Contributor Essay

Jamming the Gates

Guest contributor Rebecca Carroll writes that the legacy of The New Yorker archive’s dismal diversity and inclusion statistics is not just about its editors’ blind spots.

One of my first editors was Henry Finder, the longtime editorial director of The New Yorker. At the time, though, he was managing editor of Transition magazine, the celebrated journal covering culture and politics from the African diaspora that had been revived by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and run out of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard. I was then the 24-year-old receptionist, and, to my mind, Finder was the gold standard of editors — not merely because of the way he put each issue of Transition together, but because of his quiet, focused curiosity and clear reverence toward language, words. It came through in every single conversation I had with him—or overheard him have with others.

I wrote about the experience in my recent memoir, Surviving the White Gaze:

“Of course it’s good,” Henry said when I showed him the start of a short essay called “Soul Notes,” riffing loosely on Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. I was trying to understand my identity through Baldwin’s lens, and I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.

“It would be better to start with your own story, not Baldwin’s,” Henry said.

“But is it any good?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t be giving you feedback if it wasn’t.”

Soon after, Finder got that call of a lifetime from The New Yorker. I also moved from Cambridge to New York to take a new job, a good deal less prestigious, as an editorial assistant at Elle, an experience I’ve since written about extensively and which, sadly but not remarkably, was a precursor to the rest of my positions as the only or one of very few Black writers or editors in mainstream magazines and media.

The first piece I pitched to The New Yorker came several years later, in 1998, about the changing tenor and arc of Oprah’s career and how that impacted how I saw her as a Black role model. I sent it to David Remnick, who had recently been appointed editor and I’d met through my job as a producer at The Charlie Rose Show. Though I remained friendly with Finder for a time, I felt like pitching him would have been presumptuous, or at least awkward. The rejection letter (which I’ve kept along with several others from early on in my writing career) came from another editor, not Remnick.

Dear Ms. Carroll:
David Remnick asked me to read your essay on Oprah. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it isn’t quite right for our pages. You might consider submitting it to 
The New Republic or The Nation. Thank you for thinking of us and giving us the chance to read your work.

It felt like being told to go find a seat at the less cool table in the middle school lunchroom — over where the theater kids and math geeks sit.

I continued to pitch The New Yorker for years. A piece on the whiteness of Good Will Hunting, and another on the onslaught of memoirs and what that told us about ourselves, empathy, and the retelling of truths. I applied for assistant editor jobs, staff writer jobs, book, film, and TV review writing. Every pitch rejected, and never once called in for an interview. After a while, I set other goals and priorities and just stopped pitching.

So it was no surprise to me when Erin Overbey, The New Yorker’s archivist since 1994, posted a Twitter thread that included data covering 30 years’ worth of the magazine. You’ve probably read, or maybe even retweeted, her findings:

  • In 30 years, 2.5 percent of movie reviews were written by women.
  • In 15 years, less than 0.01 percent of print feature and critics’ pieces were edited by a Black editor.
  • In 30 years, 3.6 percent of book reviews were written by Black writers.

In a follow-up about her thread for New York magazine, Choire Sicha wrote that Remnick declined to comment on Overbey’s data. But the magazine’s website editor, Michael Luo, did tweet out a response: “It’s worth looking at who we’ve brought aboard as editors, staff writers, and contributing writers over the last several years. It’s an incredibly talented, diverse list.” (I have applied to more than one position at the website, too.)

As hard as it is for me to get worked up anymore about the relentless grip of the white gaze in this industry, it is still somewhat beguiling as I look back on my relationship with The New Yorker. For the longest time, I absolutely believed the rejection was because I wasn’t good enough. But if I, as a Black woman writer — who had some ties and access to the magazine that most other people do not and had been published in, among other places, The AtlanticThe New York TimesEsquireNew York, and The Guardian — have been continuously looked over, what criteria exactly were they using? Who but a few very specifically hand-selected Black writers even stand a chance?

I don’t regret pitching all those stories to The New Yorker — many of them later found other homes— but I do regret the time I spent thinking that I wasn’t good enough or that the only marker of success as a writer was to be published in The New Yorker. So the recent stats are not revelatory. But to young aspiring Black writers out there, it’s not you. It’s them.

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and the author of several books about race in America, including Sugar in the Raw: Voices of Young Black Girls in America, and the recent memoir, Surviving the White Gaze. She is the host and creator of the WNYC podcast Come Through with Rebecca Carroll, and the award-winning Audible Original podcast Billie Was a Black Woman.