Writer Tracy Clayton, sometimes known in the digital world as Brokey McPoverty, was minding her own business this past October, just being her normal brilliant self online, riffing on the prospects of working for BuzzFeed, when BuzzFeed in fact came calling.
Since then, she’s covered a bevy of topics in true BuzzFeed fashion. She’s posted some silly, like,#MamaSpike, put together a “Which ‘Living Single’ Character Are You?” quiz, and “13 Of The Greatest Ultimate Warrior Quotes Of All Time,” but she’s also hit on tougher topics, like her most recent post on Maddie Yates, which is getting a lot of attention.
We caught up with her last month before she skipped town.
Insider Louisville: Did you find BuzzFeed or did BuzzFeed find you?
Tracy Clayton: They sought me out. It was very flattering. BuzzFeed has some of the smartest people working for them, so to be courted by such a fancy pants company…
How did they find you?
They were making some waves for hiring black people. So a friend of mine—we started playing around with this hashtag on twitter, #blackbuzzfeed, imagining what a black BuzzFeed would be like. “Good Times” quizzes, things like that. I think at the time I was working for TheRoot.com and that job—which I loved—it only required three to four hours a day, so I had some time to lolly-gag. We had been going on for an hour or two like that and it started to get some attention. And then they emailed me.
That email turned into another email and that email turned into a trip to the New York office, which turned into more emails trying to convince me I wouldn’t die if I moved to New York.
Were they able to satisfy your fear of death?
No. I’m still nervous.
I took your “Which Living Single Character Are You?” quiz.
Who’d you get?
I’m Queen Latifah, of course.
Khadijah. A lot of the guys get her.
I just didn’t want Tootie.
That’s the thing with the quizzes I make. I feel like I make it pretty easy for people to guess who they might get. But I have no idea how they work; I just write them.
Do you have a quota for how much content they’d like you to produce?
No quota. And some days, I really wish I had one. That’s the really cool and really maddening thing about BuzzFeed: If you’re like me and need strict parameters—like a list of things you have to do in a day—it doesn’t exist. BuzzFeed doesn’t work that way.
It’s awesome for a really artsy person who loves a lot of freedom, but I’m really obsessive, you know? I need to know if I’m doing a good job.
A few months back, you wrote on Twitter that you were having a tough time balancing the thing that you love to do—writing—being the thing that you had to do for work. Has that changed?
I think so. But it’s a challenge, because as a writer you’re constantly assessing whether or not what you’re writing is good or not and when what you’re eating depends on what you’re writing, then it’s more pressure.
And it is a challenge being surrounded by people who are just so good at what they do, who have five or six posts every day and they’re hitting the million hit mark every other day. And my little “Living Single” quiz that caters to a very small audience is a fraction of that. And then I think, “Man, I really have to step it up or they’re going to fire me, I’m going to be stranded in New York, I’m going to pick up a coke habit,” because that’s what you do.
Probably better to just keep writing.
I think you’re right.
So there’s still pressure there, but all they want you to do there is what you love to do or what interests you. And as long as you follow that model your audience will find you; you’ll find your audience. As long as what you are putting out is good and the people who consume it like it, then you’re doing your part.
What are those things that interest you?
Penguins. I love penguins. One of my first posts was about why penguins are the greatest animals ever. I thought it was a masterpiece.
I’m really into ’90s R&B—preferably bad ’90s R&B —and ’90s black pop culture in general, like shows, commercials and music videos. That’s my heart. But I’m also very much into issues of race, gender, and class.
I hate squirrels.
How did your antipathy for squirrels come about?
College. I went to Transy, and the courtyard was beautiful, filled with all these trees, and all of those trees had acorns or some kind of hard nuts growing on them. And when we’d cross the courtyard—I swear to you—the squirrels would throw acorns at us. Didn’t matter what time of year it was. It was cold outside and they should really have been eating these acorns, but their hatred for us was so strong that they’d rather starve.
Causing you pain will make them feel better than surviving the winter.
Exactly. All squirrels are jerks. “Why are you not hibernating? You’re just out here to terrorize us. That’s the only reason you’re out here.”
Are they rabid? Do you know?
They can be.
I confess, I’ve never given this issue this much thought.
Then my work is done.
What do you have going on beyond BuzzFeed?
I always have seven or eight personal projects going. That’s why I never get anything done. I’ve got maybe three or four other blogs and tumblers that I’ve all but given up on. Every February, I do “Little Known Black History Facts,” but this year, I haven’t been able to do that as much with everything going on.
Another thing I used to do during Black History Month with a friend of mine who runs the site PostBourgie—we used to do a series called “Know Your History,” where we’d take a black pop culture figure, like Franklin from “Peanuts,” and write the “true story” of Franklin.
I really love the idea of using satire to create a space to celebrate the more mundane aspects of what I’ve been calling a black cultural collective memory. Things like the jar of bacon grease your grandmother kept on the stove, the hot comb your mother used on your hair…these are things that black folks share even though we may not have experienced them ourselves. It’s so woven into our cultural histories.
And I know some people look at that and they see it as a needless separation and characterization of black people, but I think it’s so rich. And I like the idea of diving in it, of swimming in it, and finding new ways to engage with that cultural memory.
There are people who think the only debt we owe black history are 28 days in February to recite flash card facts: “Rosa Parks was tired;” “Martin Luther King had a dream;” “Malcolm X was angry.” You know? It’s reduced to this handful of facts and it’s so ridiculous.
I want to follow up on a couple of things you just said. How would you like Black History Month to be handled? Or would you rather see it integrated into what we call “history” the other 11 months of the year?
I think that’s the goal for any marginalized history. I would love it if we could wake up tomorrow and there was not a need for it. The same for gay history, Asian history, whatever history it may be. I would love to get all of that in one American history class, but that’s not the reality.
… I’m definitely not anti-Black History Month, or black history period, I’m just opposed to the lazy way we do it. And people could counter me by saying, “Why aren’t you doing something to be part of the solution?” And I sort of think I am, with things like the “Little Known Black History Facts.” I know some people think that’s just reinforcing stereotypes, but common folks are black history heroes, too.
You say some people are not necessarily crazy about how you talk about this. Do you hear from those people?
And how does that discussion go?
I’ve stayed out of it, for the most part. This year, for some reason, there’s been more of a backlash, not necessarily against the blog that I write, but “Little Known Black History Facts” has become a meme in its own right, and a lot of people are doing it now.
I stayed quiet for a long time until the conversation made it to my actual Facebook feed—I check Facebook maybe once a month. I said, basically, “I get the outrage, but I’m over it.” I just wish more people knew what the original aim and purpose of the meme was.
But I get it. I understand that given our history as marginalized people that we had to be on point all the time, every day, recasting ourselves as humans in the face of a society that refused to see us as such. And I know things are still tough for marginalized people today, but they have changed…
One of the points a lot of people are making is that if we don’t respect our history, we can’t expect anyone else to. If we tell these jokes in public, we can’t get upset when people talk bad about us. But yes, you can. It shouldn’t be our job to convince other people of our humanity when our humanity should be enough to color us as worthy of some respect.
And then there’s being tasked with representing your entire race. Like when I was at Transy, and someone would ask me what black people think about whatever. I don’t know. I’m one person. I’ve got no bearing on the black person sitting next to me or the one down the street…
But really, if anyone takes the jokes I’m making and uses that as a reason to judge or fuel their own racism, they would do that anyway. They already think and feel those things about you, regardless.
It’s a lot of worry about the wrong things. These jokes aren’t holding us back; racism is what’s holding us back. But it’s easier to attack a blog than it is to attack the whole institution of racism.
One is easier to see in the moment, but the other is so expansive and pervasive it’s harder to see and identify. It’s woven into fabric so well that you might be tugging at threads for a very long time.
Exactly. I can send you angry emails, but what’s the email for racism? I don’t have that.
And then there’s the argument you mention earlier, that if it’s OK for you to say something, I should be able to say it too. But I wonder why one wants to say some of these things so badly?
It’s strange to me too. As a straight woman, there are plenty of words I shouldn’t say and I’m totally OK with it. There are so many words in the English language. Let people have their own things sometimes. It’s OK. It’s important sometimes to let people have control over words that have historical significance or really hurt them. There are people that have died over that word. Chill out. Find a new word.
Are you still as active on Twitter?
I’m definitely a Twitter addict. I need someplace to put all the stuff that’s in my brain.
Do you have rules for yourself? Like, “I will not talk about this thing or that thing…?”
No. I probably need some, but I don’t.
I’m a chronic over sharer. Because in the beginning, I had maybe 20 followers, so I thought I could pretty much say whatever I wanted and no one’s going to know. But I think that’s what ultimately hooks people in, because I don’t really have a filter.
The biggest thing I try to adhere to now that my followers have increased and the company is a lot more mixed than it has been in the past, is I try not to use the “N” word on Twitter. I’m a huge fan of the word. I’m very defensive of my right to use it, but I also don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I want anyone to feel like they can retweet something they find interesting and not worry about it. But other than that, no.
Any jokes off limits?
I try to stay away from shock comedy. I think it’s lazy. And I stay away from baseless meanness. You don’t have to do that to be funny and if you do, you’re probably not really funny anyway. I just try to not be a jerk.