but I’m developing a show with a major podcast company and I have a staff of producers and engineers for it. A famous Hollywood person bought the rights to my book, and has signed another famous Hollywood person to portray (a much handsomer) me in an adaptation of it.

From a book event at Politics and Prose in 2019
From a book event at Politics and Prose in 2019
Photo: Me
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None of this happens without the space we created here. I’ve always felt that calling VSB a blog was a misnomer. For me, it’s been an interactive public canvas where I could write a sober explainer about Brexit on Monday, a first person essay on the challenges of house hunting while Black on Tuesday, a review of a fried chicken sandwich on Wednesday, a caps-filled, essay-like-substance about a white woman who got banned from Central Park on Thursday, and a fanfic email exchange between Drake and Meek Mill on Friday. I could experiment with form, function, tone, rhythm, punctuation, and construction. I could workshop. I could be corny as fuck. I could fail. (As I did, many, many, many times.) And what happened over these 13 years was an eventual finding of a voice and a sensibility, and a crafting of that. Ultimately, I was able to be myself. I just needed to discover who exactly that was.

A sign for an event at the Ace Hotel in New Orleans, during Essence Fest in 2018
A sign for an event at the Ace Hotel in New Orleans, during Essence Fest in 2018
Photo: Me
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VSB is also a community, and that process of discovery doesn’t occur without the support and the friendship and the critiques and the accountability of it. I wanted to get better so that I could make a living, sure. And because I had (and still have) a desperate urge to improve. But also because I didn’t want to disappoint the people who’d invested their time and their resources and their bandwidth into VSB. That validation, more than anything else in my life, gave me the confidence to lean into all of the anxiety, all of the vulnerability, and all of the stank and the strange that makes me. Y’all cracked me open, and convinced me that all the weird shit inside me wasn’t pathological, or even singular. Just human.

VSB has done so many things for me, and has enabled me to surpass so many of the goals I had in 2008, and 2011, and 2014, and 2016—and other goals I hadn’t realized were goals yet—-that the choice that makes the most sense for me now is to leave it. After 13 years of it being the engine I bled the most fuel into, there’s nothing more I can give it, and nothing more it can give me, that wouldn’t divert bandwidth away from other ways to get better at this. I am terrified, again, because I’m leaving the home I built. But fear, for me, is a good thing. A sharp thing. A sharpening thing. A great thing.

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A shot before a panel at Harvard in 2015. The coordinating blazers weren’t planned.
A shot before a panel at Harvard in 2015. The coordinating blazers weren’t planned.
Photo: Me

But now’s not the time for fear. That comes later. Today I just want to thank Liz for being there with us on day one, and seeing something in Panama and I that we weren’t yet able to. And Huny for convincing me to start that first blog 19 (!!!) years ago, and for creating the designs and layouts that made my work look like something that needed to be seen. And everyone else who made VSB what it is, and gave me the privilege of their humor, their anger, their politics, their eyes, their work, and their friendship. That’s Natalie and Marguerite and Shanae and Shamira and Danie and Zaynab and Alex and Luvvie and Terryn and Jozen and Samantha and Maya and Tonja and Mylon and Aliya and Brandon and Dustin and Corey and Lawrence and Maliaka and Agatha and so many more. I’m so proud—so motherfuckin verklempt—that so many of you have gone on to collect bylines and book deals, and that VSB has been a place that you trusted to possess your work.

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I’ve also been fortunate enough to have a second family at The Root—-I guess that would make us step-siblings—and that began with Danielle Belton negotiating a content share partnership between VSB and The Root in 2015. And then, Donna Byrd inviting me to Miami in 2016 to spark the movement of what would eventually be our acquisition. And Anne and Ashley and Genetta and Lynn and Stephen and Michael and Maiysha and Jay and Monique and Jessica and Felice and P.J. and Terrell and Corey and Kirsten and Breanna and Danielle (Young) and Yesha and Dara and Angela and Zack and Joe and Shanelle.

The Root 100 in 2019. I think I’d just dropped my phone.
The Root 100 in 2019. I think I’d just dropped my phone.
Photo: Tonja Stidhum
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And then there’s Panama.

VSB is also—is mostly—a love story, between two men who discovered each other’s blogs in 2004, became fans of each other’s work, and then friends, and then partners, and then brothers. There’s nothing I can say, about you, that I haven’t already said. But there are things I haven’t said to you. It’s been a privilege to see who you’ve grown to be, and I’m excited to see where you’ll take VSB, and who you’ll be five years from now. 10 years from now. 25 years from now. In The Bronx Tale, Sonny tells C that you’re only allowed three great women in your lifetime. I believe that applies to homies too, to niggas too, and you’re one of my great ones.

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At my 40th birthday/New Years Eve party in 2018
At my 40th birthday/New Years Eve party in 2018
Photo: Me

This has been a blast, y’all. A time. A home. And I’ll be around.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

DISCUSSION

tonjareneestidhum
Tonja Renée Stidhum

Be around deez.