Vann Newkirk II

Born and raised in the South and a graduate of Morehouse College, Vann Newkirk II is now based in Washington D.C., where he is a staff writer at the Daily Kos covering social justice, activism, and environmental justice. As a freelancer, he has written on culture, entertainment, and social justice for GQ, Gawker, Grantland, Ebony, and other outlets. He is also the co-founder of Seven Scribes, a media outlet geared towards millennial writers of color.

work Writer location_on New York, NY
Activism Coping mechanisms Police brutality Civil Rights Movement

Would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself?

I am a staff writer at Daily Kos, where I focus on justice, social justice activism, police reform and a number of other issues, including health and environmental health. I also am a freelance writer: I’ve written for Gawker, GQ, Grantland, Ebony, a couple other places. There I focus on culture, entertainment, and I do a lot of social justice writing for those outlets as well. I’m an aspiring science fiction writer, and I’m also the chief scribe of Seven Scribes, which is an outlet geared towards millennials of color, and we started that out in May [2015].

How did you start Seven Scribes?

Seven Scribes was almost directly a product of Ferguson. Last year [2014] I was with Josie Duffy, the cofounder, and we were talking about what’s happening in Ferguson. We had a couple other friends who were writing and we were all together talking about how we could make a difference, and how we could express the frustration that we were feeling. And we said, there aren’t a lot places—we saw in the aftermath, a lot of people putting out really bad articles. We saw freelancers that were Black were frustrated and wanted to write about it but were being denied, and they were having editors kill their stuff. We were like, we wanna be a safe space for you if anything like Ferguson happens again. We had the idea, one of us said, let’s do it, and started doing the site. And that’s where we are now!

Do you have any experience in activism outside of writing on race and those kinds of issues?

I do. Actually, I considered myself an activist before I was a writer. I was involved in a lot student protests and organizing it Atlanta when I was a student in Atlanta at Morehouse. And I was part of a lot of environmental justice campaigns…

Have you continued to do activist work within the Black Lives Matter movement?

It’s a bit tricky. I just don’t like defining my role in things, because I like to do a lot of things. I still consider myself an activist/journalist, but I do think there are some times when it’s appropriate for me to chronicle, and there’s some times when it’s appropriate for me to march. Right now I’ve been doing more of the chronicling, but you know, there are marches…

There are some times when it’s appropriate for me to chronicle, and there’s some times when it’s appropriate for me to march.

I sort of miss direct action. It’s how I got my start. I miss being out there and feeling the energy. But there’s some times when you gotta know when to step back.

What were your experiences with anti-Blackness before the Black Lives Matter movement?

My father is a professor. He was actually getting his PhD. in African American Studies for most of my childhood. I feel like I was reading [Frederick] Douglass and [W.E.B.] DuBois…I don’t remember not reading them…As far back as I can remember, I was going with him…he got his Ph. D. from Howard, so I was watching protests at the Mecca. I had a dashiki very early on. I don’t know if I ever had that moment, but I did have a moment when I realized that I had to act. And that was in college—again at Morehouse.

We got Dr. King’s papers, and I worked in the library that had the papers, and I also had a class where we studied the papers. And I got to meet people in his family, and people that marched with him and worked with him. I told them I didn’t feel like I was in a place to make a change, and Julian Bond looked at me and said, “I was sixteen.” And I was like, “whoa.” Yeah, you gotta get started. So that was it. We started putting protests together, we did a protest at the state capital. And that’s when it started.

I feel like everybody kind of gets a talk from their parents about how to navigate how to be a Black person out in the world. Did your dad talk to you about that?

I grew up in North Carolina. I don’t know if you can grow up in rural North Carolina and not have The Talk as a Black person? I remember being pulled over and the police officer that pulled us over had a Confederate flag hanging from his mirror. Things happened all the time. So, number one, you gotta have those safety talks, right? We moved a lot, and I was going around getting in fights with white kids ‘cause they were calling me the N-word. And my dad was like, “you think these teachers are gonna be on your side, until they aren’t. You keep talking back, and one day you’re gonna talk back to a police officer, and I’m not gonna know where you are anymore.” We had to have them for safety.

I was very smartmouthed and all that. A troublemaker. Now we know he was rightfully worried about my safety.

Were you surprised to see the Black Lives Matter movement become sustained the way it has over the past year? What were your thoughts about it?

A lot of people see the changes in attitude. I feel like where we are now with the movement for Black lives, we’re the natural endpoint of the Obama generation, I think riots in Black America happen every 22 years, and social movements in America happen every 22 years. So, by a lot of things, we were sort of overdue. And I think a lot of things have been happening, with policing as well, that has pushed the New Jim Crow to a tipping point. I think now what you see, we’re a year out from all the protests in the street, a year out from being on the cover of TIME Magazine, but the thing is that you have people talking about it casually. And that’s what I think is the big difference.

When you have something that’s gonna go away, like say, Occupy Wall Street, which I thought was a successful movement, and probably would’ve led to this directly if they had thought to put Black folks in front, but that kind of petered out. You can tell people weren’t talking about it, they didn’t make an organizational structures that fed off the energy. Now, we’re doing what I call the capacity-building stage of activism. We build up a lot of institutions, we build up people, we build up knowledge, we build up resources, in order to be able to fight. Now you have a lot of different groups—people like to play up the lines between different groups, but I think it’s good, because you’ve got different people with different ideas. You got people with legislative focus, you’ve got people starting Super PACs, you’ve got people who are protesting in hotbed cities, you’ve got writers, artists—lots of artists—you’ve got musicians, you’ve got politicians. I think we’re in a good place.

Some people are calling this the new Civil Rights Movement. What do you think of that?

I think it’s a fair comparison, and a good portion of my writing is about comparing the two. I do have a point of contention about a lot of popular conceptions about the Civil Rights Movement. In our collective memory, we always remember MLK and these great men. All these great straight men, right. But I do think there were a lot of organizations—not even on the periphery—who were doing real work, and at the time were either notorious or famous, but have been scrubbed from history. You know, you’ve got textbooks that are only allowed to say one Black person per chapter, so. You had SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], but you also had real Black LGBTQ organizations working. All those groups that we don’t hear about, a lot of those were decentralized, and they didn’t espouse respectability politics. I think those are the precursors to what’s happening today.

What do you see as the goals of the movement? At least in its form right now . Broadly, I feel like the goal of the movement is liberation. To me, liberation means having the freedom of choice to live how you choose to live without facing danger for it. And that’s a very broad and loose definition, but I think it fits the fact that we have so many broad and diverse groups of people that are working. And I think it fits what’s involved in it. Criminal justice is involved in it, there’s education, there’s health. There’s all these things we need to tackle so everyone has the same amount of choice, and everyone can choose to live freely as he, or she, or whatever gender pronoun you would like to use, would like to live. That’s the only way I can define it that I think fits everything.

Liberation means having the freedom of choice to live how you choose to live without facing danger for it.

Now, I guess more specifically, I think the end goals are most strongly rooted in criminal justice reform and in erasing the less out-there, Confederate flag-y, racism that pervades a lot of thinking about these things. The “I can’t be racist” folks, the “heritage, not hate” folks. Really challenging this ingrained notion that Black people, Black culture, Black America and Black lives matter less.

But how do we do that?

When we talk about criminal justice, what goes into criminal justice? You talk about the race of people being arrested. We do know there’s crime in poor Black neighborhoods—mostly because they’re poor. Because crime is higher when people don’t have anything. So then we need to focus on, why don’t we have money, why don’t we have intergenerational wealth? A lot of crime comes from when people are displaced. And nobody—aside from recent Latino immigrants to this country—nobody’s displaced more than poor Black people from year to year. Those things directly impact criminal justice reform, and they’re very big things. Also, education does, too. Those things, in turn, impact health. So again, it’s really rough to attack. But I do think making sure that you’re grounded in a good moral framework that can encompass all those things, it helps. I think a lot of people have this goal, you need to push it, you need to make this work.

The reason the Civil Rights Movement sustained itself so strongly is that people built the lasting protest on logic and theory that made it work.

I’m writing about this now, a lot of people are like, we need less police, right? But there are a lot of communities that are usually under-policed as a strategy to deprive people. So would those communities want fewer police? They don’t have them. Or would they want better police? Grounding your activism in actionable ideals focusing on the policy first is what I push for…What I see as the reason the Civil Rights Movement sustained itself so strongly is that people built the lasting protest on logic and theory that made it work.

With the emotional toll of all this, how do you keep going?

I feel like the number one lesson for any activist, is as an activist, you have to take time for yourself. The most important asset for any activist is your person, your being, so you have to take care of that. There were people who when we were protesting in Ferguson, that were like, “I don’t know if I’m gonna go out; this is making me physically ill.” And I’m like, “look, I know you feel like you need to be out there, I know there are people looking for you out there, but I guarantee you, no one is going to think you are less of a person because you couldn’t handle being out.” I think we’re able to lean on each other and say that now, and that’s very important.

The number one lesson for any activist, is as an activist, you have to take time for yourself.

As a writer writing about it, write about other things. One thing that’s helped me is I write fiction. I take a lot of these things and put them into fantasy and sci-fi universes that are a lot less stressful to deal with than outright being with them in real life. Also, setting boundaries for yourself during the day, around seeing more people being killed. Even if it may be important for my job, and if it is, I have different rules for work. But even then, you gotta ask yourself, “is watching this video letting me do what I do better?” A lot of times, it isn’t. Setting those boundaries, making sure you’re always aware of your mental health, and making sure you have people you can lean on who are honest, and who will tell you when you need to chill.

What would you recommend that people read if they want to get a better education in issues of African-American race problems?

Things that I would recommend…the first thing I would recommend is go to the Atlantic, under Ta-Nehisi Coates’ name—it’s a good primer, I think. Between the World and Me is a very good book. this is very basic, everyone knows who this is. Also, Empire of Cotton is a good one to understand where we are today. I love history. Also, the historical take that will make you cry, it will teach you exactly why Black America is the way it is today, is The Warmth of Other Suns. Which is my favorite book. And it’s about the Great Migration and how racism and economic opportunity and the depression moved Black people out of the rural south and into cities in the North. So it explains why Chicago is Chicago and why Harlem is Harlem. It’s very important. Those are my biggest recommendations. I’m on an article kick right now, trying to read as much as possible, so, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah Jones, they write amazing things. Gene Demby again, my friend Donovan Ramsey. These are people that are titans in the field, doing great work.