Written by Selome Hailu
It’s become standard practice to celebrate Black History Month by sharing favorites written by black authors. Libraries host storytimes with black children on the pages; bookstores create display tables of Hurston, Baldwin, and Hughes. New works by prolific black writers are often slated for February, such as Toni Morrison’s newest essay collection The Source of Self Regard, which came out on February 12th. The buzz is unmistakably important — a study published by Roxane Gay found that nearly 90% of books reviewed by the New York Times were written by white authors. Her research was conducted in 2012, but the public conversation about books is still largely eurocentric. In the face of such glaring disadvantages for black writers, the importance of amplifying their work cannot be overstated. But while scanning lists for up-and-coming black authors is enriching for the reader and even creates bestsellers, it can only do so much to revolutionize literature at large.
For emerging black writers, white approval is almost always essential for success.
The publishing industry is an overwhelmingly white institution. Lee and Low, a multicultural children’s publisher, investigated the business as a whole and found that 79 percent of people working in publishing are white. That number increases to 82 percent when looking specifically at editorial staffs, which are only 2 percent black. Writers create the specific content we read, but it is up to editorial departments to decide which stories make it to the printing press. This gatekeeping in the publishing industry puts the continuous production of the literary canon into almost exclusively white hands. For emerging black writers, white approval is almost always essential for success.
Dr. John K. Marshall, professor of English at Marshall University, wrote Black Writers, White Publishers, an interrogation of how publishing has impacted African American literature and suppressed even the most prominent voices in the field. His criticism proceeds from examples of writers like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison being forced to delete scenes and change titles to make sure their narratives weren’t “too inflammatory.” In analyzing the power dynamics between black writers and the largely white institutions they’re writing for, he exposes the expectations and barriers black writers face, and how these experiences differ from those of white writers. Marshall’s book serves as proof that the versions of the “diverse” books that end up on our shelves exemplify racist censorship imposed upon black writing. Further, this censorship becomes a cruel privilege when considering all of the stories that remain unpublished.
The research makes it clear that the disproportionate demographics of the publishing industry create a disproportionate amount of successful black writers. And as long as the book business only drives focus towards reading individual black authors, consumers will remain ignorant of the larger forces keeping the list of famous black authors so short. But while hiring practices within book publishing should be the first site of reexamination, readers at home are not completely powerless in the effort for inclusion. Every book purchase supports a publishing house, not just the author of the book. Armed with this knowledge, consumers can direct their efforts to support new black writing towards new companies as well.
Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and HarperCollins are affectionately known as the “Big Five” for their dominance in book publishing. Naturally, each is guilty of the massive employee diversity gap pointed out by Lee and Low. They have each developed different “diversity programs,” including efforts to hire more people of color as interns. But as these companies attempt to make up for generations of excluding marginalized voices, there are multiple smaller publishing houses already empowering black creatives beyond just entry-level positions.
Africa World Press is driven by a mission “to provide high quality literature on the history, culture, politics of Africa and the African Diaspora.” Founded and run by Eritrean immigrant and former Rutgers professor Kassahun Checole, the company primarily produces scholarly work, including multiple books by University of Texas professor Toyin Falola. They also publish titles in fiction, poetry, and children’s literature, and have expanded in reach, now holding offices in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, and England.
RedBone Press began in direct response to the underrepresentation of black lesbian women in lesbian and feminist literature. Founder Lisa C. Moore has since included gay black men in her mission. The Lee and Low diversity baseline survey investigated sexual orientation as well as race, and found that 88 percent of publishing professionals identify as heterosexual. Given the statistics, RedBone’s intersectional feminist approach to publishing is unlike anything the industry had seen before its inception. Celebratory and unapologetic, their work creates a necessary platform for black queer writers.
Haki R. Madhubuti founded Third World Press in the midst of a successful career writing and teaching at the university level. Mentored by black literary greats such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall, his prolific poetry and nonfiction work rendered him a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement. He built creative institutions that worked to make the arts more accessible to black people, and says Third World Press was his “direct and most tangible [response] to the Black Arts Movement’s call to action.” Third World Press is the oldest independent publisher focused on black writing, and they have remained a constant source of important black literature, supporting well-known writers such as Gil Scott-Heron and August Wilson.
Other black-run publishers include Black Classic Press, Broadside Lotus Press, and Just Us Books. Lee and Low pushes the industry forward in both their research and their expansive body of inclusive children’s literature. This Black History Month, challenge your reading habits a little more than usual. Picking new reads from the New York Times bestseller list is by no means a fatal flaw. But when searching for books that reflect your ethics, try to see if the profiting companies practice what they preach. A purchase from a black-owned press is an investment in a fair, truthful black literary culture — one where writers will not have to dilute their stories to cater to exclusionary standards.