On the occasion of 14 on-again years with one newspaper.
I wasn’t so sure about this, this coming back to CityBeat when Editor Danny Cross first sent me an email in 2012 explaining his plan to overhaul the paper I’d freelanced for from its first issue in 1994, then joined first as a part-time writer in 1999 (just enough hours to qualify for health insurance to buy insulin and needles) then as a full-time staffer with a column.
That column, “Your Negro Tour Guide,” was gifted to me by John Fox, half the original brain trust of this paper and also the man who put the “free” in freelance when he was editor of Everybody’s News until 1994 and I wrote album reviews for Mike Breen there without pay just to get clips.
I had no master plan back then. (Still don’t.)
I just wanted to write because, autodidactic as I am, I had the sense to know that writers write; we neither pontificate about it nor are we precious about it.
We just do it. So I just did it.
It all paid off when YNTG was read by more than the white liberals who initially loved it.
I wanted all manner of black readers, too: thugs, corporate types, church folk, dykes.
We slogged through a perfect storm to get to them.
What was ahead for us: Cincinnati on the verge of a riot and an economic boycott; the near shuttering of downtown; the Black Fist; the Black Bloc; an apathetic mayor and a splintered city council; millions of dollars in wrongful death suits; a federally mandated Collaborative Agreement; and international attention for all of it.
What was ahead for me: To silence me, then-Vice Mayor Alicia Reece threatened me with the might of black firefighters; speaking engagements, a book, a play from that book, a tour from that play; commentaries on National Public Radio; national writing assignments; death threats, widespread black misogyny and homophobia; recognition at the Laundromat, the bookstore and the grocery store.
Before any of this, I made sure, in a rollicking, pre-column conversation with Fox, that I’d be able to write and say anything I wanted in this new column for which Fox in 1999 had sort of lured me away from daily reporting at the Hamilton Journal-News where I was writing, among other things, a syndicated column every week.
I say “sort of” because I was already burned out, having suffered a nervous breakdown from the pressures of being The Black Reporter in a toxic, dysfunctional newsroom run by sometimes profoundly misguided, second-tier journalists who nonetheless got more out of me than I knew I had to give.
They taught me skills I’ve never forgotten.
Managing Editor Tammy Ramsdell hired me — a college drop-out English major with absolutely no newsroom experience — because, like every (white) editor I’ve ever worked for, she knew her rag needed “perspective.”
Plus, she was — like Fox and Cross after her — revamping her paper.
Fox’s overhaul of CityBeat included a redesign.
He wanted a weekly column from me, a strong voice out front and the first copy readers saw when they opened the paper.
But I had to play my position until YNTG debuted.
I wrote some news stories for inconsolable News Editor Nancy Firor and did some arts reporting for erudite Arts Editor Rick Pender.
Meanwhile, at home I practiced the art of being unbridled — something I couldn’t always do in the daily paper.
(This meant being profane and using “nigger” appropriately and not merely for shock.)
I wrote some evergreen pieces, one of which ended up running under the YNTG banner as “The Big Red Machine” about the self-segregation — whites in front, blacks in back — between white Reds fans and black working-class humps on the No. 11 bus on Opening Day.
I knew if I could keep this up — keenly eyeballing the nuances of race and class that exist between the lines of statistics that are valid even without the statistics — then I’d be golden.
I only wanted to write something I’d always wanted to read here in Cincinnati: The Truth About Us.
And it was my conviction not to be moved off or bullied away from that truth and to tell it as ridiculously as I’d seen it.
To meet absurdity with absurdity.
And in those days there was abundant absurdity.
To do that and remain interested, I came up with columns as open letters, columns written in haiku, columns as parody, poetic columns coded with internal rhyme schemes.
I even wrote a postmodern take on Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” in exact syllabic count as the original speech, substituting modern-day ills (like payday loan centers) for the black-preacher rhetoric of the civil rights movement.
When I approached burn out, I told Fox I was going to kill YNTG; we’d started it in 2000 and it was then five years old. I did kill that column shortly before my mother died in 2005 and Fox asked for editorials from me instead.
The line between editorials and YNTG was murky and confusing for readers. For me, too.
I was fired in 2006 and I was glad. I’d done what I’d come to do.
Then I freelanced, I struggled, I made words appear onscreen for money, reconciling how to do that with dignity. I also changed my relationship with money, ultimately realizing I’m not required to do just any old thing for it.
I am free to write what I want when I want, suffering the consequences along the way.
So when Cross floated the idea of me returning, I did it because he approached me with respect, insider knowledge and intelligence.
Plus, he said cogent things to me about my voice, my skill set and my value to this city.
Further, with two exceptions, the old heads are gone.
These past two years have been new all over again.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org