"I never dreamed of owning anything."

An interview with LaTonya Yvette

This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Like a lot of people, I miss Google Reader. I miss clicking a single button and having all of my lunch reading unfurl for me in a long list, with the names of the blogs with new entries in bold. I miss the way it circumvented Twitter but also saved me from typing a bunch of individual blog names into the search bar. But the internet has a way of killing things like Google Reader (or, my recent fav, Nuzzle) with actual reader utility. (Yes I know about RSS feeds; no I don’t want to use them).

But Google Reader is where I first read LaTonya Yvette, wedged in my feed somewhere between Dooce and the deeply funny personal blog of a Korean-Canadian lawyer mom, the blogspot of a friend from high school I hadn’t spoken to in years, and a bunch of outfit blogs (remember outfit blogs???) I knew about their kids and their kids’ food preferences and the way they narrativized their husbands’ presence. I remember a lot of extraneous belts, of all shapes and sizes.

When Google Reader went away, I lost track of so many of those blogs, including LaTonya’s — until I heard her on Forever35, rediscovered her on Instagram, and eventually worked up the courage last year to ask her to be part of a panel on parenting burnout for the 92nd Street YMCA.

When you’ve been writing on the internet as long as LaTonya has (which, I realize as I type this, is also as long as I have) you’ve rolled with a lot of changes: in audience, in distribution, in strategy, in aesthetics. Finding the energy to throw new balls in the air while still juggling existing ones, to cater to existing readers while seeking out new ones, to figure out what part of yourself and your family’s lives are available to the public and which are not, to make money without feeling like a craven capitalist but also really valuing your own labor and asking others to as well — it’s a lot.

I’ve deeply admired how LaTonya has negotiated the last ten years of living, in her words, at once “quietly and publicly” on the internet — and wanted to hear a lot more about the house she just bought in upstate New York, and the significance of ownership for a Black single mom. Her work is so challenging and joyous, evocative and meditative, if you’re encountering her for the first time, I’m truly thrilled for you.

Can you tell us about how you found your way to doing what you do today, and the things that you’re generally obsessed with and love to write about on a regular basis?

I always love this question, because it forces me to step out of the juggling I’m doing at the moment and thoughtfully zoom out. Years ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed of writing my second book, while raising children and running a full-time business in the form of LY.

I got pregnant with my daughter, River, when I was still in college studying to be a journalist. I went to a CUNY school, fully funded by financial aid, and after several years of the never-ending associates-degree-credit-earning, I was about one math class away from transferring to Hunter College. I was pretty set on doing this with my daughter, and the school also offered childcare while my ex-husband worked odd jobs if and when I had to bring her with me. But as soon as I began the process of what I needed to finally transfer my credits, things in the journalism world started to fall apart.

Meanwhile, I continued working as an assistant stylist on commercial sets. I came home, cooked dinner, and loved loved loved being a young mother living in Bushwick. My daughter and I spent days I wasn’t working or in school out in the street, exploring the city. And that’s when I started my blog.

I am part of what I think is the “second wave” of well-known bloggers (the first wave started publishing around 2007-2009. I am the 2010-12 camp) Even then, in 2011, I didn’t know of any other bloggers of color, let alone Black bloggers. Especially none who were also parents.  The blog spoke to the stylist in me, to the writer in me, to the parent in me, and to the young woman who struggled like so many young Black girls do. It allowed me a space to be in constant motion of creativity, while simultaneously opening the door for me to show What I Could Do, quietly but also publicly for others. 

As the blog started to grow, the realities of the journalism market started to become clear. I also received notice that I would have to start paying more for school. We were completely broke.

So I dropped out of school and focused on my daughter, my marriage, and my work full-time. We struggled a lot (did I say that enough?) but through various side jobs and quick creative endeavors, writing and the blog became this steady place for me and my readers every single week. I got pregnant again, and through a late-term loss, I found this other side of the blog and ultimately, found the sort of social media connections that not only supported me, but intrigued me. I couldn’t hold the facade that so many other bloggers maintained, because I just wasn’t them and didn’t grow up like them. Considering the destruction of late-term loss to my emotional and physical wellbeing, it felt counterfeit to continue on in this box that wasn’t really made for me to begin with. 

The loss skyrocketed the blog, in a sense. I think it's because it was tangible — and, unfortunately, really common. I got pregnant with my son, Oak, a few months later, and around that time, I was asked to work more with brands to bring their creative ideas (and not-so creative ideas) to life with sponsorships on my Instagram, on the blog and within their companies. For me, this was a huge relief. While I was still doing a bunch of creative odd jobs, having the blog work sort of pay for itself nearly four years after beginning and writing every single day was fortifying.

I sometimes joke that it's mentally exhausting to feel like you’re good at a lot of things (I’m also not good at a lot of things). There’s this buzz around multi-hyphenated people in the industry right now, and I often think of people like myself. We sometimes wish we could turn it off! But right now, I’m writing my second book with Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House. But I’m also class parent of my son’s public school class (I have been for my daughter for years), and creative director for many jobs that hit my desk during the day. I just purchased a second home upstate as part personal triumph/book research/and in response to Covid in NYC and the inability to escape its wrath, unlike so many of my affluent white counterparts, who I ultimately found out had houses up the wazoo where they could stay and hide (or families with wealth)! 

Outside of the book, my writing is rooted in the intersection of advocacy, womanhood, culture, and ultimately, feeling through. What I try to share and what I want readers to get is this sense of okay-ness to exist as all of the things and nothing. It’s okay to want to experience joy, heal, and honestly, feel excluded from all of those experiences because of where you are right now plus systemic racism. There’s not enough focus on that aspect. 

All the time I’ve followed you, you’ve lived in a very charming apartment in Brooklyn, and the space itself feels like a central character in your blog and Instagram. So tell me more about this new house.  

So yes, I still live in a very charming apartment in Brooklyn. It is great. It is a mess. And it is also being sold, which puts me in a very precarious situation, of which I am going to sit out and wait, wait, wait, because I have no control over what happens next. Just prior to finding out it was in the process of being listed, and ultimately, in contract, I put an offer in on a home upstate!

I’d been looking since November, after realizing that all of the years of working on my credit had built me up in creditors’ eyes. Mostly, it’s lack of debt — which I started to whittle away at after I restructured my family, as a way to kind of reorganize myself into myself. 

I never dreamed of owning anything. I grew up mostly in the city, so owning a piece of property is a strange and distant process. And then you consider the way lenders and federal/local government have used tactics to make ownership nearly impossible for Black folks. The people I know who’ve owned a home all come from money, whether they're honest about it or hiding it. It’s there. And that’s not a life I was able to even hold as truth for myself or my close community.

About nine months into the pandemic, I think I just went through a new trauma cycle, and instead of  wanting my city to make it through to the other side of this, I started to honestly become angry about how everything can change and nothing can change in the eyes, particularly when we think of this American ideal of home ownership.

I think that buying this three bedroom, three bath Amtrak-accessible house with land was a way for me to kind of say fuck you to a system I very much wish did not exist as it does. It’s become a way to not only give to my children generationally, but also give to other BIPOC, by way of a quarterly weekly residency which will be funded by other guests. 

Home (or apartment) ownerships no longer feels accessible to so many people in Brooklyn, but it does feel accessible upstate — what is lost (or gained!) by moving upstate? Does the Amtrak accessibility feel crucial to maintaining ties to the city? What are you wary of, and what are you excited about? 

Prior to looking into purchasing upstate, I had been in a lottery for buying an apartment for middle class families like mine. I found out I was picked in 2018, and jumped through several hoops with HPD (Housing Preservation and Development) and the local home ownership non-profit that helps vet potential buyers. It was a two bedroom, within my neighborhood. I was only just able to qualify because I’ve never owned and was the “head of household” with two kids.

After all of repeatedly resubmitting my paperwork, I was allowed to see the apartment in May 2020, right as lockdown partially lifted in NYC. It was about 550 square feet. I was mortified. I stayed up several nights going back and forth, calling my boyfriend, my brother, and my sister over what I should do. It was a strange situation: here I was “qualified” to buy because I was a single mother who was self-employed, but if I did taxes again, I would no longer qualify (even though the price of the place would have been way too expensive for a person who makes less than me).

After a few days and warnings by the housing department that I had to make a decision, I pulled out. There was just no way I could live there with a 9 year old and a 5 year old while working from home — and in a pandemic, no less. 

The entire process is emblematic of the NYC buying / housing market. If you’re middle class, you make too much to qualify, or you qualify by a hair or some BS you’re pulling and the place is too small for the number of children you have. And if you’re poor (like most of the city) you make too little to qualify. So I started looking in Brooklyn without the use of a program soon after, and realized it was impossible. At this point, I had sold my second book and had more of a cushion that made a downpayment possible. But the options in my neighborhood meant I would be losing all of my savings, downsizing, and still paying $1500 more in mortgage than I do in rent per month. It didn’t add up.

I wanted a place to sow a seed for myself and my children, but my choices were limited by train access. Like many city people, I don’t drive, even though I’ve had a million and five permits and am for sure going to get my license one day (I say that every year). But I am also like many city people in that I not only want physical access to the city, but emotional access. This is something hard to explain unless you mostly grew up in the city and are a brown or Black person.

I thankfully found a place near a bunch of friends — a place where I know that LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter are formative to the people. I am weary though, of people I do not know — of a random guy or woman crossing with us in the village, and words that I have to explain to my children later. But I think of this quote by Jamaica Kinkaid: “Everybody who accomplishes anything leaves home. This action, leaving home, has an effect on the people left behind and sometimes, most dramatically, on the new people one meets.”  

As much as this city protects me and pushes me, it also holds my hand to a fault. Part of growing up myself and supporting my children in their growing up is leaving this place that cradles us so well. But I’m not moving out of the city full-time. We’ll still keep our place here and spend weekends and summers upstate. We’ll find family and friends that want to visit and I’ll rent it out, and I’ll also give it to BIPOC who need a free place to lay their own heads.

You’re moving your newsletter over to Substack — and making it easier for readers to support your work. How is the house going to figure into this?

My bi-weekly newsletter was created many years ago in the spirit of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker's love notes to one another. While I’ve had the blog and will continue it forever, the format of essays/love letters give me more intimate space. I think it’s because I’m coming to readers, in their inbox, rather than them coming to me, on my blog — it creates this sacredness. I write more and better. And the topics are slightly different. 

I still blog around four times a week, and have a host of amazing contributors. And I see it living on with me and sometimes without me at the helm. But I needed the letters to be put into Substack because I would get emails after the letters and I would wish that folks could read them, share their feelings too, and truly feel like they were in community. It also feels like a space where I can share the emotional impact of renovating a room, and the storytelling process of design that I may be too shy to share on the blog. I realize, whether good or bad, there are multiple processing systems with this house thing, and I think that each of those places need a space. 

When you tell your children the story of buying this house, and what it means in the history of your family and the way Black people have been systematically excluded and discouraged from home ownership and wealth accumulation at pretty much every turn, what story will you tell? This is a house, but it’s so much more than a house. What feels most important to pass along to them? 

My father was a first generation Panamanian who came to NYC when he was 11, and the struggle and the joy of Black life and immigrant life isn’t new to my children. Like many children who go to NYC Public Schools and live in diverse and vibrant neighborhoods, they grow up cognizant of the variations of American life and of the ways that they benefit (because they have many benefits!) and ways that may always have to prove or exemplify excellence.

My sitter is a Latino man, raised by a single mother who grew up in NYC, and he spoke to my children about making sure they just say thank you to me for the house. It was something that I had truly never thought of during the process. I had been struggling for so long to get this house, keeping it a secret in order to surprise them and to protect them, that I hadn’t really thought about the impact of the story. And then after the surprise — which was priceless and very emotional — I realized my children didn’t understand how difficult it was. Or rather, how maybe they should be thankful that I had charted this very difficult road for myself and for their future. 

I was doing my daughter’s hair one morning over the bathroom sink, and they asked why it was so important to say thank you for this — outside of a normal thank you. I explained how hard it had been for me, while trying to not to project. (Going between my reality, their reality, and the overall truth is always a good workout). Not only am I a woman, but I am single, I am self employed, I am a mother, and I am Black. And unfortunately, even with all of our beauty and our greatness, the system isn’t holistically designed to make those things just things. It is designed so that those things are often barriers between what we not only deserve, but what we are owed.

But in our family, we will care for the land and we will remind ourselves that even if we are “owners” of the land, we are mostly only keepers of it. And being able to — that’s worth celebrating every day. ●

You can subscribe to LaTonya’s newsletter here, and follow her on Instagram here. Her blog is LY, and you buy her first book, Woman of Color, here.

Things I Read and Loved Online This Week:

Not a lot of online reading time this week, and no ‘just trust me,’ but currently on the second rewatch of Bo Burnham’s new Netflix comedy special, which is indeed as good and existential-crisis-inducing as everyone has said, and currently reading and deeply immersed in Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman.

If you read this newsletter and value it, consider going to the paid version. One of the perks = weirdly fun/interesting/generative discussion threads, just for subscribers, every week. Last week’s “What You’re Watching” thread has programmed my viewing for the next month.

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