by Sarah Neilson
The epigraph of Reagan Jackson’s new book, Still Here: A South End Mixtape From an Unexpected Journalist, comes from the great Audre Lorde: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” It’s an auspicious opening to an impressive collection of some of Jackson’s most important journalism over the past 10 years; writing for which she has won multiple awards and distinctions, including the 2016 Seattle Globalist Globie Award Journalist of the Year and a 2020 Distinguished Visiting Writer at Seattle University. It’s an ethos that the writing consistently embodies.
In a comprehensive introduction, Jackson breaks down her approach to journalism. In insightful, thorough, and evocative writing, Jackson subverts many of the “rules” and myths that journalism posits as its ultimate standards. Journalism is “a field poised to acknowledge its own failure to represent communities of color in an equitable and accurate way and ripe for reinvention,” she writes. Invoking W.E.B. Du Bois’s double consciousness theory, she continues that she was “skeptical and critical of journalism for the ways it has been used as a tool of systemic oppression to vilify and misrepresent People of Color, but it is also what positioned me well to become a counter narrative.” But being a counter narrative is not the primary goal of Jackson’s journalism. “I long for when People of Color can shift from the margins to the center,” she writes, “to help journalism have a much needed conversation with itself around the whitewashing of what it means to be objective and what media must do to wield its power responsibly.”
“I wanted to tell stories from my community, but never at their expense,” she continues. “I needed to create a new paradigm of ethics.”
Jackson’s work is expansive and touches everything from the gentrification of Rainier Beach and Seattle’s South End to capitalist colonialism in Honduras to personal and interpersonal relationships with bodies. Every single piece in this collection shines in both content and voice. Jackson is an expert at telling engaging stories, to the point where this book is hard to put down.
Still Here is divided into five aptly titled sections — The Hood, The Struggle, The World, The People, and The Body — which give a sense of the breadth of topics and stories covered. In addition to a wealth of local stories, Jackson, for whom “the two most influential forces in my life have been writing and travel,” employs an international lens, especially in the section The World. Her passion for travel grew out of her experience on a study abroad program as a youth, during which she was one of the only People of Color in her cohort. “There is a global misconception, often perpetuated by white media, that the U.S. is a white country,” she writes, and it is with this in mind that she has led trips abroad, both through Y-WE (Young Women Empowered), where she serves as co-executive director of Programs & Organizational Vision, and through the nonprofit Many Voices One Tribe, which she founded after receiving a master’s degree in international education from the SIT Graduate Institute. Many of the pieces about travel and intercultural experience focus on the global African diaspora as well as the capitalist colonialism and imperialism in places like Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico.
When she writes about our own “passive-aggressive, PC city” of Seattle, the stories range from personal experience with the whiteness and predatory nature of gentrification to profiles of some exciting contemporary artists and cultural figures in or with connections to the city, like Pawnee comedian Howie Echo-Hawk; historian, writer, and artist Nell Irvin Painter; and conceptual artist Natasha Marin. Marin’s latest high-profile project is as curator of the anthology Black Imagination: Black Voices on Black Futures, but the article Jackson includes in Still Here is commentary about a website called “Reparations,” a social experiment taking the concept of making reparations to an interpersonal level, where Black people and other People of Color could ask for things and white people could offer to do/give them. The 2016 article from the Globalist, titled “Reparations Reimagined: Can Online Giving Counter Systemic Racism?,” was the first time she was “scooped,” Jackson writes. Larger outlets, such as the Washington Post, quickly picked up the story and published flattened versions about it before her more in-depth and nuanced piece went live. While Jackson did resent this, the crux of this anecdote isn’t about the timing so much as the potent example of how mainstream journalism often lacks nuance, especially when a white lens is applied to reporting on communities of color.
Nuance and community are pillars of Jackson’s ethics and style. In recounting her personal experience of gentrification, Jackson writes, “My home has doubled in value, which would be good if I wanted to sell it, but since my plan was always to live in it, the increase in value is a problem.” With this simple sentence, Jackson emphasizes the importance of community over increase in economic value. Jackson writes clearly about the nuances involved in gentrification, including the virtue signaling inherent in the ubiquitous lawn signs proliferating in the yards of her increasingly white, liberal neighbors; the signs reading, “In this house We believe Health Care is a Human Right Black Lives Matter Women’s Rights Are Human Rights No Human Is Illegal Science is Real Love is Love.” “Their beliefs aren’t driving my property taxes up,” she writes, “but their presence is.”
The arts and culture coverage in the book is just as exciting as the more “newsy” reporting, as are the stories that deal more personally with her body. Art in a multitude of forms is a grounding force for Jackson. “Art and revolution are often said to go hand in hand,” she writes. This is clear in the people she profiles, like Dr. Stanlie James and musical group Pussy Riot.
Jackson also writes with a good dose of humor braided with incisiveness. In “The Making of a Burlesque Dancer” (2016), she chronicles her journey to becoming Cocoa La Swish, “a fish diva emerging from the reeds of self-doubt into the shiny confidence of my own bedazzled body.” In “$25 Foot Massage” she writes, “Sometimes I just need to be touched in a way that isn’t taking from me. Not passion, not comfort, not consent, not acceptance. And sometimes I’m just tired as fuck and need to be in my body and remember I am a human being.” In recounting the summer she spent in Japan, she immerses the reader in the visceral heat: “I learned the words for weather first. Atsue ne. Hot ain’t it? Hot aint’ it? Hot ain’t it? The common greeting. As though the sweat pooling at the base of my spine before 9:00 a.m. needed a catch phrase.”
The one place where her reporting falters a bit is in some of the references to Indigenous communities and movements. In the article about Marin’s reparations project, phrasing like “what’s left of Native Americans” contributes to language erasing Indigenous People from the present. In a 2016 article for the South Seattle Emerald titled “Accomplices vs. Allies,” Jackson writes of the Indigenous Action Network that their “thesis … involves a decolonization and repatriation of native lands that would leave the majority of us homeless.” This is a misunderstanding of the Land Back movement, which isn’t about creating homelessness but returning political and economic control of land back to Indigenous people. These are small mentions in articles that are ultimately more focused on other stories, but they snag a bit nonetheless.
Overall, though, Still Here is an orchestra of fantastic stories. From Cappy’s gym to burlesque shows; Japan to Honduras; and all-around fully embracing the important but devalued emotions of anger, grief and, importantly, joy and healing, the journalism collected in Still Here is both rigorous and deeply human. In it, community is a verb as well as a place. “What are you willing to give?” Jackson asks. “What are you willing to receive? What can we as a community do to redistribute the balance of power and privilege?”
The work here is full of insightful questions like this, without easy answers — the kind of questions all journalists should be asking. For example, about Marin’s Reparation project Jackson asks, “What’s really at stake in this personal act of giving and receiving?” About the fast food chains and big box stores in Honduras she asks, “Is it manifest destiny moving south instead of west?” Her curiosity and reverence for important stories on every scale make Still Here a captivating work. Seattle is lucky to have journalists like Jackson who are committed to people and place. “Human connection. That’s really the key to this whole experiment,” she writes. With this core value at the center of Still Here, Jackson proves it can be the foundation of truly great journalism.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.
📸 Featured Image: Reagan Jackson (left) and the cover of “Still Here: A South End Mixtape From an Unexpected Journalist.” Images courtesy of Reagan Jackson.
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