At the end of 2018, Lauren Michele Jackson, a graduate student in English Language and Literature, made a list of the ten favorite pieces she had published that year. It included essays that ran in the Paris Review Daily, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. At number one: “Who Really Owns the Blaccent?” for Vulture, a 2,000-word essay inspired by actress Awkwafina’s speech patterns in the movie Crazy Rich Asians.

Jackson’s collection of essays, White Negroes, which focuses on the appropriation of black culture, will be released by Beacon Press in the fall. A prolific writer, she is also in the final stages of her dissertation, “Black Vertigo: Nausea, Aphasia, and Bodily Noise, 1970s to the present.”

How did you start writing for mainstream publications?

In the spring of my first year, 2014, I had an idea for a piece. It was about how my body as a black person is interpreted in and around Hyde Park, and how this compared to my undergraduate experience at the University of Illinois, a quintessential college town.

In Champaign-Urbana, no matter what you look like, it’s assumed if you’re a certain age, you’re a student. In Hyde Park, based on the way I would dress, I was perceived as either a local or a student. It turned into a larger piece that ran in the Atlantic about what happens when a university is situated in an urban neighborhood, and what the history of that looks like on other campuses in Philly and New York.

I had to Google how to write a pitch, how to contact editors. In hindsight I was pretty ambitious. I sent it to Salon, Slate, and David Graham at the Atlantic, then the politics editor. He was gracious enough to be interested in it. To this day, I’m so grateful.

I started freelancing a lot more during my third year, when I was reading for orals. My development as an academic and as a public voice are intertwined. I couldn’t do the public writing without the research I do, pushing me to challenge the clichés we take for granted in culture, particularly around race. And my advisers have told me my public writing has improved my academic voice.

Now I can imagine what the 500-word version of an idea would look like, the 2,500-word version, the 7,500- to 10,000-word article or dissertation chapter version. In the public sphere, you don’t have time to rehash everything that’s ever been said about a particular topic. You have to prioritize when you cite—and I do think it’s important to cite, even in a public venue.

Do you ever write personal essays?

No. I like using anecdotes, and I’m very forthcoming about the use of the “I.” But I am not a personal essayist. Editors will sometimes say, it would be really nice if you had a poignant personal story to put here. And I’m like, no. I’m a scholar, I’m telling you this because it’s backed by research that I can cite for you if you want, but you’re probably going to end up cutting it.

From 2013 to 2015 was the height of the “personal essay industrial complex” or “the internet-take industrial complex.” The way to break in was to write a personal narrative anchored to a wider societal or structural issue. I don’t say that with any shade. It was a boon to writers of color, queer writers, women writers. That’s cooled down. The money is running out, and a lot of people are exhausted with reading—and also writing—those types of pieces.

How did your essay collection, White Negroes, come about?

I wrote a piece in the Awl a couple years ago about [rapper] Drake—this digital native who makes his persona preemptively meme-able. He anticipates the pulse of the internet in a way that has led to this meteoric success. From that essay, I got an email from the person who’s now my agent.

I wanted a title that would make you clutch your pearls and say, “Well, I never!” But I don’t know if that’s super-conducive to book sales.

Do you get hate mail?

It varies. The Atlantic got rid of its comments section a year or so ago. They only do letters to the editor, which I am so glad about. I know so many people who have gotten filth for the reasons you would expect.

My piece in Vulture last year about appropriation of what’s called a blaccent sparked a lot of engagement on Twitter, for good and for ill. After I wrote an article for Slate on the “blackfishing” phenomenon [non-black women on Instagram using cosmetics to make themselves look black] I was interviewed on Good Morning America. I got two or three emails about that when I was literally on the screen for five seconds. I was like, wow. You felt a way.

When you don’t have something so easily quoted or quote-tweeted, I think people are less likely to engage with it shallowly. I don’t write “takes.” I hate that word so much. Even when people use it in a complimentary fashion, I’m bristling. I’m not a “taker,” I’m a critic.

The people who actually read my work, not just the headlines, are the people who matter to me. I’ve always been able to find careful readers, even if it’s ten of them or 100 of them.

Where does poetry fit in to your body of work?

I call myself an occasional poet. When I want to write a poem, words are coming at me in a sense that isn’t an essay, isn’t an article, but something else. I’ll submit it and then I won’t put stakes attached to it. I’ve been grateful that journals both niche and prestigious have bitten. Waterstone Review nominated me for a Pushcart Prize this year for my favorite poem I’ve ever written [“Lisa Simpson, the yellow sister”]. It reimagines Lisa Simpson as a young Creole woman. It was really fun to write.

Do you have a special place to write or any writing routines?

That is my dream. I was reading a profile of an older, white author, who has a writing shed. Literally a separate building. I love that idea. I aspire to that. I just got a desk in my apartment this year.

Where did you write before?

In our old living room we had a chair that was basically a stool, because the back part had weakened so much it just came off. I would sit in one of our chairs and I would put my computer on this stool like a desk.  That’s what I wrote my book on. That’s what I wrote my first dissertation chapter on. That’s what I freelanced on.

From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., I try to be on. Working at home helps. I can wake up at 6:30 and work. Making yourself write when you don’t want to is really important. I think people say, oh I’m not inspired right now. Work doesn’t get done only when you’re inspired.

Lots of non-writing goes into the writing process. You’re researching, you’re reading, you’re brainstorming, you’re moving things around and editing. A lot of people tend to get stuck when they glorify non-writing—oh, I sat for two hours in a YouTube hole, but I’m counting it as part of writing hours. No. If you’re going to write, write.

Throughout your work, you use the word “black,” uncapitalized. Could you talk more about that?

I use the uncapitalized “black” unless I am citing someone who does use the capital B. I have used the capital B in the past, and moved away from it. It’s kind of an exhaustion thing. I would look at my paper and see all these capital letters and feel like it broke up the flow. But I would never take away from anyone’s insistence on it, because it is very much a political insistence.

I do not use “African American.” Only if I’m quoting or paraphrasing somebody’s research. A lot of sociological stuff, medical stuff is still insistent on “African American.” I feel like it has taken on a white liberal flavor. Yes, the “African” means “African-descended,” but it’s been so long, black American peoples have distinct cultures, languages, music, traditions—all kinds of things not necessarily divisible to the continent.

Meanwhile there are so many different ways to be black in the US, as in first- and second- generation children of African immigrants, a huge West Indian population, a huge black Canadian population. That’s part of what my dissertation is about: thinking about blackness as constituted by dizzy non-specificity of place. “African American” presumes a type of cleanliness or closure about black identity that doesn’t manifest in real life and isn’t experienced by actual black folks.

Your dissertation is very broadly interdisciplinary. You cite medical journals and disability studies in your footnotes.

My dissertation has an uneasy relationship to medical discourse. It takes vertigo as this opening structure, and its associated symptomology, such as dizziness, nausea, instability, things like that. What I’m tracking in the dissertation are not symptoms, they’re aesthetic representations of affects.

Something my advisers, particularly Lauren Berlant [the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor of English], have always emphasized is that if you’re going to be interdisciplinary, you have to learn the vernacular of the discipline you’re trying to work with. To write about language, I have to learn about linguistics. To write about a language disorder, I had to read medical journals. I try to treat each topic seriously, and not just dabble and borrow. I’m trying to build a bridge between these two different disciplines.

How do you manage the emotional load of doing work on difficult topics?

One of the chapters, about disability and health issues and weathering, is super down. If my entire dissertation was like that, I would need intensive therapy.

Part of my theorizing of what I’m calling black vertigo is a way to contain the multiple registers of being made ill by the world. “Ill” in black vernacular can take on multiple meanings. There’s the more casual “ill,” as in revolutionary, as in hip, cool, never before done. But then there is also illness and retching and nausea.

The last chapter on contemporary hip-hop is about noise, excitement, effervescence. So vertigo is both the unstable environment you inherit by virtue of being black and producing black art, but is also an exciting agitation in the art-making process.

Ever think about becoming a public intellectual?

Media right now is no more stable or predictable than the academic job market. It feels like almost every other month we’re hearing about some publication laying off all their staff writers, just out of nowhere. Media can’t really be a plan B. It has to be like, Plan A point 5.