PHOTOS BY SCRILL DAVIS
With her mix of fine china and frank talk—the classy and the sassy, you might say—Lynae Vanee has earned a growing audience for her distinctive take on hot-button issues on her popular Instagram series, Parking Lot Pimpin’. Whether it’s abortion rights, the latest mass shooting, or genocide in Africa, the 20-something commentator looks sharply at current events through the lens of Black history and experience—a perspective all too often missing in much of the media—while genteelly sipping hot tea.
Vanee’s increasing influence is illustrated by the two NAACP Image Award nominations she has garnered and the stature of the guests she’s welcomed to her shows, which include the spin-off Patreon offering The Let Out. Among those she has spoken with are Stacey Abrams and Vice Pres- ident Kamala Harris.
“I take something that’s going on in the news and the political sphere and the pop culture sphere, whatever is the best angle that I can take for the week, and I connect it to something in our history,” Vanee explains. “I look at it with an interdisciplinary lens. I look at the psychology of it. I look at the sociology of it, the anthropology, the intersectional perspectives, to make people feel seen.”
Vanee’s fresh take has garnered millions of views across her various social media platforms over the past few years. Fans have applauded her for offering “powerful insights into the world that we must navigate through” with “clarity, conscience and conviction.”
Opening each segment of Parking Lot Pimpin’ with the promise, “I’ma keep it Black, but I’ma keep it brief,” Vanee doesn’t just tackle topics on which her audience agrees. She has not been afraid to wade in on divisive or often ignored topics like sexual assault by Black men and gender diversity, nor to assert her authority (her TikTok profile declares, “I know wtf I’m talking about”).
While Parking Lot Pimpin’ looks at the world from a distinctly Black perspective, it appeals to a broad audience. “I’ve got a lot of white fans and a lot of white women fans, but they had to accept that I was speaking to my com- munity,” she says. “They had to come to the table that I made. It wasn’t about reaching out. It wasn’t about changing their minds because it’s not our job to undo what they’ve done or to teach them how to handle it, or to teach them how to remedy [it].”
Facing the past
Vanee’s pathway to her current position of influence has been indirect. She earned a degree in psychology from Spelman College, though she had no plans to practice as a therapist. “I just wasn’t interested,” she says. “I knew that following a career pathway for psychology could be possible for me, but it wouldn’t be rewarding for me.” She studied the subject because “I wanted to know how people thought and what impacted how their traumas impacted their thinking processes and their behavior—how certain mental issues contributed to behavior today.”
There was a personal dimension to her interest. On her mother’s side of the family, there was poverty, alcoholism and abuse. Vanee suffered childhood sexual abuse. “I just didn’t understand it,” she says. “I knew it was all connected; I had that inkling to understand that much. But I just wanted to know how, if we could understand the root of the problem, we could reverse the problem.” On her father’s side, there was “a very strict way of doing things, a very limited perspective on how to go about moving out and about in the world,” she says. “I just kind of wanted to figure out how to break these generational curses.”
From Spelman, Vanee headed to Boston University (BU) for a master’s in African American Studies. Some of the faculty questioned whether her psychology background would help her new focus, but she found it did. “I was able to bring some fresh and different perspectives to the way that we think about the dehumanization of Black Americans and whether or not that actually facilitated the dehumanization of Europeans and the way they treated Black people and how different psychological imbalances could be identified through behaviors exhibited throughout history.”
Though that emphasis at BU pointed to finding work in teaching, it wasn’t what she had in mind. “I was so inspired, empowered by the things that I was learning that I wanted to share [them],” she says, though she didn’t have a traditional teaching position in mind. “I didn’t really want to spend extra time in school, in four walls, hoarding all the knowledge to myself . . . I wanted to share it with high school kids, because I felt that that was the last opportunity for us to let our kids know who they are and in a meaningful and impactful way.”
Despite her reluctance, Vanee did end up becoming a high school teacher for a season, during which she developed her talent for connecting with young people and communicating complex issues in a way that captured their attention.
Finding 11th and 12th graders who thought they knew everything there was to know about Black history was “heart- breaking, because the U.S. education system is set up for kids to believe that they only have a couple of figures to look up to, that they only have slavery and civil rights to pick from in terms of their contribution to American history at large.” She wanted them to have a broader frame of reference, including “women, queer folk, poor people whose names that you would never know.”
Vanee names some of the forerunners who have shaped her thinking about Black history and culture, starting with Harriet Tubman. “Talk about an original gangster, before it was even a word, before it even meant its colloquial version of whatever it is today,” she says. Tubman was someone who “may not have been fearless, but was willing, was tactical, was strategic, was unwavering . . . we owe her a lot.” Also on Vanee’s list: Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marcus Garvey.
Contemporary voices she appreciates include [professor of women and gender studies] Brittney Cooper and writer Ibram X. Kendi. Vanee was one of the contributors to the 2023 Netflix documentary Stamped From the Beginning, based on Kendi’s 2016 book of the same name (subtitled The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America).
“There’s a whole school of thinkers and scholars that are not necessarily saying anything new—and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way because we have so many thinkers that have come before us saying the exact same thing we’re saying today. Whether it’s Angela Davis, whether it’s James Baldwin, whether it’s Audre Lorde, we’re repeating a lot of the same information because history is repeating itself.”
The events of 2020—the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—gave some of the new voices she appreciates a platform, Vanee says, but “whether it gave us actual genuine support from a lot of these corporations that threw money at us, that’s another thing . . . But now we at least have a platform to make sure we are harnessing the narrative and driving home the things that the greats before us have said, the things that we are continuing to say, and new and innovative ways that can speak to our generation.”
Framing the future
When COVID-19 closed schools and Vanee wasn’t able to connect with her students in person anymore, she decided it was time to leave the class- room for a new venue—the parking lot.
Vanee believes Black culture has been more widely influential than is often recognized. “It is used, it is usurped as it has always been,” she observes. “Our resources have always been something that have been sought after and, for lack of a better word, cooler, more exciting. What we have to offer has always allowed the rest of the world to capitalize off us in some way . . . industry, fashion, labor, technology . . . I mean, all of it: also, music, also the arts.
“Black people have had such a unique experience and with that awareness and agency, been able to cultivate things that are so new and novel and impactful and profound that it has no choice but to influence others around us because they would never be able to have experiences like ours to be able to create art like we have.”
It is important to remember that “Black culture” can’t be summed up simply. “We’re just not a monolith,” she says. “There’s so many things that go into it.” Though there are commonalities that point back to specific things that happened to Black communities generationally that “inform the way that we move about in the world,” she says, “there’s no one way Black people think. But there are several common factors that influence the way Black people navigate and what they’re exposed to that allow them to navigate with success or not.”
Vanee has been influenced by Angela Davis’ thinking on women, race and class. “The conversation around enslaved women has to be different because of the different experiences women had that men did not,” she explains. She speaks of how Davis challenged white writing about Black wom- en’s gait that referenced their pride and strength. But “this wasn’t pride in being enslaved. This was awareness of our ability to persevere and execute and exist and be and thrive in abnormal, subhuman conditions.
“I loved reading that because it just reminds me of what Black pride is . . . We have this keen awareness of our ability to be adaptable, our ability to navigate, our ability to persevere, and that’s what helps us exist and maintain . . . Black people at large and Black culture thrives on agency and our ability to make decisions with little to nothing, or abundance, whatever what have you.”
With an eye to this year’s presidential election, Vanee urges people to believe that their voice matters and use it. She cautions that the choice is less cut-and-dried than many might have seen things in the past. “We’re not in a lesser-of-two-evils situation anymore. There’s so much that’s transpired in the last year that has made it difficult for us to pick a side.”
Her advice: pick the side that has your interests most in mind, but don’t determine that merely in terms of money—“somebody cutting you a check or somebody making jobs.” Because though the economy is important, “attitudes about race are deteriorating every day. Mass shootings are hap- pening every day. People are dying every day. Rights are being pulled back every day.” Focus on the candidate that is “more pro our human rights,” she says, “because money will come. The earth existed, economies existed, societies existed before a dollar.”
She is hopeful about positive change, even though she notes that “revolution is only ever really sexy in retrospect. Revolution is tough. It’s hard. It can be estranging.”
But she sees “a willingness to engage” in Gen Zers, “whether it’s influencers, whether it’s activists, you have kids who are just saying, ‘No, I won’t be a part of this,’” referencing the protests over events in the Middle East.
“These kids want to do what’s right,” says Vanee. “And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a voice for a generation that I am certain is going to change the world . . . just to be in the class of folks that are creating art that is influencing these young, powerful people who do not care for status quo, who do not care for policy, who do not care for the sanitization of atrocity. I’m so proud of them.”
Now we at least have a platform to make sure we are harnessing the narrative.LYNAE VANEE
Taking Back A Term
Lynae Vanee’s popular pod- cast was originally called Parking Lot Chronicles, but she believes revising it to Parking Lot Pimpin’ was an improvement. It certainly gives you an idea of the direct talk that’s in store, but what about those who might find its imagery a bit off-putting?
“Words mean what we want them to mean,” an unapologetic Vanee says in response, pointing to Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 Gram- my-winning album To Pimp a Butterfly. “A lot of people can try to ascertain what he means by that, but when you pimp something, you turn it out,” she says. “You make something out of something that didn’t exist before, and so that’s what I’ve done with the space. I use it as a canvas, and it’s also a cultural reference.”
One fan of the show has suggested that Vanee’s followers be described as PIMPs—people in meaningful positions. “We’ve taken the N-word back,” says Vanee. “You know, a lot of women have taken derogatory terms for women back. [Pimpin’] is a term that I’ve taken back to mean what I want it to mean.”
LYNAE VANEE: MY WAYMAKERS
I am indebted to the women before me who have paved the way for me. I’ve had several praying grandmothers. They were my first waymakers, even if they didn’t know what they were praying for, because they couldn’t have imagined what I’m doing today. But [they were] at least praying for my protection. I am also indebted to the women’s voices that have gone down in history. They always say that well-behaved women seldom make history, and I’m so thankful to the women who have acted up to let me know that I can act up, to let me know that I can run my mouth in service of the people who need me to. I also always thank [actor and writer] Issa Rae. Even though she’s a new voice, she is someone who showed me that I could be exactly myself and that I could make a career from that, that I could pave lanes that did not exist and ride them all the way to the top—and what the top means, we’ll see.
From an interview with Louis Carr