A Start-up Run by Black Millennials
by Chris Peak
African-American students at the University of Pennsylvania received racist texts through the messaging app GroupMe, including insults like “dumb slave,” a Nazi-inflected “Heil Trump” and a calendar event for a daily lynching. The New York Times ran a single sentence about the incident, buried in an article on A21; The Wall Street Journal gave it two. Online, at The Washington Post, quotes from administrators and UPenn College Republicans dominated the story.
Compare that to the way Blavity, a digital media company run by and for black millennials, handled it. They published a 1,473-word op-ed by Brian Peterson, the director of Makuu: Penn’s Black Cultural Center, about taking the hateful words as a call to action. Unlike the version so many national outlets ran, if they covered the news at all, Blavity centered the harassment on a black person’s experience.
With only 13 percent minority representation in newsrooms, headlines about African-Americans tend to skew toward extremes: Rihanna’s latest album on one end of the spectrum, gun violence in inner cities on the other. Blavity aims to provide a less sensational middle ground, depicting the multiplicity of ways to be black today. Headquartered in Los Angeles, the site reaches about 7 million unique visitors a month. And their core demographic, young people of color in America’s major cities, seem to like what they’re seeing: 38 percent of users make repeat visits.
“How does it feel to be stereotyped [in the media]? Sometimes, it feels bad. More often, it just feels false,” says Aaron Samuels, a poet and one of Blavity’s co-founders. “Watching news about black people that’s mass-marketed to non-black people, the facts are weird or the names are pronounced wrong. Or maybe the facts and names are right, but the story’s incomplete, and we’re not getting the entire perspective. That rings as inauthentic, and it makes people want to check out.”
A portmanteau of “black” and “gravity,” Blavity takes its name from a gathering spot for African-American students at Washington University in St. Louis, where the site’s four co-founders all earned their undergraduate degrees. Because black students are underrepresented at the institution, a table in the student center became the spot where they gravitated, says Jonathan Jackson, Blavity’s head of corporate brand. “We have to navigate spaces that we don’t own. When we find each other, we stick with each other,” he adds. As one of the few locations on campus where African-American students weren’t in the minority, the roundtable became a community nexus and a site for discussion.
Blavity, which launched in 2014, works much the same way, offering a chance to interact with writers and readers from similar backgrounds. “It looks like me, feels like me. I don’t have to bend who I am to be a part of it,” says Jackson.
Once there, surrounded by like-minded peers, readers’ identities deepen and grow more complex, according to the site’s co-founders. Blavity is not about bridging the divide between black and white, but rather exploring more nuanced differences between, say, a first-generation Ghanaian immigrant and someone with deep roots in Atlanta, between comic book–reading “blerds” (black nerds) and hip-hop fans.
“People assume that black folks don’t care about exploring this nuance, but the complexities are just as important as the similarities,” Jackson explains. “It gives a voice to people that we pretend don’t exist. ‘I’m a gamer but you don’t think I am, because you think gamers don’t look like me.’ This is not a subculture: We are the culture.”
To capture those diverse narratives, Blavity employs a team of 16 full-time writers. In addition, the company accepts op-eds and commissions freelance pieces from across the country. Their primary qualifications for contributors: “a quick pulse on what’s going on” and an ability to “translate that into meaningful conversation,” says Jackson.
Their stories delve into topics that receive little mainstream coverage, like black masculinity or the stigmas against mental healthcare. That’s not to say Blavity doesn’t cover the day’s dominant headlines, too: They devote plenty of space to Black Lives Matter and police brutality. But even there, the tech company has a different approach than most news organizations in that they refuse to share body-cam footage of officer-involved shootings, which they believe causes unnecessary psychological trauma.
To widen their reach, Blavity’s stable of reporters produces content on nearly every platform, whether it’s moderating a Twitter discussion on interracial dating, Instagramming the best black designers on Etsy or Snapchatting a tour of the African-American History Museum.
As America’s first black president leaves the White House, there’s much at stake for the black community. After his election, Barack Obama gave his first interview to Ebony, an African-American-owned publication. This past summer, the magazine, whose covers over its 71-year-history had been graced by the likes of Muhammad Ali and Aretha Franklin, was sold to a private equity firm — a sign, to observers, that black-owned media’s influence was slipping. Blavity’s recent success suggests the decline might simply have been generational. They prove there’s still a market and, more than ever, a need for news written by black writers for black audiences.
“We’ve been making and building things for a long time, but the ownership has not been ours in a meaningful way. Blavity is a medium to communicate our value,” says Jackson. “There’s never been a more critical time to have that than right now.”