In early 2010, I introduced many of you to “Happy Black Girl Day!”, a holiday created by Brooklyn diva extraordinaire and fellow blogger Sister Toldja. This once-a-month holiday allows us to take a break from the constant media assault on Black women and to celebrate the sisterhood with showers of positivity. The way I choose to celebrate HBGD is by highlighting an extraordinary and prototypical Black woman.
January’s Prototype: Danielle Belton, award-winning blogger (several times over), creator of The Black Snob blog, freelance writer, and one of Black Enterprise‘s “Leaders of the New School.” *UPDATED* She is now the Money & Politics Editor of TheLoop21.com!
If you’re not doubled-over laughing or on the brink of tears after reading the work of Danielle Belton, the least you will say is, “now that’s a writer.” Whether writing for her own blog, The Black Snob, for Essence.com, or for any of a bevy of mainstream outlets, Danielle pours her wit, snark, and in-depth analysis all over today’s top issues, and serves them up to an audience of over two million readers. Her blog is critically acclaimed by the likes of CNN, Time, and The New York Times, to name but a few, and she has discussed politics, the media, Black hair, her writing, and everything in between as a panelist on NPR, Harvard University’s Black Policy Conference 2009, and Def Jam Poet Bassey Ikpi‘s tour, BasseyWorld Live.
Though she has always been praised as a talented writer, it wasn’t until college that Danielle decided to pursue writing as a career.
When I was a kid, I wanted to go to art school because I loved art work so much. I loved reading and drawing so I would illustrate these short stories and read them to my baby sister, and I was good at it, so I’d always thought I would be an artist, and I went to college initially for art. But when I got there, I realized that I didn’t love art enough to learn the other fundamentals that come along with it – besides drawing — like working with clay or wood.
I also thought I should be an engineer like my father. I thought I should do that and make a lot of money like him. It never occurred to me to pursue journalism because there wasn’t a lot of money in it. But when I was struggling in school, my father gave me the confidence to pursue writing as a career, instead. My father is not someone who gives away compliments freely; he only compliments if he truly believes it, so when he told me he had faith in me and my writing, I felt it was O.K. to pursue writing as a career.
But even though she was seen as an entertaining writer by her teachers throughout the years, it wasn’t until her work was really criticized and scrutinized by a teacher that she really began to grow and understand the skill of writing.
My biggest writing mistakes were spelling and comma splices. My teacher told me that I had a beautiful understanding of the English language and wonderful creativity, but I had no understanding of the fundamentals of writing, like sentence structure and language. I got a reality check, since everyone had always praised my writing. I got a bad grade on my paper and I was upset because I had never received a bad grade before, but I was willing to listen to my teacher and grow from that. I was pretty hard-headed initially, because all my life people told me that I was a great writer. But, I wasn’t as great a writer as I thought I was, and I had to learn from that and get better.
That’s one of the main things I’ve learned through writing: you have to have someone whose opinion you value read your work and criticize it. Build up a thick skin. A lot of people go into writing unprepared to be judge by what they produce. Sometimes the judgments that people make are going to be really really harsh, and sometimes unfair. You cant take that personally. I kind of worked through that in college as the editor in chief of my student newspaper. I had constant feedback, and professors worked with me with my writing. Sometimes I heard opinions on campus from people that I didn’t want to hear from, but you build up a tough skin. You learn what should be ignored and what advice is really constructive. And I’ve gotten farther as a writer and have gotten more work now that I can take the criticism in stride.
But getting to happy, and building a successful career as a freelance writer has not been a crystal stair for Danielle. Piled upon the usual struggles of making it as a writer, Danielle also battles Bi-polar Disorder, (or manic-depression) and survived a painful divorce in her twenties.
When I was out in California, I was trying to break into screenwriting and doing all of these exciting and wonderful things, but I was also doing some self-destructive things. When you’re [having a ] manic [episode], you just spend on nothing. I just never had money. I would move all of the time. I lived in Bakersfield and and moved four times in one city over five years. I’d have a nice apartment and nice rent and then I’d get depressed and I’d decide that if I moved, then all the “bad” would be gone. I would think, it’s not Danielle that’s the problem, it’s the apartment. It’s obviously this neighborhood and the paint on this wall. If the apartment was dirty and I got depressed over it, I wouldn’t clean it, I’d just move because everything would be fixed if I moved jobs and cities. I wasted so much money on deposits and moving because I had no idea how to cope with my disorder. Some people can blow money and they’re O.K. with it. But, if I can’t pay my landlady on time, I start crying and beating myself up for sucking so bad, and asking myself why am I so dysfunctional? That’s why I always joke that people don’t have to beat up on me, because I’m so good at beating up on me. So for me, getting other people’s criticism is O.K., its the compliments that I can’t take. When someone says my work is awful, I say “I knew it!” but if you give me a compliment, I’m just like, “I don’t know what to do here.”
When I was in the thick of my disorder, it was definitely rough on me. There were times where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it or not. I thought about hurting myself. I honestly thought I would never get out of it and I thought that the only way to get out of it was to hurt myself. The only thing that got me through was knowing my parents would not get over it, and I could not have my parents’ heartbreak on me. But I was hospitalized for a time, and I got through that time with good medicine, therapy, family and friends.
Now that Danielle is successfully managing her disorder, she is writing the book she wished she could have read when she was going through the worst of it. Her hope is to encourage other young people struggling with the disease and to help those who love them understand it, in order to increase awareness that this diagnosis is “not a death sentence”:
I’m writing this book so that people struggling with it know that this doesn’t have to define them. They can still live a full life and that things will get better. But the key is acceptance, in society as a whole, and also in the Black community. We’ve been told that something about being African American makes you innately tougher than anyone else, and that’s just ridiculous. We can now gain some perspective and realize that we can’t rub some Jesus on [mental illness] and it will go away. You don’t just say, “Oh, I’ll pray for the degree, yes, you pray for it, but you still have to go to class and study. Faith has helped many people to get clarity, but you still need to go to a doctor, you need to go to therapy, and you need medication. God puts these things in the world so that we can help ourselves. We can find answers through faith and to help us cope with it, but ultimately you can’t think that if your love for Christ is deeper and more profound, then that will cure you. It won’t. Seek treatment. But I know that it’s such a horrible stigma and so people don’t want to say anything. But nobody’s going to say you got diabetes because you didn’t pray hard enough. An illness is an illness, and it needs to be treated.
Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are diseases you cope with. We need to stop looking at it as if we failed ourselves or failed God or failed our people because we’re sick. We get sick and we people need to be more supportive and more open minded about these sickness. And as we get more educated as a society about it, I believe that support will come.
But to do that, we have to talk about it, and a lot of people just don’t want to talk about it. The only way it can be dealt with or normalized is if we talk about it and all kinds of people talk about mental illness and their experiences. It’s not a death sentence, it doesn’t have to be. You can learn how to cope. Yes, not everyone survives it, but not everyone survives diabetes, either. We need to look at it as just another disease.
When I was going through the worst of it, because I was a writer, quite a few of my doctors thought I should write about it, since I was someone who was quasi successful, but I didn’t feel successful or functional. I didn’t feel strong enough to handle being the public face of anything. Even now I wouldn’t necessarily want to be the face of bipolarism. I’m not my disease, it is just another part of me, like being Black and a woman are parts of me. It is something I will deal with for the rest of my life. I remember a doctor telling me that every few years I may have to be hospitalized, and that if I get pregnant, I may have to stop taking my meds, but it has not stopped me from living a full life driven by my creativity and my terms.
And now I can speak directly to those people who are going through the worst of it. I’m fighting it every day, and I can say I’ve been there and I did it and I survived — and its worth it. I know what the reward is. I know it’s better to stay in the fight than to give up.
Danielle still swears by this hope, even after going through a messy divorce at a young age.
The divorce was hard. My parents have been married 38 years, so I had a pretty idealized view of marriage. Their marriage is solid, and they are consistent. Their love is the one stable thing in my life. I very much wanted that in my marriage, and
I went into it with the best of intentions. But we had very very divergent views on how the marriage should work. The divorce was ugly, and I felt like I failed. I didn’t have a religious upbringing, but I felt like I had commited a moral failing. I felt like I had failed my family and myself and it took me a long time to forgive myself.
I realized that it was not a healthy marriage and it was best I got out of it, otherwise I was not going to achieve what I was supposed to achieve in my life. I was brokenhearted for a very long time. I tried to date a little bit after the divorce and I just couldn’t I was so angry. I couldn’t have a bond with a strange man because I wanted to hurt someone. So I just took myself off the market because I just didn’t want to break someone the same way I was broken, so I actually didn’t date for a couple of years. I just thought I am not in any place psychologically to date anyone, I was battling my disorder, and dealing with the ugly break-up, and it was just too much.
In time, it all made sense. I knew I needed to learn the lessons I learned from my marriage and how to build healthier relationships in the future, and I feel like I am a better stronger person for it — and the subsequent non-dating.
I learned that I was attracted to men that ignore me. The less interested he was the more interested I was. I was attracted to narcissists. I would then became the perfect girlfriend and he would say, “Oh she likes me, she listens to me, she’s reinforcing that I’m awesome and she treats me like my ass is made out of gold.” I would do whatever he wants to do and like what he likes, but then when I wanted us to do something I liked, he’d get confused like “where do you get off wanting to do something you like to do? I thought you understood that this relationship is all about me.” I was someone who would lose my identity in my relationship, thinking they would do the same for me, but it doesn’t work like that. People are afraid to be lonely, because lonely is miserable. But then you look up and you still have misery, but now you have some dude there, on top of it. So I learned to be alone, and I also learned to be more accepting of who I am. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with who I am. I am working on me and not looking for salvation in someone else.
And the work is paying off. On top of winning several awards for her writing, Danielle has just been featured as one of Black Enterprise‘s “Leaders of the New School,” which recognizes movers and shakers under 35. And on Tuesday, January 18, Danielle will be announced as the new money/political editor of an online news site where she’ll get to directly work with freelance writers on building their skills, something she is truly passionate about (stay tuned to blacksnob.com for the big reveal!) (UPDATED! The online magazine is TheLoop21.com!And she is only just getting started. With at least two books in the works, an entire season of a T.V. show finished, and plans to turn it into a graphic novel and screenplay for a movie, she shows no signs of letting anything slow her down. Though she wasn’t formally trained in screenwriting, Danielle bought several screenwriting books and studied spec scripts to hone her skills.
She aims to fill the void in Black art with three-dimensional characters in environments Blacks aren’t usually found in — like space. To those who wish to see better representations of Blacks in the media, she says:
I think the best thing people can do is that if you have the ability [to create art] you should do it. If you don’t, then you should support the people that do. If you like the work someone does, buy the DVD. The only thing the industry respects is your ability to sell tickets. Whether they are community organizers, activists, or academics, whenever you see people representing the way you like, you need to read their books and you need to buy their books, don’t download them, physically support them. If you really like someone’s writing on a blog, leave a comment. Comments on blogs matter to advertisers. If you have a problem with who Soledad [O'Brien] is interviewing, or you’re tired of seeing Michael Eric Dyson, write to the editors and tell them, “why don’t you inteview my pastor, he’s done so-and-so, interview my student, she’s done so-and-so.” Get out there and support people who are doing well and really showing the richness of African American culture, because if you don’t get out there and say it, who’s going to say it? In summary, create art / support art!
And when it’s all said and done, she has but one more simple request:
I hope people will say, “man she was a really good writer.” I am really proud of my writing. I love it and I love doing it. For those that really know me for who I am, I hope they will remember me as a nice person, and a good daughter to her parents. But if you’re not close to me, I hope to be known for what I do, I hope that people appreciate the writing, they enjoy it, they support it. It’s one of the many things that has come to define who I am.
What we can learn from Danielle: You will survive. The problems we face in life do not have to define us. By getting the help we need — whether its from a teacher who corrects our technical mistakes, or a doctor who treats and monitors our illnesses — we can and will survive and purposefully live an abundant life. Danielle Belton is, The Prototype.