issae rae

Personal History: Issa Rae

An awkward black girl escapes from New York.

Photographer Emily Berl
June 19, 2013

At 28-years old, writer, producer and actress Issa Rae has already built a small web comedy empire with shows like The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, a refreshingly original series of shorts chronicling the life of a neurotic Rae-like character named “J,” and her Ratchetpiece Theater music critiques. Most recently, she’s been working with Shonda Rhimes and ABC Studios on a half-hour show called 
I Hate LA Dudes that should give her an even bigger audience. Before she found her comedic niche though, the Stanford grad set out east to New York, hoping to make her mark in the most competitive market there is. As it turns out, NYC wasn’t for her, but if we can learn anything from Rae’s story, it’s that not “making it” in 
New York doesn’t mean you can’t do it just as big somewhere else.

It was the second week of June 2008 and the summer was off to a promising start. I was working, had founded a non-profit organization called the Black Film Academy—a short-film collective comprised of filmmakers of color det-ermined to reform the image of black film--—and had recently scored a meeting with a successful television producer to pitch my college web series into a television show on BET or MTV. The sun was out, the rats were in hiding and, just as I neared my Washington Heights apartment building, I saw my roommate, Kiki, walking toward our building.

In nearly a year of living together, we had never gotten home at the same time. She was working toward her master’s in public health at Columbia and would generally leave early in the morning, while I was working toward figuring out my life at a small theater company. We were happy as hell to see each other, like old friends reuniting after years, and not, just the day before. As we talked about our respective days, we were thankful the elevator was working and that we didn’t have to walk up five flights of stairs. The antique elevator doors opened and we hit a left down our dimly lit hallway. As Kiki continued to talk about plans for the weekend, I pushed open the door and was briefly confused to find that the chain on our door was locked from the inside. Then it clicked.

“Oh my god!” I banged my shoulder into the door in a panic while Kiki looked at me, alarmed and confused. “What? What’s happening?”

“The chain! It’s locked from the inside. Someone was inside our house!” I said, near immediate tears of panic, banging my body into the door harder. The lock snapped and I ran inside, Kiki trailing behind me, still registering what I just told her. I ran to my room and butterflies of terror rumbled in my stomach: they took everything but my bed and desk. My room had been ransacked. I had (with the help of my reluctant father) invested in $10,000 worth of film and editing equipment, and three months prior, held a successful fundraising benefit with more than 300 attendees. My new Mac laptop, my college PC, all my chargers, my brand new Canon digital film camera and the tripod it sat on and even original tapes from a feature film I had been hired to edit had been taken. Who the fuck steals mini DV tapes? That hurt the most. How was I going to explain to the filmmaker that the master footage of the film he took two years to shoot in Jamaica had been stolen? I collapsed onto my bed crying. Days later, when I would tell the story to a friend, she speculated, “Maybe the robbers thought they were sex tapes. You had a camera and a tripod set up next to your bed.” I felt violated, thinking about all the memories I lost, all the work I had on my computer. My films, my years of pictures, my pitch! My life.

Kiki and I sat in the living room, waiting for the police to come, distraught. She, too, had had two computers, a digital camera and a ring stolen. When the police arrived, it became very clear to me that they wouldn’t be much help. We started snooping around the building, asking our resident thug neighbors if they knew anything. They tried to be as helpful as they could without snitching. Then, we caught a break. One of our neighbors found a bag of clothes and odds and ends, and asked if it belonged to us. As we rummaged through the items, Kiki found her digital camera. She scrolled through the pictures and to our surprise, the dumbfuck robbers had taken pictures of themselves! A set of teenage girls and guys had been squatting in the empty apartment next door and had been watching us. They snuck through my back window via the fire escape and did what they did. Immediately, we called the police and showed them the evidence, relieved that we could capture these idiotic amateurs and possibly get our stuff back. But the response from the police was almost as bad as the crime itself: “Since they’re minors, we can’t really do anything about it.”

So began a gloomy period. I sent the producer a somber email asking if we could reschedule the meeting, as all of my scripts were on my computers. Of course, I hadn’t backed it up. Of course, I didn’t have production insurance. “Well, why didn’t you just... You should’ve...” Why don’t people understand that nobody wants to hear what they should’ve done? Do they not assume that’s what’s already repeating in your head, nonstop?

We moved to South Harlem a month later. I put the Black Film Academy on hold indefinitely and continued to work two day jobs. I had already asked my dad for help in buying the film equipment in the first place, so I couldn’t ask him to help me buy a whole new computer. So I put it on my credit card. As my debt started to rise and my motivation started to plummet, I found myself writing in my journal one afternoon, wondering what I was doing in New York. I loved the city, I loved what it represented, but, what was I doing? I barely went out because I was too shy to meet people. I worked all the time, but my jobs didn’t offer any opportunities to move up. I started thinking about who I was and what I wanted to do with my life. I started studying for the LSAT, because maybe my dad was right about going to grad school and having a back-up plan. Maybe I got robbed of all my equipment as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to be pursuing this right now. Maybe I wasn’t built for this. But what was I built for?

Suddenly, it hit me: “I’m awkward. And black.” One of them I already knew, but the other I had just realized. It all made sense. My shyness, all the times I was dismissed for not being “black enough,” my desire to reframe the images of black film and television, my inability to dance—these were all symptoms of my Awkward blackness. This is an identity, I thought. I could make T-shirts. I could make sketches or commercials for the T-shirts. Ooh, and what if they were animated? Without knowing it, I started penning an outline of what would be my first and second episodes. I was excited. This was my purpose. This moment of despair had sparked my creativity once more. But then my heart sank. I was still broke as hell. I’d have to sit on the idea, making a promise to myself to make it happen one day.

The following summer, I flew to LA for my cousin’s graduation. While I was there, I visited two friends from Stanford. One was in film school and the other had just landed a job in the mailroom at CAA. We sat on the beach, updating one another on our lives. Then one turned to me and said, “Bitch, why are you still in New York?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You got robbed. You’re broke. It’s like you’re willingly struggling for no reason,” she continued. “Everybody you know is in LA—you should just come here. We could do so much together.” I thought about it for a minute, and then said, “I can’t just get up and leave.” They laughed. “Why not?” What was really keeping me there? It’s not like I had a husband and kids I was tied down to, or even an amazing, high-paying job. Why was I still there? On the plane ride back to New York, I pretty much made up my mind. My roommate, Kiki had graduated and gotten a job offer in LA, so she was happy to hear the news. That July, I moved back to LA and no one has robbed me since.

Personal History: Issa Rae