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.
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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.”
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.
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.
If you are like me and occasionally catch yourself drooling over the awesome bookish scene in some of the major cities, especially New York, but live light years away from all the action, I hope this post will motivate you to CYOBS (create your own book scene).
New York City is known for being the epicenter of book publishing, and in times past I have often wished I lived in New York--if it had Florida-like weather. But I have decidedly stepped out of my wishing to be there to enjoying being here, and what I've discovered is a flourishing love of the literary arts in my local area.
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.
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.”