The reports suggesting that people of color had not shown up for Hillary Clinton, they nagged at Damon Young.
So once the electoral votes were called, Young, the editor in chief — or, perhaps, provocateur in chief — of the black-culture website Very Smart Brothas, started typing.
Not a defense of the black electorate. Instead, Young banged out a midnight screed, sorrowful but determined to point at where he believed the blame for Clinton’s loss in the presidential race belonged.
He filed his post under the headline, “I Will Never Underestimate White People’s Need To Preserve Whiteness Again.”
The name Very Smart Brothas probably doesn’t register with readers of mainstream newspapers and magazines. In a good month, the site may draw 2 million unique visitors. Compare that with BuzzFeed’s 71 million.
But young African Americans voraciously read and share Young’s posts, as well as those of site co-founder D. Marcellus Wright. Since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, amid growing tension over race and the rise of Black Lives Matter, over cries of “reverse racism” and “All Lives Matter,” Very Smart Brothas has emerged as a stream-of-consciousness sounding board, an expletive-laden fuse and an absurdist inside joke.
Want to understand “white tears” or why the Texas girl at the center of the Supreme Court’s most recent affirmative-action case was chewed up and spat out on Twitter as #BeckyWithTheBadGrades? (Her name, for the record, is not Becky.)
Young and Wright (who writes under the nom de plume Panama Jackson) explain all this and then some from the black point of view, often under clicky headlines that mimic ones you might see on BuzzFeed: “Michelle Obama’s Embrace of Feckless War Criminal George Bush Is the Blackest Thing That Ever Happened Last Week,” and, “How Ryan Lochte Is the Worst Type of ‘White Boy Bro,’ Explained.”
Whether their writing is seen as pointed, funny or racist depends on who’s reading. But the Brothas’ quick takes on American pop and political culture are rapidly earning intellectual legitimacy.
Years before the blog gained any national traction, the Roots’ Questlove shouted out Very Smart Brothas to his sea of plugged-in Twitter followers. Then, New York Daily News columnist and activist Shaun King started sharing VSB’s posts. Even the New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic, Emily Nussbaum, has mentioned them.
And this month, the HarperCollins literary imprint Ecco signed Young to a two-book deal.
Young and Wright exhibit a “lack of fear about what they’re talking about,” says Ecco Executive Editor Denise Oswald.
“There’s no good to be had from a bunch of white people sitting around talking to each other,” she says. “There has to be raw and unmitigated truth, but with a sense that we’re all welcome to the conversation.”
This, she says, is how Very Smart Brothas makes readers feel.
After appearing at a recent Washington book talk for another prominent blogger, Young finds himself in a corner, facing a line of fans waiting to meet the guy blowing up their Facebook feeds.
“I’m so excited to meet you,” gushes one woman.
Young squirms slightly. He makes a peace sign with his fingers and looks straight at the cellphone waiting to take his photo.
“You’re awesome, too,” he says, looking slightly pained.
On a laptop, Young comes off as a renegade.
IRL — in real life — Young is . . . shy.
Over dinner at a wine bar after the book talk, Wright and Young, both 37, riff on how they managed to climb out of their Internet niche — “the black blogosphere,” Young says — to become viral stars, recently attracting the attention of readers who aren’t black at all. Comment threads on their site regularly stretch to a thousand entries. After the election, they spiked to nearly 2,000.
“We get to say things the way people aren’t saying them,” Young says. “People” being, of course, the mainstream media. “We get to write things that other people can’t write.”
Like “The Wash, Rinse, and Repeat of Being Black in America Today,” which Wright penned after the September police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma.
“If you comply, you won’t end up dead. Yeah. Right,” he wrote. “Black bodies have been killed in every single possible way you can end up dead at the hands of police. Complying. Not complying. Running. Standing. Running away from.”
Or this from Wright, on the president’s candor in his final year in office:
“From 2008 to 2015, Barack Obama was the President of the United States. Now, however, he is the Grand Supreme Wizard of Nof---sistan.”
Young’s sense of humor darts in and out of Very Smart Brothas’ posts. It defines the blog’s voice. In person, it glimmers only after he has warmed to you.
Married and the father of a toddler, Young talks mostly about wishing that he had more time to write. He was a college basketball player until, he says, he realized that he wasn’t actually that good. He focused instead on writing, majoring in English at Canisius College in Buffalo
He’s wearing a gray T-shirt, baggy ripped jeans, brown shoes and a rosary around his neck. When his food arrives, he bows his head for a flicker of a second and recites a prayer.
Wright, who has three kids ages 4 months to 7 years, is in many ways Young’s foil. He lives in Washington and spent 13 years as a congressional staffer, also teaching a summer program at the University of Maryland aimed at encouraging minorities to enter politics. His mother is white and from France (his parents met serving in the U.S. military, and he was born when they were stationed in Panama, the source of his pen name), a fact that he recently examined as he wondered, in one post, whether she would be voting for Donald Trump. He promoted parties at the U Street nightclub Liv for years and prefers to write about music rather than race. With his stylishly rolled-up pants and burgundy Converse sneakers, he looks like a hipster. “I would be out 24/7,” he says. “My kids absolutely slowed me down.”
They met the way people of the Internet seem to meet: They liked each others’ blogs. Even after they started working together, they didn’t meet in person for years.
Both gifted in the early language of the Internet — verbose snark that presupposed readers, even if there weren’t any — they started a relationship blog. They swapped shifts writing. They posted at midnight, underscoring their sex-fueled subject matter. Wright says he banged out posts in 15 minutes and rarely read behind himself, something he would never do now. Young did the opposite, reading and rereading, editing for hours, and then even after he had hit “publish.”
Young quit his day job teaching to turn the blog into an enterprise, corralling writers but also shaping the Very Smart Brothas voice into something distinctive.
Filed under the headline “The First Perfunctory Race-Specific Entry,” the first real post about race came a few months into Very Smart Brothas, in 2008. “This ‘black man’s hat’ is heavy as hell,” Young wrote. “No wonder I keep it on the shelf.”
But then. The election of a black president started a conversation, maybe, if you believe that, or it unplugged a dam of tension and ill will, if you believe that. And Wright and Young — mostly Young — took the hat off the shelf.
Young says he struggles with the competing interests of writing and running a site. He wants to write pieces that provoke, the sort that net him retweets and shares. And, he says, “as editor of a blog, I want traffic.” Which is another sort of affirmation entirely.
To attract traffic, mentions of Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Beyoncé are old standbys. The election of Trump has provided a wealth of subject matter and page views. So have police shootings.
“Police shootings are always going to be good for traffic, in a negative way,” Young says. This is how many readers have found Very Smart Brothas, a fact that neither Wright nor Young seems particularly comfortable with.
Both confess some terrible mistakes, including a 2012 post by Young urging women to use common sense to avoid rape. He describes the backlash — he found himself being called a rapist — as one of the worst experiences of his life.
After the book talk, he insists that he owes his success to black women, to readers and friends such as blogger and author Luvvie Ajayi, who could have turned on them but didn’t. Instead, he says, they told him that he was wrong. And he hasn’t forgotten it. (The Internet, Wright agrees, also does not forget.)
“We have been successful,” Wright adds, “in spite of ourselves.”
Back at the book talk, Wright creeps up from a seat at the back and muses about fame. Young “doesn’t love this,” he murmurs, cocking his chin in the direction of the queue.
But there are signs that Young is adjusting. A woman in a wheelchair tells him that she’s a blogger, too, her Africa-shaped earrings swaying as she talks.
Young leans down until his eyes are level with hers. Maybe she could shoot a piece his way, he suggests.
“Send it to —” he starts, about to tick off the blog’s general email address.
He stops himself. He gives her his personal email instead.
Then he takes a breath and gets ready for the next photo.