Things have been hard since I got let go from TIME. Me and Kenyatta have been scrambling to hold everything together. Relationship is good—we've been in this situation before, so we're not as panicked as before. Samori is doing well—for all he knows I just have more time to spend with him, which he loves. But man I've been carrying around stress, like a ton of bricks. I don't have to lecture you on that, you know all about it. But one thing that has gone absolutely right since I got layed-off—this Bill Cosby piece in the Atlantic. It's running in the May issue and will top off at 7,000 words or so. I missed the cover, but that's OK. This piece has been a dream. Here is the bonus—the book drops in May, and so does the piece. The Atlantic is gonna do an interview with me on their site about both the book and the article. I just wanted to drop you a note and tell you thanks again, man. When I got rejected on this from XXXXX, I was so down. That connection you managed between me and James Bennet meant all the world.
—"A Note of Thanks (Again)," sent to David Carr on February 28, 2008
David Carr, incomparable, irrepressible, and now legendary, is my friend and my brother. I talked to him about everything—relationships, money problems, taxes, religion, drugs, alcohol, travel, writing, food, death. On Thursday night it was announced that David collapsed and died in the newsroom of The New York Times. On Sunday night, it was announced that I received the George Polk Award for Commentary for my article "The Case for Reparations." This award has my name on it, but it is the property of David Carr.
Let me tell you exactly what I mean.
"The Case for Reparations" is an argument by reported narrative, a genre of journalism I first began studying and practicing as an intern at the Washington City Paper almost 20 years ago. My tutor in that practice was David Carr, then the City Paper’s editor in chief. Before taking up my studies, I’d enjoyed a successful career as knucklehead, which is to say that before I practiced the trade of narrative argument, I practiced the art of fucking up. My résumé was impressive. On two separate occasions, in two consecutive years, I was kicked out of the same high school. When I was 14 years old, I was arrested for threatening a teacher. Two years later, I was suspended for the same thing. I was not a thug, to the extent such people even exist. I was the kind of kid who sat in the library reading all day, and then failed my literature classes. I was the kind of kid who minored in literature and then failed my literature class and my humanities classes. Adults often think children take a kind of rebellious pride in these sorts of antics. If so it is the pride of fuck-ups and knuckleheads, the shadow of a deep and abiding fear that your life is going nowhere.
But there was this thing called the Washington City Paper which made arguments every week: big, profane, arrogant arguments. And to this it married a kind of immediacy communicated through reporting, direct quotations, and vividly rendered scenes. And it did at this at incredible length—in 1996, the minimum City Paper cover story was 5,000 words. I read a lot of these words when I was supposed to be doing other things—like studying literature or working a job. I was obsessed with the words in that paper. The words were not organized like any readings I’d ever seen. Maybe I could learn to use words in that same fashion. It wasn't like I was doing anything else. It wasn't like I had ever been good at anything else.
In the February of 1996, I sent David Carr two poorly conceived college-newspaper articles and a chapbook of black-nationalist poetry—and David Carr hired me. I can’t even tell you what he saw. I know that I immediately felt unworthy—a feeling that never quite faded—because I was a knucklehead and a fuck-up. But what I didn't then know about David Carr was that he'd written and edited the knucklehead chronicles, and published annual editions wholly devoted to the craft of fucking-up. I think that David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it, the way Bob Hayes ran with it, because the fear was not of anything earthly but of demons born from profound shame and fantastic imagination.
Carr was a master at activating the journalistic imagination. He was constantly imploring his writers—many of us under 25—to do something different, to tell stories differently, to break the form. He would have stories from Esquire or The New Yorker photocopied. He would distribute these photocopies to his writers, like the blueprints of imperial-army weaponry, and charge us, his rag-tag militia, with the task of reverse engineering. Then he would assemble us around a long table in the conference room, and quiz us on what, precisely, we’d gleaned from the future-tech of our enemies, and what of it we might use to turn the tide in the great war.
Carr loved the technology of storytelling and those who wielded it. He was the only person I could sit with and hash over the technical wizardry of This American Life. If you mentioned a great narrative writer in their element—say Gary Smith profiling Pat Summitt—his eyes would perk up like he’d just seen Carl Lewis mid-sprint and he would say, “Oh, he can go.” He once saw an article on how one might incorporate the tools of poetry into nonfiction. He tore out the article and left it on my desk with a note saying something like, “Still waiting to see some of this in your writing.” Another time he left a copy of The New Yorker on my desk—knowing my interest in hip-hop—with instructions for me to read a deeply reported feature on Tupac’s death. He would bring in writers from Vanity Fair and enlist them to break down our own stories and explain where we were going wrong and how we could make it right. David wanted us always moving faster, always getting stronger, always reaching higher.
Virtually the entire staff at Washington City Paper was liberal. That included David, but he was deeply skeptical of lefty activism concealed as journalism. David had no interest in objectivity, but he always believed that the truest arguments were reported and best bounded by narrative. Narrative was the elegant Trojan horse out of which the most daring and radical ideas could explode and storm a great city. An 800-word column demanding or rejecting reparations is easily repelled. Clyde Ross isn’t.
David made us feel like the writers at the big publications—at GQ, at The Atlantic Monthly, at Esquire—were no better than us. He pushed to go harder, to try match their pace, and he did this by activating fear and shame. David was a brutal and exacting boss. We didn't have fact-checkers at City Paper. There was a basic rule for errors. The first error you "introduced into the paper" earned you a talking-to. The second one earned you a lengthier talking-to and probation. The third one earned you unemployment. You did not need to “introduce” an error into the paper to earn “a talking to.” Once I flubbed two names in a music review. David chased me into an elevator and yelled at me until we got to the bottom. Another time, being 20 years old and wholly unaware of ethics, I promised a subject that a story would be “good for him.” David called me into his office and yelled for five straight minutes.
He yelled more than any other boss I’ve ever had. I was not exactly unfamiliar with his tactics. David once told a story about yelling at me over some error in my copy and noticing my face glaze over with a look of recognition. And he said he thought at that moment, “This is not the first time this kid has been in for the treatment.” It was not. My own parents ruled by fear, shame, and expectation. Even his rationales were familiar to me. He would say he was so hard on us because people already have low expectations for the alternative press. “They already think we make shit up,” he’d say, and that meant that we had a higher bar, which is to say, it meant that we had to be twice as good.
That went for reporting and for writing. A friend and fellow writer recalled David editing his copy and finding some clichéd phrase and writing in the margins, “I’m shocked to discover you think this is acceptable language to use at Washington City Paper.” I once got a tip that the people who did evictions were hiring homeless people to do the lifting and carrying. The homeless making people homeless was a perfect Washington City Paper story. “Find them,” David told me. I did not even know where to begin. Do you simply go find some homeless people and say, “Do you do evictions?” Evidently, yes, because that’s what I did, and this is the story I brought back.
What I remember about chasing that story is the fear—the fear of offending, of asking impolite questions, of intruding. But you could not work for City Paper without learning how to walk the streets of D.C., approach people you did not previously know and barrage them with intimate questions. This is an essential skill for any journalist—but it also one of the hardest things to do. But David had no tolerance of our fears, save fear of him. And if we could learn to be as deeply intolerant of our fears as he was, then a thousand glories lay on the other side.
This was represented in David himself, a man who was as effusive in praise as he was damning in condemnation. I still remember stumbling upon him in another editor’s office having just turned in a draft of that eviction story, and David looking up and saying, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.” No one had ever said anything like that to me. I remember my mother calling the office one day to talk to me. And David, in his brusque, brutal way, grabbed the phone from me and said, "I just want you to know that your son is here working his ass off." No one had ever said anything like that to my parents about me. I was a fuck-up. I was a knucklehead. I was going to end up on the corner. I was going to end up in jail. I was going to end up dead.
And then I wasn’t.
David Carr convinced me that, through the constant and forceful application of principle, a young hopper, a fuck-up, a knucklehead, could bring the heavens, the vast heavens, to their knees. The principle was violent and incessant curiosity represented in the craft of narrative argument. That was the principle and craft I employed in writing "The Case for Reparations." That is part of the reason why the George Polk Award, the one with my name on it, belongs to David. But that is not the most significant reason.
It has been said, repeatedly, that David was a tireless advocate of writers of color, of writers who were women, and of young writers of all tribes. This is highly unusual. Journalism eats its young. Editors tell young writers that they aren’t good enough to cover their declared interest. Editors introduce errors into the copy of young writers and force them to take the fall. Editors pin young writers under other editors whom they know to be bad at their job. Editors order young writers to cover beats and then shop their jobs behind their backs. Editors decide to fire young writers, and lacking the moral courage to do the deed themselves, send in their underlings. Editors reject pitches from young writers by telling them that they like the idea, but don’t think their byline is famous enough. Editors allow older black editors to tell young black writers that they are not writing black enough. Some of these editors end up working in public relations. Some of them become voting-rights activists. Some of them are hired by universities to have their tenured years subsidized by aspiring young writers.
All of that happened to me. And I know that I am not alone, that I am just the tip of what happens to young writers out there. And I know that even I, who am no longer a young writer, do not always wear my best face for young writers. And among the many things I am taking from David’s death is to be better with young writers, and young people in general. Because every single time some editor shoved me down, David picked me back up. It was David who I called at his home out in Montclair, in 2007, with a story to pitch to this magazine. And I asked him who he knew. And he knew James Bennet. And this is my life. It was David I called after an editor-in-chief called me into his office to tell me I did not have “the fire” to cover housing policy and development, and instead ordered me to write a weekly column on “black men.” It was David who told me that the editor did not know what he was talking about, and it was David who confronted the editor directly.
"The Case for Reparations" is, before it is anything, a reported story about housing policy and development. It is the story that David was urging me to write 19 years ago. The award belongs to him because I would not be a journalist were it not for him. The award belongs to him because I would not be at The Atlantic if not for him. The award belongs to him because he urged me on for nearly my entire adult life—faster, stronger, higher—and his memory will urge me on for the rest of my natural life.
David, I keep thinking I am going to call you. I keep thinking I am going to wake up. David, I heard a song yesterday and I wanted to call you:
Well, I’ve been dragged all over the place,
I’ve taken hits time just don’t erase
And baby I can see you’ve been fucked with too,
But that don’t mean your loving days are through.
I miss you terribly. I do not want to say goodbye. Tony says you were our champion. How can we go on, David? How can all of it just go on? Who will be our champion, now?
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