12 minute read

Jill Nelson Biography

Experienced Privilege as a Child, Developed Reputation as a Thoughtful Journalist, Found Controversy at Washington Post


Journalist, novelist

Many journalists dream of working for the Washington Post, one of the nation's largest and most prestigious newspapers. For Jill Nelson, that dream came true—and gradually turned into a nightmare. A freelance reporter for national magazines prior to becoming a staff writer with the Washington Post, Nelson found her style incompatible with the corporate structure at the newspaper. Ultimately she quit the lucrative job and penned a memoir about her years in the nation's capital. The resulting book, Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience offers, in the words of San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Patricia Holt, "one of the most provocative and illuminating newspaper memoirs on record."

Volunteer Slavery is Nelson's tale about the outrages and indignities she suffered as a middle-class African American professional who joined a huge, white-owned and white-run corporation. The book, published in 1993, drew a strong response from other blacks at mid-level in the American corporate structure, many of whom had experienced the same sort of subtle discrimination. "People are responding to the book really viscerally," Nelson told the Washington Post. "It has to do with their own feelings about their own lives and workplaces more than the stuff about the Washington Post. People tell me, 'That could be the D.C. government,' or 'That's just like it is at X corporation or my law firm.'" She added: "In most ways my book transcends race. It's a book for anybody who ever felt like an outsider. Obviously people of color are the first line of outsiders, but you have women, gay people, Latinos, Asian Americans, even Caucasian men who don't go along with the 'Masters of the Universe' program." The success of Volunteer Slavery catapulted Nelson into the limelight, a spot she has yet to shy away from. In the following years, Nelson published a number of novels that explored the black experience from a number of different perspectives.

Experienced Privilege as a Child

Nelson was born in 1952, the third of four children of a prosperous dentist and his wife, a businesswoman and librarian. The family lived a comfortable, upper-middle-class existence in New York City. Nelson told Essence: "Growing up in New York in the 1950's, the four of us, my older brother and sister, my younger brother and I, led lives of privilege. My father was committed to the belief that exposure to as much as possible was key to creating smart, powerful, influential people who felt comfortable in themselves and with others, and who could navigate any situation. My father made us go to the theater, to the opera, to museums. In restaurants we didn't simply eat, we learned—table manners, how to read a menu, international cuisine and foreign relations. But most of all, we learned that we were entitled to the best. I can still remember my father watching each of us intently after the waiter brought our plates and we began eating our food. 'Is your food the way you want it?' he'd ask. 'If not, send it back. It's important to have things the way you want them.'" She added: "My father was trying to teach us confidence, how to expect and insist upon the best, to speak up, to have the courage of our convictions not only about food, but about everything else."

On the other hand, Nelson's father instilled in his family the idea that their race set them apart from white society, no matter how well-off they appeared to be. In her book Volunteer Slavery, the author recalled that her father repeatedly told the family: "What we have, compared with what [Nelson] Rockefeller and the people who rule the world have, is nothing. Nothing! Not even good enough for his dog. You four [children] have to remember that and do better than I have. Not just for yourselves, but for our people, Black people. You have to be number one." Nelson admitted that the lesson had a profound effect upon her. "I've spent a good portion of my life trying to be a good race woman and number one at the same time," she said. It would never be an easy task.

Developed Reputation as a
Thoughtful Journalist

Nelson's parents divorced when she was fifteen, and her father departed the family. Nevertheless, he provided her with a college education, and she chose to major in journalism. After graduating in the 1970s—and earning a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism—she stayed in Manhattan and began a 12-year career as a freelance writer. Her work appeared in Ms. and Essence magazines as well as the Village Voice, New York City's alternative newspaper. In a Knight-Ridder newswire report, Rachel L. Jones noted that Nelson's work for the Village Voice "established [her] as a premier writer/righter of wrongs for the underprivileged." As Nelson's reputation in the business grew, so did the importance of her assignments, especially for Essence. By 1986—the same year that she accepted the Washington Post position—she was reporting from South Africa and completing investigative pieces on domestic and international issues affecting black American women.

The Washington Post editors called Nelson in 1986 to interview for a staff position with the paper's new weekly magazine. She and her daughter made the trip south from New York to talk about the job. "Satan must have smacked his lips when Jill Nelson joined the Washington Post," wrote black journalist Ellis Cose in Newsweek. "For if Nelson had not exactly sold her soul, she all but surrendered her identity. A rebellious free spirit, she signed on to become a Post staff writer, trading in the penurious but autonomous freelance life for what she saw as the equivalent of a yoke and a plow." For her part, Nelson had serious misgivings about joining a newspaper run primarily by white men that ostensibly served a city with a 70 percent black population. As she put it in her memoir, "I try to imagine myself, an African-American female, working and thriving at a publication that's an amalgam of white man at his best, a celebration of yuppiedom and of 'all the news that fits, we print.'" Nevertheless, the salary Nelson was offered more than doubled her earnings during her best year as a freelancer—and her daughter liked the idea of living in a house rather than a tiny Manhattan apartment. Nelson took the job.

Found Controversy at Washington Post

Los Angeles Times Book Review correspondent Chris Goodrich noted that the week Nelson arrived at the Washington Post, black Washingtonians began picketing the newspaper offices for not one but two stories the paper's weekly magazine had published. One concerned a rap musician. The other—a column—defended Washington shop owners who summarily barred young black men from entering their establishments. Nelson found herself crossing a picket line that she well could have been walking in. "Nelson's experience at the Post might have been better had she arrived at a less-charged, less-revealing moment," contended Goodrich, "but her relationship with the newspaper, in any event, went from bad to worse. She didn't get along with numerous editors; she wasn't allowed to do many of the stories she wanted; quotes from her sources were altered; her judgment was questioned. Nelson attributes many of these difficulties to racism, but the majority of her complaints in fact seem to have more to do with the 'star' system of high-profile journalism than with skin color."

At a Glance …

Born in 1952 in New York, NY; daughter of a dentist and a librarian; divorced; children: Misu (daughter). Education: City College of New York, graduate; Columbia School of Journalism, MA, 1975(?).


Journalist, 1970–. Staff writer at Washington Post, 1986-90; City College of New York, professor of journalism, 1998-2003; NiaOnline.com bi-monthly columnist for "On the Verge".


American Book Award, for Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience.



Washington Post city editor Phillip Dixon, one of the staff members with whom Nelson worked, told the Washington Post that the newspaper "believes in diversity, but I don't know that it's 100 percent hospitable to people who are the wrong kind of different. Jill was too different. She wasn't going to swallow the whole pill. She didn't play the game." At the same time, Dixon claimed, "Jill did not make herself a great student of finding ways to get things into the paper. She stood for something and wasn't willing to compromise a whole bunch." Nelson began her tenure at the Washington Post as a writer for the weekly magazine. After two years in that position she was transferred to the city desk, where she was assigned—along with a team of other writers—to cover the cocaine-possession and perjury trial of former D.C. mayor Marion Barry. She quit in frustration in 1990.

Cose noted: "But the Devil did not quite get his due. Nelson broke free and emerged shaken but unbowed, spitting great gobs of anger and resentment smack in the face of her former employer." The resentment found voice in Volunteer Slavery, an account of Nelson's life during those turbulent years with the newspaper.

Wrote Her Memoir

Nelson told Publishers Weekly that in Volunteer Slavery, she "wanted to write about a contemporary woman trying to reconcile the worlds of work and self. A lot of people of all colors go through the experience of trying to fit into institutions, not fitting in, and ultimately wondering, Do we want to fit? The book is about that, and about how we are raised to think about ourselves. It's also about midlife crisis. I'm a baby boomer—I was 34 when I went to the Post.… I wanted to write all of it in a voice that was funny, sassy and empowered."

For a year Nelson tried to sell her manuscript for Volunteer Slavery. It was finally accepted by Noble Press in Chicago and was released in May of 1993. Noble had initially planned a first printing of 15,000 copies, but as publicity leaked about the subject matter of the book, a larger first printing was planned and a 20-city promotional tour undertaken. In her review of the book, Rachel Jones called the work "funny, heart-warming and sad," concluding that Nelson "dares to address what many blacks swimming in the mainstream often sidestep: how it can often be incredibly lonely and painful when there's no respect for the differences you bring to the table." In a similar assessment, Ellis Cose concluded that Nelson "has explored one woman's corporate hell in a way that is sometimes funny and often sad and that reveals and explores a great deal of pain that is not hers alone."

Ironically, in the summer of 1993 Nelson returned to Washington, D.C. as part of the promotional tour for her memoir. She found herself in the singular position of being interviewed for the very newspaper she portrayed in such scathing terms in her book. She told the Washington Post that she was simply unprepared to deal with the corporate culture she found established at the newspaper. "I don't consider myself a victim at all," she said. "I made some bad choices and decisions, and so did the newspaper. That's why the book is called 'Volunteer Slavery'—we all collude in our screwing."

About her experience, Nelson concluded: "I have no sour grapes. I got recruited by one of the top newspapers in the country. I got a fabulous salary. I worked there for four and a half years and I left on my own terms. It was my crucible, my trial by fire. I was figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be."

Skewered Society's Ills

When the popularity of her memoir flung Nelson into the public eye, she did not turn away. Instead, she continued to seek out the limelight, and resumed publishing her opinionated social commentary in such magazines as Essence. In 1999, Nelson published a second memoir, Straight, No Chaser, in which she exposes the difficulty black women have raising their voices within their own community. Nelson highlighted the troubling aspects of social and political circumstances, especially black male behavior, that she attributed to black women's suffering. Rather than just a compilation of complaints, the book offered women guides to living well within their culture. Countering critics, Nelson explained in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "Standing up for black women is not the same as downing black men." Nelson added that she had written the book for her daughter, adding that "This book is an affirmation and analysis of sisters written out of love."

Nelson delved into fiction writing in 2003 with her first novel, Sexual Healing. The book offers a humorous story about two lifelong friends who grow frustrated with their sex lives and determine to start a male brothel, called A Sister's Spa, in order to satiate the sexual appetites of a like-minded clientele. Nelson told Essence that her history in journalism gave her the basic knowledge she needed to write good fiction: "a sense of humor," "an ability to take risks," and an "ear for dialogue." In writing Sexual Healing Nelson told the St. Petersburg Times that "I wanted to stretch my muscles as a writer. I wanted to figure out how to get to that broader audience and deal with issues of identity, power, race, gender and sexuality.'" Described as erotic fiction, Sexual Healing quickly made it to the bestseller list at Essence.

Despite the success of Sexual Healing and talk of a sequel, Nelson, did not abandon her love of nonfiction. She blended nonfiction, memoir, and historical fiction in her next book, Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island. The book offers the history of the Wampanoag Indians on the island, the gathering of African Americans there since the 1700s, and her own recollection of five decades' worth of summers spent there, learning to ride a bike, getting her first kiss, and sharing the wonders of the island with her own daughter. "Picture it as a narrative-driven scrapbook," Nelson told the Boston Herald. "I wanted to give a sense of the diversity of the people there and the richness and importance of the African-American middle class." Like her many other books, Nelson's work was well received by critics. Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush described it as a "vibrant collection of memories, articles, recipes, and photographs." Others have noted her work as "honest," "insightful," "irreverent," and "sassy," among other things, and readers can expect that Nelson—her keen eye trained on American society—will produce even more compelling stories of American life.

Selected writings


Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (memoir), Noble Press, 1993.

Straight, No Chaser, Penguin, 1999.

(Editor) Police Brutality: An Anthology, Norton, 2000.

Sexual Healing, Agate, 2003.

Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island, Doubleday, 2005.



Black Enterprise, November 1993, p. 137.

Black Issues Book Review, July-August 2003, p. 40.

Boston Herald, June 5, 2005, p. 9.

Booklist, March 15, 2005.

Essence, June 1992, pp. 44-47; June 1993, pp. 83-84, 118-124; July 2003, p. 104; June 2005, p. 108.

Knight-Ridder wire story, June 16, 1993.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 15, 1993, p. 6.

Newsweek, June 28, 1993, p. 54.

Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, p. 22; May 17, 1993, p. 55.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 18, 1997, p. 31.

St. Petersburg Times, February 17, 2004, p. 1.

San Francisco Chronicle, July 11, 1993, p. 1.

Time, July 26, 1993.

Washington Post, June 15, 1993, p. B-1.

—Anne Janette Johnson and

Sara Pendergast

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Grace Napolitano: 1936—: Politician to Richard (Wayne) Peck (1934-) Biography - Career