In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called Black Girl Power... The Future Is Bright. Every day, phenomenal black women from different industries will be featured to tell their stories—revealing how they became who they are, showing what they have accomplished, and pinpointing how they navigated their careers. Black women deserve to be celebrated 365 days of the year, and we hope that this series will inspire everyone to believe in the power of #blackgirlmagic.
Dodai Stewart has been writing stories since she was four years old. The New York native went from the Bronx High School of Science to studying film, screenwriting, and playwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. From there, she interned at Universal Pictures which eventually led to an editorial assistant position at Entertainment Weekly, and then a full-time staff position at J-14, followed by tons of freelance work online. And as fate would have it, she ended up applying for a “special project” that would turn out to be Jezebel. Stewart worked alongside founder Anna Holmes for seven years, and held the title of Deputy Editor by the end of her cycle.
“It was a lot of work, and I don’t think that people will ever understand or appreciate how much work we did in the beginning, because we were building something that didn’t exist and there weren’t other websites for women,” she said. “If there were, they were from lady mags—they weren’t independent. There were blogs that were run by people, but there weren’t independently-owned websites like that, that were commenting on stuff that was being aggressively marketed to women.”
Stewart currently works as the Director of Culture Coverage at Fusion, where she continues to cover a variety of her interests from television, music and film to music, fashion, news, and politics. During last month’s blizzard, we had the chance to talk Stewart about the stages of her career path, working as a black woman in predominantly white newsrooms, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Get all the details from the interview, below!
When you were growing up, what or who were some of your inspirations?
I had a lot of different inspirations. A lot of the time, a lot of my inspirations were artists, and I mean literally visual artists. I had a bunch of different people that I was really obsessed with and a lot of them were men and a lot of them were visual artists. It was just the way I responded. I was really into Andy Warhol and I was super into Weegee. Part of it was kind of just existing in a time, but also being an observer of that time and making comments on that time, which I think is what blogging is. I kind of did turn into that person, but there wasn’t a word for it when I was a kid. I did also like journalism, but I wasn’t into neutral, objective journalism. I was into angle-statement journalism and I read a lot of newspaper columns and magazine columns.
I was really into New York Magazine
as a kid. I grew up in Manhattan and I don’t remember all the writers, but I liked the ones that had an angle and a vision and were making commentary. I was also into Tama Janowitz who was a 1980’s writer—it was kind of before Sex and the City.
She was pre-Sex and the City. S
he had a book called Slaves of New York
that was kind of about downtown people and how they can barely pay their rent, but look fabulous. I was really into that when I was a kid I was like, ‘Yeah, this is how it is to be a grown-up.’ It seems so ridiculous now to be reading about these people living the clubby, downtown lifestyle and obsessing over it, but that’s who I was.
What are some of the pieces that you’ve written throughout the trajectory of your career that you’re the most proud of?
I don’t know if I’m proud of it, but I’m really pleased that I wrote a cute art thing about Korean dramas. I wrote one post about how I got obsessed
and then the other one that’s like a recommendation of the TV shows
for Fusion. I interviewed a bunch of people and I didn’t use all of my interview quotes—it wasn’t possible—but even just talking to all those people about being black and being into K-Pop or K-Drama, it was just fascinating for me, and I just felt good writing that story. One thing that I really liked doing at Jezebel was the catalogue stuff where the catalogue would come in the mail, and I was like, ‘I’m just going to write funny captions for these catalogue photos.’ I did one for the Anthropologie catalogue where I just wrote a very, very, very short Southern gothic novella
based on the photos. It was sort of a cross between Faulkner and Carson McCullers. It was kind of a joke, but kind of serious. I just really liked that. Some other things that I felt good about were when Miley Cyrus was twerking—I was one of the first people to write about her cultural appropriation and just using black people as accessories. I felt good about that.
How have you been able to maneuver through the editorial industry as a black woman?
I mean, the issue is that it’s very tough to navigate and sometimes you have to take one for the team, and that’s just how it is, and suck it up. I felt like there were times at Jezebel where I was like, ‘Ugh. I have to do this because I’m the person that can do this the best, and I don’t want to do it maybe, but I want us to be representing this situation properly and, out of everybody, I’m the one who should be doing it.’ I kind of feel a few different things—I feel like it’s actually good for you as a writer to sometimes write the things that you don’t want to write because if you can do that, you can do anything. It’s kind of like, ‘eat your vegetables then have your dessert’ kind of situation. Sometimes you don’t want to do those things that are good for you or you feel like, ‘I shouldn’t have to do this’ and it’s like, ‘Well sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.’
I’m not talking about if somebody’s forcing you, but sometimes if you’re just being bratty about it and you’re like, ‘I don’t really want to do that,’ sometimes you do need to suck it up and do it, and it makes you a better person, and you like live through the experience. And then maybe the next time it’s like, ‘Nope, I already did it.’ You know what I mean? I kind of do think that it’s a good exercise—as a writer and as a person—to sometimes do those things that you really feel like, ‘I really don’t want to do this, but I’m going to do this.’ I don’t think there’s any harm in it, and I think that it can actually help you to grow.
I feel like there’s just another type of pressure when you’re at these media companies that have a majority white staff because everybody looks at it as a white platform. Sometimes people will get mad at you—as a black writer—for writing certain things, but then they get mad if somebody else had written it who wasn’t black. And then, later they’re mad if it wasn’t covered at all, you know?
I have to say, that if I ever wrote something and I only thought about what the reaction would be, I would never write it. You have to know who your real, true audience is and sometimes it’s yourself. Sometimes it’s your friends, and you’re like, ‘I’m doing this for my friends and the people who understand’ and the people who don’t understand, it’s not for them anyway. If I wrote everything like I hope people like this, it’s not a good place. I think you have to be true to yourself. I think that’s the most important thing. People can tell in your writing if you’re pandering or making an argument for the sake of making an argument. It doesn’t come through as good, honest writing and so I think the most important thing to do is to start in a good and honest way.
How did you grow into your black identity?
I had a lot of black history in my life and in my apartment that my parents insisted upon. It wasn’t like I wasn’t reading other things—I had a Josephine Baker poster in my bedroom growing up, and I was definitely reading all kind of things like James Baldwin. I had a good variety happening. My dad was into Beat poetry and jazz and my mom had gone to Morris Brown and was into the Black Panthers. So I was already steeped in all that, so the things I was teaching myself were slightly different but they all jumbled together. I think it’s so weird because it was definitely present in my life, but it’s hard to say how it came to be. I mean, I think I knew it all along, and my dad attended civil rights marches, and there were pictures of him with picket signs hanging up in the apartment, and there was a photo of Malcolm X near the bathroom. I definitely had it around me, but I think it’s an ongoing process all the time. I think I was on a pendulum for a while, where I went back and forth, where I was very into it and then not into it and then very into it.
I had a period of time in fifth and sixth grade where my mom was doing my hair in two braids, one on each side, like a very normal pigtail thing, but a lot of kids in the class (I was in public school on the Upper West Side) had a lot of braids like extension braids or just a lot of braids and I was like, ‘Mom, two braids is not enough, I need more braids.’ I felt like I needed hundreds of braids to be a real kid in the school and not have two braids and be really lame. [laughs] That was me being like, ‘I’m blacker than this.’ You know what I mean? But it didn’t dawn on me that that was my problem until later.
Then in junior high school, when I was a little bit older, I started relaxing my hair and I really wanted to have flippable, white-girl hair. After high school and late high school and in college, I went back the other way, and I was natural and I was wearing a Spike Lee baseball jersey all the time. I feel like I went back and forth a lot. I’m old enough now to realize that all those things can exist and you don’t have to be one or the other. But I definitely was on a pendulum for a while.
I think a lot of it also came from two places, which was my school and pop culture. When I was growing up in a New York City public school and there were other black kids in the class, I felt comfortable trying to be more like them. Then when I went to a majority-white school on the Upper East Side, I felt very like, ‘I need to fit in here and be more like them.’ Also, there was a time that it seemed like there weren’t a lot of black families on TV and there wasn’t anybody that you were like, ‘Oh I identify with them.’ Then later, when The Cosby Show came on, and I was like, ‘Yes! I get these people.’ My father is also an obstetrician-gynecologist! This is closer to my reality than some other things.′ And it felt a little easier. Also, Hilary Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air when she’s like, ‘Dad, can I have $300 for a hat?’ I was like, ‘This is me!’