“Hola mi amiga. (The building I live in is 80% Spanish so I talk that talk half the day.) … I’m trying to figure out my new consulting model for ’12. … All this shit is new and you have to define for yourself what you want. … Avail to chat this week?” xxE
This was one of the last emails I got from my friend Erica Kennedy before she died this past June. It occurred to me today, exactly two months post her Wiki day of death, that she might have loved to have weighed in on the most recent Jackson family custody drama. “Katherine Kidnapped, Janet Slaps Kid, Nevermind, Katherine Not Kidnapped, Janet Doesn’t Slap Kid.” It was a random thought, granted, but Erica was filled with random, hilarious commentary. I imagine she would say something about how they were acting like pseudo-Black royalty behaving badly. Not the best look.
I think about Erica every day. I thought about her before her death, too, but in the way that you think about a person whom you are fond of and admire but don’t see very often. The way I think about her now is different. I am stunned by my inability to let her be dead, perhaps because of the many blogs, Facebook comments and tweets that were posted immediately and for days after news of her death spread, making it so pointedly clear how loved and admired she was. Maybe because there was no memorial or funeral service announcement, or an official cause of death—although it is widely assumed that she committed suicide.
I do not know for sure how Erica died. I do know that she struggled with depression, as I have. We never spoke of our individual experience with depression in specific terms, but rather referred to its impact in cryptic ways, knowing ways. Sometimes I would hear from her and she would mention in passing that she hadn’t been out of her sweats in days. Or her apartment had felt particularly dark that week. Subsequently, we trusted each other on a visceral level, like war veterans. If Erica did in fact kill herself, it was likely prompted by a bad day — the kind of bad day that for a depressive person, can prompt the end of all days. The playwright Beth Henley wrote about such a day in her 1978 tragic comedy, “Crimes of the Heart,” in which three sisters are left to manage the loss of their mother, who hangs herself, because, she wrote in a note left behind, “I had a bad day.”
I’ve had days like this. But since the birth of my son seven years ago, I have willed myself to breathe through them until they pass. They are days that start with a feeling of utter defeat, and proceed with weighty limbs and murky headspace. Often it feels like you are lying in wet cement, destined to dry with it and never move again.
Erica and I were not close. We lived in different cities (she in Miami; me in New York), and although as young Black women in the white male dominated fields of media and mainstream journalism we knew many of the same people, none of our core friends overlapped. But we shared a similar sensibility, and certain aspects of our lives were strikingly symbiotic. We both went to small, private colleges, where we were among a handful of Black students, and graduated as writers who published books to considerable praise—mine, however, despite an endorsement from Whoopi and an excerpt in Elle magazine, didn’t make quite the same splash as hers. We both worked for famous people early in our careers (she Tommy Hilfiger; me Charlie Rose), which provided a certain level of cache among the media elite, while also instilling a fair measure of expectation that we would go on to do very big and very great things. We were both quietly ambitious, conversant in pop culture while being literary-minded, driven by intellect and smart humor. Our conversations had the tone of a post on Jezebel.com before Jezebel.com existed.
But above all else, we both struggled, and I still do, with the constant and inordinate pressure to define and redefine who we are just as it seemed we were starting to feel comfortable with the latest incarnation. I’m a writer; no, a web editor; no, a blogger; no, a digital strategist; no, a bi-culturally connected conduit; no, a browned-skinned filler to diversify the room. The list went on, and goes on, increasingly, as the media industry has become almost entirely about “branding”. And each incarnation was a protest of sorts against dark and amorphous demons, the fear of being forgotten, and an inexplicable well of sadness.
When I was an editor at PAPER magazine a few years ago, I assigned her a cover story on Pharrell Williams at a time when she had just started to re-emerge after a period of isolation. It was a selfish gesture in part, I missed her writing and wanted to read more of it. A year or two later, we were talking about something, I don’t recall the context, but she said to me, almost in passing if it hadn’t been so pointed, “You saved my life with that assignment.”
Those of us who are or have worked as freelance writers know that it’s a hustle day in day out, and an incredibly detached existence. Sometimes that one good story assignment, one byline in black and white, is just the small bit of encouragement needed to keep writing, to keep going. Or to just pay the bills and keep the lights on.
More recently, when I was an editor at The Huffington Post, Erica and I developed two collaborative features for the vertical launch of HuffPost BlackVoices. I loved how she was always game to brainstorm and never short on ideas that were sophisticated, zeitgeist-y and often completely genius. At one point, I suggested she move back to New York — I would help her find a job. No, she said, she had come to love Miami and wanted to stay there.
I may never know what happened to Erica, and truthfully, I’m not sure that I need to, because I know that she carried a burden that many of us as writers, as Black folks, as women, face. She just needed to get the branding right, she said. What I wished for her, though, and maybe for myself too, is that she could have realized that what and who she was in reality, was so much more meaningful than any kind of magic branding formula.