How Bené Viera Built a Career in Journalism by Speaking Up Boldly for Black Girls

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by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

Breaking into journalism is hard. In the age of instant opinions, everyone think they're a writer. But making a living crafting ideas and telling stories takes a grit and skill that few possess. If you're not well-networked or well-resourced, you'll have to claw your way into the big leagues. And most, simply, don't make it.

Bené Viera might not say she's there, but she is certainly on her way. With each byline she cements her place as a creator of culture.  The woman behind some of ESSENCE's biggest cover stories, Bené's success in an industry that wasn't made for Black women to tell their truths reminds us that anything worth having won't be acquired without dogged determination.

I caught up with her to talk about how she's building a career of note while staying true to herself and honoring her gifts.


Why do you write?

At this point, I think writing is not something that I just do for a living. It is also who I am. I just needed a space to be able to get the thoughts out of my head and to be able to convey whatever it is that I want to say. Whether it is for me personally, whether it is a cathartic process, or whether it is about any particular thing going on in the world. I write to stay sane. If I did not write, I don't know what my life would look like. It is interesting because I have always written. I used to write poems. I have old journals where I was writing terrible rap, but I never wanted to be a writer. I don't know that I had the language or even the vision of what that life would look like. I always thought I was going to be an attorney, which is why I majored in English in undergrad. I was going to be the female Johnnie Cochran. That is, literally, what I would tell everyone.

It didn't click that I was going to actually become a professional writer until I was maybe about 24-years-old. That kind of changed my life. I had always had this dream of being this big time attorney, and that is not what happened. And I love telling stories. One of the main reasons I went to journalism school as opposed to just saying, "Oh, I can write without a journalism degree or I can write fiction" is because there is a clear void in how marginalized communities are covered, if we are even covered. I just really wanted to tell stories of A) black people and B) of women in ways that I did not see them being covered and being talked about. That is why I specifically went into journalism. I just knew that broadcast wasn't for me, and that writing was something that I enjoyed.

What clicked for you at 24 years old?

At twenty four, I was studying for the LSAT. I graduated at twenty one. I was just ready to leave Nashville, which is my hometown. I was like, "What am I going to do?" We had a family reunion in Atlanta, and I was talking to my cousin who is a big time investment banker who went to school with President Obama and his sister who is an attorney. They were like, "I just don't think you want to be an attorney. I think you think it sounds good, I think you just want to do it for the money and what status you think it holds."

I was really taken aback by that because I was like, “no, I am really passionate. I want to be a civil rights attorney." They were like, "Well you know that a lot of attorneys work seventy to eighty hour weeks. Not all of them are making great money, and you might not really be arguing in a courtroom." I was like, "Oh no, oh no. If I become an attorney, I have to be arguing in the courtroom, I don't want to just be doing briefs and paperwork, no." My cousin's wife recommended that I read Newsflash by Bonnie Anderson. They were like, “You are just very opinionated, and you are always writing notes.” Back then, Facebook was the platform where you could write your thoughts, and I was always writing notes.

I get back home, I read Newsflash, and then I read Volunteer Slavery by Jill Nelson, who was one of the founding Black editors of Washington Post Magazine. It just clicked. I was like, “No, I am going to be a journalist, I am going to grad school!” The family reunion was in May, I probably didn't start taking it serious until September or October. By January, I was in grad school. That was how fast I moved once my mind was made up. It just clicked. I read those two books, and I was like, “Writing makes so much sense, I already do this. I want to tell stories.” I just started applying for graduate schools.

I got into the five schools that I applied to. I chose Indiana University. They have one of the top five journalism programs in the country. From there, I just studied journalism.

Law is a very safe profession. You can tell anybody that you are a lawyer, and they will be impressed by you. You can tell your family that you want to be a lawyer, and they will support you. They will cheer you on. Were you worried about the perception of the people around you when you tell them, "I don't want to be a lawyer anymore, I want to be a journalist"?

No, not really. I think maybe because I was going to get a graduate degree, that would supplement the feeling of ”She is just going to be this unpaid journalist her whole life. She is not serious about it.”

No one in my family or around me was like, “No, don't do that or you are never going to make any money.” I guess it seemed like a fit, so no I wasn't really worried about that. To be honest, I still hadn't completely given up on law school. I was in graduate school and going over to IU's law school, and talking to the dean. I think they had a Black dean at the time. I was talking to the dean, telling him my situation and why I hadn't really applied. I was taking LSAT prep courses. I still had this idea that maybe I could do both.

They do have joint law programs for some graduate programs. I was looking into that. I hadn't completely given it up until I graduated with my Master's. I finally packed up my box of all of my LSAT prep material and all of my application materials from various schools. I was like, "Okay, this dream is dead."

In 2010,  you graduated. At what point did you decide that you were going to move to New York?

Being in graduate school was one of the worst times of my life because it was a culture shock to me coming from an HBCU and going to IU. It was just really white. I didn't function well. The work was easy, I always got all As, but I just did not function well in that culture. There was a lot of covert racism happening to me. I was sick all of the time, I was just miserable. I didn't have a plan because I just wanted to get out of Bloomington, Indiana. I didn't have a plan, but I knew that I wanted to go to New York. I had interned while in graduate school at VIBE magazine. I was 24 and the oldest intern. After falling in love that summer with VIBE magazine, this was the heyday of VIBE with Danyel Smith as the Editor-in-Chief, I was like, “I have to move to New York. New York is the dream. If I can make it in New York, I can make it anywhere.” I graduated with no plan just elated to be getting out of Bloomington. I move home for, like, a month, if that, it might have been a couple of weeks. I was dating a guy - we met on Twitter, and he was in Long Island. He said, "Come visit me." He got my plane ticket, and I went to visit him in July and just never came back. I went with a suitcase and that is it. Very little money in the bank. I was there with him, and he just didn't want me to go back. I didn't want to go back. It is not like I had a job or anything waiting for me back home in Nashville. Who wants to go back and live with their mom?

You think you are big shit. You're like, "I got a Master's degree. I am good." You don't really want to move back in with your mom. He was like you should just stay here with me. We will give it three months, and if you don't get something, we will figure it out. I just never left from that August of 2010. I have, literally, just been here ever since.

Did you know anybody else in New York?

No, not really. I had the few contacts from my VIBE internship, but that is it. They weren't handing out jobs or like “Come work for us.” No, I really didn't. It was just me having this idea that I was going to make it as a writer in New York City. It had to be New York City because New York City is the media hub of the world. Publishing companies, magazines, [and] the print industry lives in New York. If I was going to make it anywhere, it had to be New York City.

This is interesting. You have moved to New York, you know your boyfriend, you know a couple of people from your VIBE days. How, then, do you become a working journalist?

At first, I literally am hitting the pavement, not even just for media jobs, I am going to record labels. As a writer, my skills are transferable, I can do very different things at different companies. I am hitting the pavement old school with my resume,  and going up to record labels. I think I went up to Bad Boy [and] Def Jam with my resume in my hand. They are like, “No, this is not how this works.” I couldn't even get past security. They were like, “Who are you here to see?" I am like, "Well, I just want to drop off my resume,” and they are like, “No.”

I am doing that. I am like, "Okay, that is not working. Let me go back to the drawing board." Then, I start using my IU database. All of these people that went to IU you can look up in their field. I see a few IU alum. One was at the New York Times. He was an older guy. One was the publisher of a magazine that I would rather not mention. Anyway, I send them emails, and I was like, "Hey I am an alum in the city. I would love to meet with you for coffee." I didn't even position it as I need a job, it was more I just want to pick your brain about the industry.

People agreed to meet with me that way. I met with an editor at Seventeen. She loved my resume, but didn't really have anything for me. That same magazine that I don't want to mention - because it is a huge hipster mag that everyone reads - he literally sat across from me and told me, "Your master's degree is antiquated." I was just blown away. He was like, "I would hire someone with reporting skills over you just because you have a Master's." A) Do I think that that was rude, yes. But B) I feel like it had a lot to do with the fact that I was a Black woman, I was younger than him, and I had more degrees than him. There was no other reason to say that, so it became a thing where I was being discouraged. I realized early on that I am not going to get a job with no experience. All I have is this internship and these clips from Indiana Daily News.

I had begun freelancing. I had a blog, but I was freelancing. There was this old site called the Fresh Xpress, that no longer exists. I was writing for them. Anytime I had an opinion on something, I was just writing for them, writing for them, trying to build my name. Some kind of way, an editor from - I don't know if I pitched or they asked me to write something - whichever it was, I think she asked me to write something, and I did, and that was my first piece. That piece led to a BBC news feature, and a spot on the Michael Baisden Show, and from there, I literally freelance hustled my way into the industry.

It led to bylines in Juicy Magazine and then, eventually, the website. It led to meeting editors at events and every time them assigning me something or me pitching something [and] turning around an almost flawless copy and being able to do it under a tight deadline, sometimes doing it early, so that they would remember me. That just, literally, spread, like building relationships, pitching, and being assigned stories based on my work ethic and just hustling my way. That is the true story of how I became a working journalist.

Oh, and there was Clutch, Clutch was big back then. I was writing for Clutch. We were doing various opinionated pieces that had a lot of reach. The internet and social media has really helped me take my career to the next level.

You have been published everywhere, you have interviewed incredible stories including your boo, Nas. I follow you. I follow your work. I know that you are down for Nas. How do you go from the hustling and knocking down doors to writing feature stories for Essence, the magazine not the website.

I moved to New York August of 2010. I did not land my first media job until April of 2012, which was at VH1. That was not based on any contacts. That was not based on a recommendation. That was based on my blindly applying. After VH1, I went to Centric. Again, it was just me on my own. I have not had hook ups where editors are like, "Yeah, come work for me."

Everything I have done has been on my own merit. I think it is important for people to know that. Sometimes, it takes longer to get where you are going when you don't have those connections and when you don't have people rooting for you. I literally know people who moved with every editor from job to job because of a relationship with one editor. That, just, has not been my experience. It took 18 months for me to get my first job. After VH1, after Centric, I always just maintained a working relationship at Essence. I had been doing news packages for the magazine, I was doing end of the year recaps, I was doing profiles, I had done this amazing Raisin in the Sun package with Diahann Carroll before she dropped out when Kenny Leon revived the play for Broadway. That was great.

What was the first cover story?

The first cover story was Shonda Rhimes. I had just been laid off, and it was May that year. Cory Murray emailed me, “Hey Bene, are you available? I need you to go to this shoot in the city. We are doing this big thing on Shonda Rhimes, and I just need you to go there and observe and stuff.” I am like, “Okay, why not, I don't have anything else to do. I am newly employed.” She sends me down there, I am still not really knowing what is going on.

The first day, we missed the first part of the shoot. I was like, "Okay, cool. Whatever." Cory hits me up again and was like, “You are going to have to do this story, and it is the cover story, and this is what we are looking for. You need to interview all of these people.” Mind you, I have never written a cover story. Not only am I going to interview Shonda, but I have to interview ten of the Shondaland “Thank God it's Thursday” crew and all fit that into a story.

I am completely overwhelmed. I know that I can not flub on this opportunity. They don't come around often. Cover stories are still very coveted in this industry, and I just can't disappoint Cory. The fact that she would trust me with a story of this magnitude, I have to deliver. I go the second day of shooting, and I am literally just in the midst of everything and pulling people to the side when they are free in between hair, and makeup and talking to them about Shonda. I had my questions prepared. I finally get Shonda, and she was just so amazing, and smart, and warm, which I didn't expect. She is like one of the most important show runners in television.

A few months go by after I turn in the story, and I don't hear anything from Cory at all. I am like, "oh okay, she probably hated it." I finally follow up with her like, "Hey, do you have edits for me, I am just wondering." She was like, “It was so flawless I barely changed anything. I sent it to the top editor, and we are good to go. You killed it.” When it comes in print, they get it before it goes live. The editor for, Steven Styles, texted me. He was like, “You fucking killed it,” and he is very particular about writers.

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That literally happened, amazing, it was the sixth cover roll out. Which is so crazy, because when she hit me up it was not presented like I need you to write this cover story, and it is going to be this six cover epic roll out that we have never done in history. They have never done that many covers. It was more of like I just need you to go to the set and observe, and I ended up doing this cover story. It was well received and that was amazing. Having done that, #BlackGirlMagic came around, and I literally had two days to write three cover stories. I deliver, and I just think that is one of the recurring themes in my crazy journey. When an opportunity has presented itself, I have been able to be available and I have delivered. One of my mentors told me, Cory knew who to hit up to turn around three cover stories in two days. She could have hit up anybody, and she knew who would be able to do that.

That is, for people that aren't in the magazine industry, that is unheard of. That just doesn't happen. There is no way that you can do one cover story in two days. That just doesn't happen. You have usually a minimum of a month. That is how that kind of all happened. It really was building relationships and having been around, in terms of and Essence magazine family for so long, and pitching in between… having a good rapport, and knowing that my work was going to get done whenever they needed it to get done.

This seems like a really high stress life.

It is. It is not for the faint of heart, that is for sure. Particularly for me, because I built my career from freelancing and have had a lot of unemployment, a lot of time where I didn't feel good enough because I didn't have a coveted staff position somewhere. I don't know if stress is the right word. I would say it is more mentally taxing. It really can be mentally taxing. Particularly, for black people, and particularly for black women in this industry. It is not designed in a way that we can move and have opportunities like our white peers can.

I just shared thoughts about this on Twitter. It is not to complain, and it is not a woe is me, but it is reality. Black journalists do not have the ability to move up in the way that our white peers do, and it is unfortunate.

Do you find yourself censoring yourself or staying away from certain topics because of the stigmas that accompany being a woke, socially conscious, Black woman journalist?

I literally erase tweets daily. Not because I don't think you can be woke, and conscious, and work in this industry, but because you will get opportunities taken away from you based on information that you put out there.

Some people might go to your Twitter, and you are not even getting an interview just because of something you have tweeted. I do filter myself. There are certain topics that I just choose not to go in on, even though I may have an opinion or feel a way on it. Then, there are things that I will never be able to be silent about. I am not going to not talk about, write about, tweet about Sandra Bland. It is just not going to happen. Things like that I am always going to try to be a voice to try to tell a story in a way that is meaningful. If that means I lose an opportunity because of it, so be it.

It is a balancing act for sure of trying to decide constantly what is too much and then not wanting to become inauthentic to who you are.

Do you have a strong support system where you are? Do you have people that you can turn to, confide in inside and outside of the industry?

I honestly keep a lot to myself because I don't think a lot of people understand this kind of work and this kind of a toll that it can take on you. I often liken it to Hollywood. If you are an actor or an actress, you are going on auditions, and you are being told no constantly. I don't know if people realize rejection is a huge part of journalism, especially as a freelancer. You are pitching ideas and editors won't even respond to you to say “no, we don't like it.” Or they may respond and say “no, we don't like it.”

Of course, it is not personal, but it is still rejection. A large part of being a freelancer revolves around that. You have to be mentally strong to be able to deal with that on a consistent basis. I have been doing this, now six years. I honestly think I hold a lot in, because I just don't think a lot of people understand it. There are a few people here and there within the industry that I can confide in. My support system is strong. My family supports me in what I do.

They don't always get it though, because the last nine or ten months that I have been surviving in New York City without a full time gig is a miracle in itself. They just don't get it because there is a generational difference. My aunt is an accountant. My mom works in higher ed. Their whole thing is you get a job, and you work that job, and you retire. They don't know the life of being a creator. One time my mom, whom I love dearly, was like, “Yeah, it might be time for you to change careers.” It is like, no, that is not how this works. Or she will say something like, “Oh, have you looked at hospitals and certain corporations, because everyone has a PR department where they need people to write press releases, and write updates, and newsletters." I am like, "Mom, that is not the kind of writing that I do though.”

They don't always get it, but they are proud and supportive of whatever I want to do. If I want to pick up and go live abroad tomorrow, they would be like, “Oh okay that works. Whatever you want to do is fine.” I have support in that way. I will say people don't always get it, in particular friends and family that aren't in this industry. I journal a lot, and I keep a lot of stuff to myself. I just feel like people aren't going to understand, and it is just like why even bother.

It seems like you have had a lot of time for self reflection over the past five-and-a-half, almost six years. What have you learned about yourself as a woman and as a writer?

I have always known who I am, what I like, [and] what I don't like. The thing that has become crystal clear in the last five to six years is that I am perfectly okay with who I am. I am perfectly okay knowing that I am never going to be a people-pleaser. I am never going to be nice in the sense of bubbly and pleasant. I am kind, I am compassionate, even an empath, but I am just not going to be that bubbly nice person that is expected of women a lot of times. I have tried, at times, to contort and make myself be that person, and that is just not me. I am very comfortable in my skin, in who I am. I have learned that your self-worth and your value has absolutely nothing to do with your job title or what you do. You really can not look for those and seek that validation from outside forces, outside factors. You really have to find that within.

It is a constant, everyday thing to tell yourself, "You are worthy, you are valuable, you are loved, you are beautiful." I have just really learned over time what it means to really be in love with yourself. Not the fake kind of self help quote-type shit. I am talking about real life, I am okay looking at myself naked in the mirror, I am okay with who I am. I am okay that I am not for everybody because everybody is certainly not for me. That has really helped me. Also, a big lesson that I am still learning is you really have to stay in your own lane. Social media makes this so much harder. Looking over to your left and to your right to see what other people are doing, to see where others are going, who just got what gig, is very debilitating and it doesn't make sense. There is no purpose to do that. It will make you feel bad about where you are.

I used to look at the writers that I admire coming in the game who are obviously years ahead of me. I studied writers’ bylines, I would literally go and see at what age they had written a cover story, at what age did they publish their first book, at what age was she the whatever, whatever editor at such-and-such magazine. I had to get out of that habit because that journey is not my journey. Doing that will only make me feel worse and worse about what I felt I wasn't doing as opposed to just going after the things that I still wanted to accomplish.

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