I also had a chance to give a book talk on a special book that I recently read--The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem's Greatest Bookstore. It's book that represents my desire to see publishers publish more diverse books to more fully represent kid readers of various backgrounds. It is also a book that touches on my favorite period of American history--the Harlem Renaissance. And it represents one of my favorite places to hang: the local indie bookstore.
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My personal reading this year has been specifically targeted toward reading more ethnically diverse books. I am on a mission to figure out who I am going to be as a book publishing professional in light of what I see in our American culture. (You can read more about my mission here.) With all the gathering of stories, characters, platforms, ideologies, and perspectives, I don’t have words yet for how I feel like I have been shaped, emboldened, or propelled by what I’ve read.
Not too long ago, I was editing a book in which I chose to use the words enslaved people instead of slaves. A person reading over the material asked, “Why not just say ‘slaves’?” I thought it was a good question, though I didn't imagine being asked about it. I know why I chose it. It was not a second thought to me. I also understood why the person asked, and it was completely innocent. But it got me thinking about how some people would actually take issue with the word choice—enslaved people—thinking, "Here we go with all this political correctness."
What would it be like to be constantly disbelieved for your own experience? To never ever be validated, with or without proof? How does it feel to be dismissed, denied, and rejected? To have your tears and frustration met with responses like, “I don’t believe you. You are lying.”
In a previous post, I hosted guest blogger and indie author Sheridan Davis who shared her inspiration for writing her newest book, Pretty for a Dark-Skin Girl. Some of you, who may read my blog, may not be all that familiar with the concepts and issues she uncovered, so I wanted to provide additional comments to the post to provide a bit more context.
I invited Sheridan Davis, author of Pretty for a Dark-Skin Girl, to write a guest post for my blog because her book and her passion to encourage and heal people in areas concerning race dovetails closely with what I'd like to see myself do in this next season of life.
Currently the official canon of American Renaissance literature (defined by F. O. Matthiessen as literature written between 1850 and 1855) includes no women and no people of color. Across the US and the world that include American Renaissance, or the like, as part of their curriculum study this time period with only the perspectives of white men. But both women and people of color wrote landmark, culture-shifting works during this time that embody the very meaning of renaissance. I aimed to uncover and explore their works.
Adichie tells the story of a Nigerian family under the oppression of a fanatically religious father. The story is told through the sensitive eyes of fifteen-year-old Kambili. The wealthy and privileged family consists of father, Eugene; mother, Beatrice; elder son, Jaja; and younger daughter Kambili. They are members of the Igbo tribe and live in Enugu. Despite his tyrannical rule over his family, Eugene is known an upstanding businessman and kind-hearted, generous philanthropist who gives to widows, pays tuition for over one hundred poor children, and funds the efforts of his local Catholic church.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is "an eloquent and uncompromising slave narrative" and is "arguably the most comprehensive slave narrative written by a woman." (Encyclopedia Britannica) In her writings we can clearly see the intersecting, overlapping, and oppressive struggle of a person of color and of a woman.
In a Chicago Triune article, Nara Schoenberg quotes Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania: “Fewer than 40 books by African-American authors for adolescents were published in 2015….Every year thousands of books for kids and teens are published, and every year we don’t seem to be able to get that number much over 100.”
Yesterday, I left my career home of twelve years. I was a baby when I started and I am still sort of a baby now (at least that's how I feel). And those who are interested want to know what's next. "Where are you going, Jevon?" It's hard for me to just say the company and the job title without sharing the weight of what I feel this next season is all about for me, and, really, for anyone who has an ear to hear what the Spirit is saying to them during what I believe is a time of major transition for God's people around the globe. So I'll start with a little background.
In honor of Black History Month and this illustrious group of black women who have done so much to encourage each other to live healthy, well-balanced lives, I share this history of black women who have run before us and whose spirits and drive still run with us today.
I think it's important to place special emphasis on the histories and contributions of the many ethnic groups represented in this country. When we don't, we tend to overlook the beauty of our diverse cultural perspectives—and almost assume that we all think alike and begin to hold each other to certain expectations and standards that if they are not met we feel justified in our expressions of hate or apathy toward each other's struggles and experiences.
The Genius of Nonviolence and Peaceful Resistance During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the very deserving front man on whom we shower accolades and credit for the achievements attained during the Civil Rights Movement, it was the collaborative effort of several groups of strategic thinkers who carefully plotted out and executed an irreversible, genius plan to equalize life for black people in America. The strategy used is called nonviolent direct-action protest.
For the last two months I have been a part of a local cast rehearsing (July and August) and finally performing (this month) the popular play Crowns: the Gospel Musical adapted for stage by Regina Taylor from the pictorial book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry.
Black History Month always excites me. And why wouldn't it? It provides an opportunity for me and many others like me to be exclusively proud of our heritage--the struggles, the triumphs, the mishaps, the scars, the resilience, and the beauty. It also provides a learning experience for those who are unaware of the huge part black people have played in making America the nation that it is.
Someone asked me the other day, "Is it OK for black people to have black this and black that?" In other words, is it OK for black people to uniquely identify their successes, achievement, status, or lack thereof as "a black thing"? I have to say yes, and I would say the same for any other minority group. If we don't have an opportunity to highlight our presence in history and contemporary times and our hopes for the future, we run the risk of being overlooked. Yes, we really do.
Here is where I digress into my sociological background. A majority does not have reason--and sometimes the ability, because of its position of power--to recognize the plight of the minority unless the minority brings its issues or concerns to the forefront. Think about it. If you are seated on the peak of a mountain, your view of what's happening in the valley is limited. But if a loud noise starts to rise up and maybe your mountain begins to tremble a bit, causing you unrest, you may find yourself climbing off your perch to see what in the world is going on. And even further, if you think of a marriage relationship with one person as a dominate personality and one with a more understated personality, you can see how the one with the dominate personality would overshadow the other--at times, unintentionally, and other times with well-thought-out intention.
I do not say this to create an argument but to make a point. It is important to recognize the innate desire of the minority to create balance--or the necessity to fight for balance. Sometimes the minority needs to make lots of noise to be heard, so that the majority is "encouraged" to have a conversation that welcomes an equal place at the table. This is an eternal struggle. Even if the balance shifts and the once minority becomes the majority (perceived power and all), the new minority will have to make itself known to keep things in balance.
This is why I love Women's History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, and any other time where the minority has a chance to tip the scales and celebrate itself in a big way. My hope is that a residue is left after the celebration that affords the minority increased visibility and voice.
I began plotting out how I would contribute to Black History Month 2011 some time last year. I wanted to discuss our history in the context of my current life focus, which is publishing. I have had an opportunity to explore and discuss with other publishing professionals how people of color are positioned in publishing as decision makers and as the talent--and while things have come a long way since the Jim Crow South, we still have a long way to go.
People of color (not just blacks) make up only 2 percent of publishing professionals, according to Elizabeth Bluemle's Publishers Weekly article "The Elephant in the Room." I can't singlehandedly change that--obviously. But what I can do is talk about the impact of black publishing, and in turn add to the noise that is seeking for ethnically reflective representation in the industry. Because, as Bluemle says, "This discrepancy between the real world and the publishing world limits the range of books published, the intellectual scope of discussion, and—for the bottom-liners among us—greatly stunts the potential market." And we just ain't gon' have none of that!
I invite you to join me for the next several weeks as I explore Black America's contribution to the world of publishing.
FOR THE BEGINNER
1. Venture in to any section of the bookstore that shelves books by authors who are not of your ethnic background.
2. Buy a book from that section on something that interests you--fiction or nonfiction.
3. Read the book.
4. Write a brief review of the book and post it on Amazon.com, your blog if you have one, a friend's blog, the author's website, and the like.
5. Recommend the book to your friends who share your same ethnicity.
6. Rinse and repeat.
FOR THE ADVANCED
7. Research and find blogs by people who regularly promote or feature books by people of color. Follow their recommendations on good books--and read them. Many maybe indie or self-published books, but limit discrimination here as well. This is sometimes the best way for a person of color to get their message out.
8. Participate in reader groups or book clubs that discuss books by a diverse collection of authors. There are many online, if you live in a homogenous geographic location.
9. Peruse multicultural or urban bookstores (this can also be done online), buy a book, read it, write a review, and post your review--I think I may have said this already. :) You may be so bold as to send your review directly to the publisher asking for more books like the one you read and liked.
10. Be ready to explore your biases against other ethnicities. Overcome them by allowing childlike wonder to draw you in to reading books by them and about them. Consider the story over the ethnic background of the characters in the book and the artwork on the book cover. You'll be glad you did.
BONUS FOR PARENTS AND CHILD EDUCATORS
11. Buy books for your children/classroom that have stories with diverse characters. Be brave enough to actually talk through the issues presented in the books. ANSWER YOUR CHILDREN'S QUESTIONS about ethnic, social, and cultural issues honestly and with compassion. If you can't, go back to the first two sentences of #10. Also, involve other people who are committed to educating children and adults on diversity issues. Consider that it really does take a village...
These are deliberate actions that will help you step out of your normal reading habits and inclinations. Consider this a challenge for the year. As you become more aware of good books by people of color and find that they are not available in your bookstore, request that the bookstore order more diverse books. Tell your friends to do the same thing. I've done this a few times with hair/beauty supply stores and grocery stores and still find my requested products stocked on their shelves to this day. Stores will stock and promote what sells and it takes a smart and active consumer to help make a difference in what's readily available for purchase.
This is a battle worth fighting with all the bullying and other crimes going on these days. Our active engagement and genuine interest in the lives of people who are different from us helps us to break down the walls that separate us and eliminate the ignorance that makes us fear the unknown.
Will you take the challenge? What other things can you personally do to encourage more diversity in the book market?
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.”