Four writers from the Black Writers Workspace share their thoughts on the best methods to nurture and inspire diversity in publishing.
Major publishing houses possess the prowess to shape the stories we see and the cultural environments we deem acceptable. Yet, known as the “gatekeepers” to the world’s fortress of literature art, for decades, big publishers have suffered from a lack of diversity, particularly amongst their publishing and editorial staff (a 2019 study shows 76% of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are white and 85% of editorial employees are white).
Many people believe that a lack of diversity in the gatekeeper’s employee lounge has resulted in the industry’s failure to embrace black authors’ talent, creativity, and marketability. A reality proved in a 2020 New York Times study that tracked the number of books published by major publishing houses from 1950–2018. The study found that although non-Hispanic whites make up 60% of the U.S. population, they wrote 89-95% of the published books during the time period.
Although the underlying problem to solve the diversity issue in publishing is multifaceted, the movement to make space in an already over-saturated book market for more voices of color has heightened. Black writers realize that if we want diversity in publishing, we must take the helm to cultivate it. As history shows us, no one cultivates better than black people, especially when chips are stacked against us.
In a quest to understand how writers in the Black Writers Workspace feel about the scarcity of black books in literature, I asked four writers to share their opinions on cultivating a future that ensures that stories for and about the black experience outlive the legacy of inequality in publishing.
Embrace Your “Blackness”
“When I think about diversity in literature, I immediately think of Dr. Maya Angelou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Aimé Césaire, and Ta-Nehisi Coates,” said author and editor Ethleen Sawyerr, founder of Speak Write Play. “These writers cultivated their crafts and devised beautiful stories that transcend[ed] race, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. They did not compromise their intellect, origin, or ‘blackness’ to do so. Rather, they showcased their voices and told their stories in ways that those in other groups could consume.”
To successfully promote books by black writers, the literary world must embrace the black experience as an American experience.
Writer Michael Robinson says it this way: “We are the literature and the diversity that ensures a future. I’m more than just a black writer; I am my people and in the same way, they are me.”
By embracing our blackness in our work, we are moving our cultural exceptionality from anomaly to normalcy. The more our blackness is introduced to the mainstream, the more acceptable it will be.
Black Writers Must Support Black Writers
“Reach one, teach one” is a slogan famous black writers can embody to catapult new and aspiring writers towards success. If we are left with the responsibility to ensure our future in the industry, writers at every level must do their part.
“I believe African American writers can help cultivate a future that ensures diversity in literature by first, being supportive of one another, which also means embracing not just writers who are famous but also to be supportive of aspiring authors who have written books but have not received visibility,” said Robyn Saleem-Abdusamad. “This includes purchasing of books, sharing the literature on social media platforms, requesting new author’s books in stores, schools and libraries and if they have any connections and resources that could assist black writers with publicity and marketing, lend a helping hand.”
Our brilliancy as authors comes from understanding how to acquire the fan base and exposure needed to position and sell books to a mass market. Knowledge has power. By encouraging successful black authors to reach back and support aspiring and new black authors, we can help build a pipeline of good work that will attract readers for generations.
“If we are not supportive of one another first, then how can we expect anyone else to love, respect, and support our work?” said Saleem-Abdusamad. “No one has to starve because there is enough room at the table for all of us to eat.”
The road to equality will never be a lonely journey. Our goal must be to lock arms, demand representation, and trust the power of steadfast, unshakable determination. When one black writer makes it big, we want them to reach back and pull up the next writer. We have the power to be the change we need.
Tell Black Stories with Truth and Authenticity
Our fundamental goals are to uplift black culture by telling stories that exemplify the beauty and uniqueness of our lives.
“Black writers can ensure diversity in literature by purposefully telling their stories from a place of truth and authenticity,” said Sawyerr. “It is like sitting down and reading a book out loud while the windows are open. You read for your own pleasure, but you remain keenly aware that those walking by on the street will likely hear your words. Some may continue going about their business, but others will stop and listen to the beautiful, unfamiliar words flowing from your mouth.”
Embracing authentic voices of color in different genres is another way to infuse black experiences and traditions into the book industry.
“Black writers can help cultivate a future that ensures diversity by supporting endeavors that we don’t typically think of as ‘Black literature’ such as horror, science fiction, and fantasy,” said author Shakirah Islam-Gatling. “We can raise awareness of projects that highlight how multifaceted we are as a people.”
Black people mastered the ability to cultivate greatness long before we reached the shores of America. From fertile land on the African continent to the sugar cane fields of Louisiana, we are blessed with the ability to design, nurture, and grow what brings value and wealth to the world.
Our history teaches us that true passion, creativity, and perseverance result in change. We are cultivators, and the beauty of our work will be the catalyst we need to tear down the walls of discrimination that have plagued the book industry for centuries.
To learn about the Black Writers Workspace, visit https://linktr.ee/blackwritersworkspace.