In the last few years, there has been a big push for diversity that seems to have gone hand in hand with the Black Lives Matter movement.
According to a 2019 survey, 76 percent of the people who acquire and edit books are white. When agents who are the gatekeepers within the publishing industry—in most cases the Big 4 publishers and their subsidiaries won’t consider novels without agents attached—are white, finding diverse voices they connect can be a problem.
Human nature dictates we are all ruled by our biases, morals, and experiences. How can someone who hasn’t faced similar life circumstances because of their color or “otherness” judge our books and the messages within them?
Zora Neale Hurston wrote an article in 1950 called, “What White Publishers Won’t Print” (over 72 years ago, people!)—let’s pause to take in this fact. This thing that happened for this exceptional black woman author so long ago that is still relevant today.
Okay, so 72 years ago Zora Neale Hurston wrote this article which identified the dilemma in publishing works from people of color. Publishers want to make money and sell books but if white folks can’t think of blacks outside of stereotypical norms, then they will only publish stories that reflect and conform to those stereotypes further reinforcing white readers’ expectations. We tend to see the same types of stories told about people of color from white folks instead of stories that expose the plethora of experiences blacks have in the world.
I’ve heard the argument (and to an extent agree) that the fiber of stories and how readers/people connect to them boils down to the fact that people share a basic human connection. But I’ve also heard people say they don’t see color and why does someone’s color matter?
These are two separate things. So first, I say it’s impossible not to see color or culture first, it just is. As a Black Woman, if you don’t see my color, then you don’t see me because my color is a part of who I am. It is how I walk through the world and part of my identity. So don’t erase that. My color is worthy of being noticed and being valued. If color did not matter black men and women and brown people would not be pulled over, hassled, or killed at a higher rate than white folks.
Hurston says, that outside of racial attitudes, literature should exist to hold up the mirror to nature. “With only the fractional “exceptional” and the “quaint” portrayed, a true picture of Negro life in America cannot be.” This is still true, through and through.
Growing up differently, even in my own community, left me as the oddball. To be short and sweet, I was raised by revolutionaries who were a part of the marches and sit-ins. They didn’t let us have white dolls or buy white magazines because they wanted us to be proud and comfortable in our skin and felt there was enough in the world that reaffirmed whiteness.
We often took exciting trips to our local black-owned bookstores and shops where they instilled that we needed to use our collective energy to economically help our communities thrive. We didn’t celebrate Christmas, Halloween, or most holidays for that matter, because my parents felt that all holidays were highly commercialized and their meaning (if there was ever one) was lost—among many other reasons why. Back then these beliefs were not a popular, and today they’re still not popular. So, I was always the “other within the other”, a fractured identity within and identity like every person categorized as “the other” feels.
As “the other”, it always seems like you are shrinking to fit in when you are growing up and even sometimes in social situations. As a black woman of stature, I’m 5’11, dark-skinned and “big boned” and it’s harder to “fit in” when I always stand out. But now it's nice that for the most part there is more representation in books because when I was young I had to search for it. I had to go to special book stores to find it.
Let’s talk about how even though diversity is at the forefront, even with #weneeddiversebooks and #blacklives matter, we still have a long way to go. First step, well like fiftieth step was to be seen. We are seen now, we are here, but we have a long way to climb, and we’ve been climbing for centuries. These things don’t happen overnight.
According to the NY Times article, title, “Of the 7,124 books for which we identified the author’s race, 95 percent were written by white people…only 22 of the 220 books on the list this year were written by people of color.”
Black life and culture are still trends it seems. In 1967, Marie Dutton Brown started as an intern at Doubleday and rose in ranks to become a senior editor, and she said then what is still true now (55 years later) that, “Black life and Black culture are rediscovered every 10 to 15 years. Publishing reflects that.”
It’s the sad truth but I think Hurston’s article left us with hope that one day there will be light when it comes to representation and finally, I do see a little bit of that light, but we still have a long way to go with some work to do.