When he glances around the newsroom at BuzzFeed, the Internet media giant The Atlantic magazine recently called “the most influential news organization in America today,” Saeed Jones sees a level of diversity uncommon in today’s publishing landscape.
“I’m dazzled every day,” the Rutgers University-Newark graduate says from his office in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, where he’s recently been named executive editor, culture and where he feels at home integrating the various components of his identity: “young, black and gay.”
Born in Tennessee and raised in conservative Lewisville, Texas, north of Dallas, Jones came of age feeling he had to sever a part of himself in order to make it in the real world. Finding his footing in an industry, which, by his calculation, is nearly 90 percent white was challenging.
“BuzzFeed is the first job I ever had where I feel I’ve been able to bring my entire self into the room. I don’t have to abandon myself to do my job,” the journalist says.
“Combing through mastheads and tables of contents for the names of writers who are not straight white men can make you feel crazy,” Jones wrote in an essay for BuzzFeed last year titled “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Ungrateful Black Writer. “And it is crazy that doing so is still necessary.”
The essay describes his experiences at an exclusive literary party, where, having just published his first book of poetry, he found himself rubbing elbows with National Book Award winners and feeling invisible because of his race.
He describes how a fellow party-goer – yet another white male – ran his fingers through Jones’ afro, “test[ing] the texture … the way you might squeeze a bath sponge.”
Jones never stopped smiling, he recalls in the essay, explaining that somewhere along the way he had picked up the idea that when you’re a young black writer among the literary elite, it’s not a career-enhancing move to be “both grateful and angry, or proud and humiliated – though, of course, I was.”
Now Jones finds himself in a position to boost the careers of budding writers of all ethnicities while at the same time launching what he calls “a lot of amazing new work” at the 10-year-old publishing site. That includes original poetry and fiction, a first for BuzzFeed.
Innovation is nothing new for Jones, who became the site’s first LGBT editor in 2013. Under his guidance, BuzzFeed began shining a lens on marriage equality, AIDS and HIV, public policy, violence against transgender people and the fight for health care.
It was Jones’ first crack at editing, following teaching stints at a Newark high school and as a part-time instructor at Rutgers-Newark, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in May 2010.
Seguing from one career to another wasn’t that much of a stretch, he says. “Being a teacher and being an editor – there’s a lot of correlation. Working with reporters to decide on a story idea, helping them pursue it, being available when they hit a wall, pointing to ideas they might not think about: isn’t that what teachers and professors do every day in the classroom?”
As a scholarship student at Western Kentucky University, Jones never considered making a living by creative writing: “No one gets support for writing poetry,” he says wryly. He credits the decision to pursue his MFA at Rutgers to a serendipitous encounter he had while still an undergrad.
On the advice of a mentor, he found himself at a creative writing conference in Atlanta, overwhelmed by what he saw: “a lot of tables filled with white people.”
Standing out in that sea of pale faces was a black woman he later identified as Tayari Jones, an associate professor at Rutgers-Newark and a novelist who would go on to write Silver Sparrow and receive the Lifetime Achievement in Fine Arts Award from the Congressional Black Caucus. She recently participated in the MFA program’s “Writers At Newark Reading Series” Feb. 2.
With her was Jayne Ann Phillips, another faculty member, who helped develop Rutgers-Newark’s MFA program and whose critically acclaimed works have been published in 10 languages.
“They both said keep us in mind when the time comes,” Jones recalls – and two years later, he did just that.
Jones’ love for the written word runs both wide and deep.
NPR named his debut collection of poetry, Prelude to Bruise, to its Best Books of 2014 list; Publishers Weekly declared, “The poems of this book are harrowing and heartbreaking, treating family, sexuality, and race with unrelenting intensity.”
And last spring, Simon & Schuster bought the right to publish the memoir he’s been working on since 2011. The book, titled How Men Fight for Their Lives, explores Jones’s struggle to define himself as a man in his teens and mid-20s.
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