The email opened with praise. I’d just come off an amazing reading, my first ever Lit Crawl appearance. I read with bad ass writers. Famous writers. Jennine Capó Crucet and Wendy C. Ortiz and hosted by fuckin Melissa Febos. Excuse me. That shit happened in 2015. It wasn’t my first VIDA reading, I’ve been in um, six at this point or so but it was a majorly unexpected invite and I was amazed. I could squee about how Wendy and Jennine both were super nice to me and how Melissa gave me a compliment and I almost peed myself.
For some context read this piece (CW: this is about sex, kink and me trying water sports, not graphic but TL:DR, I tried, failed and got into a very gay argument) because for as much very heavy work that I’ve done over the years, I really wanted to try to be funny. I’m one of those people who uses humor a lot, I say things that make folks giggle but being funny on purpose has always felt like a reach for me. I read, I wore an AMAZING outfit, people laughed. It was great, and I felt good about it.
Full disclosure. In terms of the actual performance part of readings, I’m Gucci. I love it. I’m good at it. I like to tell the audience a joke, throw some compliments. That part is easy. Unfortunately, I’m a super nervous, socially awkward weirdo in the best of times. More unfortunately is that often people saying nice things to me, or worse complimenting my work to my face freaks my shit right out. And of course, my anxiety spikes with things like crowds, loud noise etc.
The after part wasn’t great. I gave out some of my business cards and an older White woman cornered me to both compliment me and tell me how disappointed she was to see that I wasn’t talking about being Black in Seattle, racism or whatever. My partner rescued me, and we bounced. I did have the good sense to leave some of my cards with a hot lil lesbian who liked my essay and that was that.
The email I mentioned up top came about two weeks later. At the time I was considering embarking on making myself available for speaking, teaching etc. about racism and anti-racism work. Not my first time doing so but, the first time I thought it could be a nice lil career move. I could do that. I love teaching. I love helping folks get their activist on or at least, open them up to wider possibilities.
I thought I was ready, and the email was my first nibble of interest in the area of professional anti-racism. Through my 20s and 30s, I would have never thought I had the right to teach about these things or anything. Not for lack of knowledge, but I believed that I had to have the “appropriate” degrees and I don’t have those. I did not believe I had earned or deserved to be paid fairly or at all for my work. The email was my very first-time quoting rates I felt were fair, workable and accessible.
The response was pure outrage. Just the idea of paying me, sent this white woman into a paroxysm of indignant rage. I remember that when I stopped responding things escalated. I learned some valuable lessons that day that have led me to where I am now.
1.) In many instances it doesn’t matter how well I do something or don’t do it. People who are in a position of power over me and my livelihood will always figure out a way to discredit and not pay me. That goes for my creative and other work.
2.) That reality is not a reflection of the quality of my work.
3.) The following:
- “Credentials” always mean better.
- I Shannon Barber must be grateful for every “opportunity” even if said “opportunity” is a turd sandwich.
- That because I’m not like (enter more famous than me Black woman writer, we’ll talk about it) that I should not ask for payment because OBVIOUSLY if I was quality enough, I’d get paid like X authors.
- That I am not good enough.
I want to touch on one more thing before I go.
The success of other Black women has been used as a weapon against me by fake allies and even other Black folks for the last few years. For instance, I’ve had people tell me that basically what they were looking for was for me to be a low rent version of their favorite Black woman author who they couldn’t afford to hire. I’m talking about writers I like and some I know. Ijeoma Oluo and Roxane Gay spring to mind immediately.
It is so disrespectful to them and their work as it is to me and mine, to use them and their amazing success to say, well you Shannon are obviously not as good as them but so we aren’t going to pay you AND we’re going to insult you. Their success isn’t the success for me and vice versa. We are three very different people. I respect both deeply as I also respect other Black women who are doing their thing.
What I don’t respect is anyone who wants to wear their Allyship pin but who engage in behavior that is meant to demean, disrespect or otherwise intention aside becomes a weapon to not pay a person what they are worth.
This incident was the start of how we got here. I made the decision that I won’t tolerate the bullshit. Either you want to work with me on my terms or you don’t. If you don’t that’s fine. But what we not gonna do is pretend that it is ever okay to devalue my work or anyone else’s because they’ve set a cost and stick to it. The solution to this is simple. Pay people. Can’t pay what they ask? Yes, you can absolutely negotiate but, don’t fall back onto anti-Blackness. That is not the way and it isn’t good for any of us.