In a shocking turn of events, 2017 was even more of a dumpster fire of a year than 2016. While the political landscape burned to a crisp, actual Nazis proudly walked the streets of U.S. cities and a horrifying report on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct ushered in a long overdue reckoning in Hollywood and beyond.
This was a year of consistent bad news, a year that (for better or worse) was rife for poignant, thought-provoking and conversation-starting commentary from writers of all backgrounds. And so, for the third year, we’ve curated a list of essays and articles that defined conversations about race, pop culture, politics and identity in 2017.
These essays and articles cover a wide array of topics, from the fascinating delusion of Rachel Dolezal to the horrors of fraternity hazing to the complexities of Donald Trump’s presidency.
As always, the criteria for this list is simple: All pieces must have been written by a person of color and been published online within the last year.
Like most year-end lists, this one may inspire some readers to protest or point out obvious omissions. You are encouraged to do so. It was curated with the aim of being as comprehensive as possible, but it is by no means definitive ― so comment away.
Without further ado, here is some of the best writing from people of color in 2017:
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
Many people consider Ta-Nehisi Coates to be one of the greatest black thinkers of our time (this, however, has been heavily debated in recent weeks), deftly examining the political and racial traumas that still plague America. In this brilliantly written essay published in October, Coates argues that “the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.”
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Elle
Missy Elliott had something of a resurgence in 2017, after an exciting performance at the Super Bowl in November and subsequent new music including the single “WTF (Where They From).” In this profile from May, essayist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah vividly illustrates the allure and legend of Elliott.
Lupita Nyong’o, The New York Times
The latter half of 2017 was a period of reckoning, as reports about allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men including Weinstein, Louis C.K., Al Franken and Kevin Spacey helped focus attention on the #MeToo movement. Shortly after allegations against Weinstein first surfaced, actress Lupta Nyong’o published an incredibly candid and damning account of her own negative experiences with the Hollywood mogul. When Nyong’o became the only accuser whose allegations Weinstein publicly denied at the time, it shed light on the complexities of race and gender in the sexual harassment conversation.
Rahwah Haile, Outside Online
The tradition of excellent travel writing was alive and well in 2017. Case in point: this essay by Rahwah Haile, which explores what happens when a queer black woman hikes along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine by herself “during a summer of bitter political upheaval.”
Doreen St. Felix, MTV News
How do you solve a problem like Omarosa? In this piece from January, Doreen St. Felix tries to make sense of the businesswoman, reality TV star and (now-former) Trump administration staffer who stood by the president even when those in the black community vehemently criticized him.
Ashley C. Ford, Refinery29
In this poignant and deeply personal essay, Ashley C. Ford recounts the experience of reuniting with her father after his release from prison, coming to terms with his past, and navigating the “monumental task of getting to know each other.”
Zadie Smith, Harper’s Magazine
Some of the most fascinating writing is work that one can truly engage with and even disagree with, as well as admire. Here, Zadie Smith weighs in on a tricky issue, pegged to the backlash against the Whitney Museum of American Art after numerous critics called out white artist Dana Schutz’s portrait of Emmett Till for appropriating black pain for profit. Smith’s essay later became the center of its own interesting debate, as she was called out for her approach to appropriation and the concept of blackness.
Norimitsu Onishi, The New York Times
This sobering report by Norimitsu Onishi unveils a hidden epidemic in Japan: Every year, thousands of elderly people die alone and unnoticed. The story behind this phenomenon is both a heartbreaking and illuminating representation of modern life.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, GQ
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah appears on this list for a second time (because she’s just that good) with one of the best pieces of writing this year, period. Ghansah takes a deep dive into the Dylann Roof trial, deconstructing the young domestic terrorist’s hateful past and investigating what went into creating him.
Reina Gossett, Teen Vogue
After alleging in an Instagram post that the makers of Netflix’s “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson” stole her intellectual property, filmmaker Reina Gossett expanded her thoughts on who gets to tells stories about trans women (especially trans women of color) in this article for Teen Vogue. “As [the] documentary starts to make its way to large audiences, I can’t stop thinking about the voices that have been pushed aside in the process,” Gossett writes. “Too often, people with resources who already have a platform become the ones to tell the stories of those at the margins rather than people who themselves belong to these communities.”
Jay Kaspian Kang, The New York Times
Jay Kaspian Kang writes here about Michael Deng, an Asian-American college freshman who died as the result of a horrifying fraternity hazing ritual. This piece is an exploration of the toxic culture of fraternity hazing, but it’s also an exploration of the often undiscussed oppression of Asians in America, and how this history of oppression has led to a generation of young people grappling with who they are.
Alex Tizon, The Atlantic
Controversy and heated debate fueled the conversation surrounding this posthumously published essay by Filipino writer Alex Tizon. Tizon tells the story of Lola, a woman who raised him. She was also held by his family as a slave for 56 years. Tizon’s candid account of Lola’s life, his relationship with her, and the moral implications of her life as a slave is difficult and compelling.
Lauren Michele Jackson, Teen Vogue
It’s something that many of us never really think about: using reaction GIFs of black people. The implications of this action are deeply explored in this Teen Vogue essay that generated a lot of discussion in August. Writer Lauren Michele Jackson argues that GIF culture can unconsciously perpetuate harmful stereotypes about black people, and she explores the ways in which we can be “cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from ‘real life.’”
Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
Millennials are selfish, millennials are too sensitive, millennials would rather buy avocado toast than a house ― this was a big year for complaining about millennials. The New Yorker Jia Tolentino excellently explores the rise of the millennial and our cultural urge to criticize them.
Clover Hope, Jezebel
Iggy Azalea has had a tough couple of years. Once considered the next hot thing thanks to singles like “Fancy” and “Black Widow,” the Australian rapper found her career in a free fall as she made tone-deaf and ill-advised comments as a white woman in hip-hop. Talented culture writer Clover Hope outlines how Iggy brought upon her own downfall.
Brandon Taylor, Them
The new online magazine Them has offered up some of the best writing on LGBTQ identity this year. Brandon Taylor, a queer black writer, opens up about the tension of simultaneously wanting but also rejecting romance. “What I want is mostly to be alone,” Taylor writes. “And to not have to contextualize my loneliness in a way that makes other people comfortable with it.”
Angelica Jade Bastién, Vulture
Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” was one of the more divisive films of 2017. Set in the South during the Civil War, the film received some backlash for the conspicuous absence of black people and general avoidance of race. Afro-Latina critic Angelica Jade Bastién makes a compelling argument about the ways in which the movie unconsciously navigates whiteness and the legacy of slavery. “Blackness and racism in general can never be fully removed from stories set in the South,” Bastién writes, “even if black characters themselves are not present.”
Tommy Pico, Hazlitt
This year-in-review piece by poet and writer Tommy Pico is a profound exploration of the anxieties, obsessions and, most of all, tension of 2017. “Day-to-day, I, a queer Native person leaping around this deeply stolen and homophobic land, try to lessen the ambient tensions floating in my air,” Pico explains. “Now I had to do the opposite.”
Allison P. Davis, The Cut
Allison P. Davis adds to her excellent culture writing with this fun and perceptive profile of Cardi B, the breakout rapper of 2017. The piece is not only an excellent introduction to the “regular, degular, shmegular girl from the Bronx,” it’s also a sharp exploration of fame and celebrity in the age of social media and reality TV.
Rembert Browne, Bleacher Report
Colin Kaepernick was one of the biggest newsmakers in 2017, sparking passionate support (and hate) after he decided to kneel during the national anthem at NFL games in protest of police brutality. Kaepernick’s protest led to him essentially losing his football career. Rembert Browne writes here about what Kaepernick’s journey says about America as a whole.
Janet Mock, Allure
In July, activist and author Janet Mock was gracious enough to make an appearance on the popular “Breakfast Club” radio show to talk about her memoir, Surpassing Certainty. She was met with a barrage of tone-deaf and offensive questions about being a trans woman, which she handled with her usual poise. In this essay for Allure, Mock perfectly tears down the harmful, dangerous and ignorant rhetoric surrounding trans women that the hosts of the show perpetuated in a later interview with comedian Lil Duval.
Eren Cervantes-Altamirano, Identity Crisis
“Coco” was one of the most popular animated films released in 2017, with the usual stellar work of Pixar Studios focused on a vibrant, heartbreaking story of a Mexican family. The movie was praised for its representation, but Latinx writer Eren Cervantes explains in this blog post that it also erases the indigenous of Mexico.
Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, The New York Times Magazine
One of the most important reports published this year was this investigative piece by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, which outlines the horrifying death toll of Iraqi civilians in America’s fight against the self-described Islamic State.
Ijeoma Oluo, The Stranger
This subtle yet searing profile of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who made headlines in 2015 for claiming she was black, is the definitive last word on the entire Dolezal debacle. Nothing needs to be written or said about the woman ever again. Ijeoma Oluo crafts a fascinating portrait of Dolezal, ultimately revealing the “overwhelming whiteness” of appropriating blackness.
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