Books by Women of Color: Separated, and Not Treated Equally, Either. Speak Up, On This, She Writes!

Yesterday, Kamy Wicoff spoke with Carleen Brice, creator of the tongue-in-cheek but eye-opening video, "White Readers, Meet Black Authors," and was joined by Virginia De Berry, Bernice McFadden, and Martha Southgate...and not a whole lot of white people.

The conversation that took place yesterday on She Writes Radio was an illuminating one -- for me more than for the women who participated, who unfortunately have to talk about these issues all the time. We began by discussing African-American sections in the bookstores, something Carleen expressed decidedly mixed feelings about. "It's separate but not equal," she told me, and as such it smacks of segregation (McFadden has called it "seg-book-gation"), implying that works of literary fiction written by black authors are not mainstream, but books for black readers only. But at the same time Carleen has heard from many black readers that they appreciate being able to find so many of the books they want in one, easy-to-locate place, and worse, she worries that if bookstores eliminated the sections, they would also stop buying 75% of the books shelved there -- books acquired by buyers specifically assigned stock those "ethnic" sections; separate, again, from those who do the acquisitions for everything else.

What's needed, of course, is a more conscious and intentional approach to diversity, not for diversity's sake, but for quality's sake. And a good place to start would be increased diversity of voices represented on the front tables of chain bookstores like Barnes and Noble, who could take leadership on this issue. One might assume that independent bookstores would be more conscious than the chains on this issue -- except they aren't.

"I've been kind of brokenhearted, actually, with the independent bookstores," Carleen said, "and specifically with the Indie Next picks." A quick survey of June's Indie Next picks? Out of 31 books, one author was black (Nnedi Okorafor, "Who Fears Death") two were written by Latino men, and one was written by an Asian man. Which means that when you, the consumer, browse that list, you will be looking at preselected, presegregated titles, a whopping 87% of which were written by white men. Oh, and Amazon's Best Books of June? Nine by white men, and one by a white woman. Sure, you can attempt to make the weak-ass argument that this is because those books just happened to be the "best", until you imagine the reverse: 87% of July's Indie Next's picks are written by women of color. 90% of Amazon's Best Books of July are written by women (of color, now that would be awesome.) Would anyone argue those were simply the "best" books that month, then? NO! Instead, people would freak out and cry foul. Which is exactly what we should be doing now.

This kind of exclusion hurts everybody. It hurts readers -- as Brice put it, "you all are missing out!" -- who never become aware of so many great books, books that publishers pigeon-hole right out of the gate by limiting the scope and reach of their marketing campaigns, and even by the cover images they select, which all too often scream "this book is for black people only!" just in case the fact that it's a) shelved in a special section, and b) only reviewed and visible on blogs and sites with primarily black readerships, wasn't enough to get the point across. (Even more abhorrent, white-washing, which She Writes member LaTonya wrote about earlier this year.) And it hurts writers of color, who get left off of lists like Publisher's Weekly Top Ten Books of 2009 with a consistency that makes a conspiracy seem not-so-far-fetched, until you realize that nobody is thinking about this with one-iota of the attention or awareness a conspiracy would require. And when writers of color don't get the chance to reach wide audiences, it is highly unlikely that their sales numbers will ever be competitive with their white male counterparts, and we all know that without big sales numbers, getting a decent book contract -- or any contract at all -- is enormously difficult. And then these voices, our voices, begin to disappear from our bookstores altogether.

So what are we gonna do about it? First things first -- white folks, please, next time we have a She Writes Radio show about how women of color are read, received and reviewed, pick up the phone. (In the meantime, you can listen to it on the SW Radio player.) I know it was short notice, and for that I am sorry (it occurred to me that by giving such short notice about the discussion, I was like the producer of Nat X -- the Chris Rock talk-show spoof on SNL -- who only had five minutes "cause that's all the man would give me!"), but I won't make the same mistake again. For while I thoroughly enjoyed talking with these talented and thoughtful women, I know they felt discouraged (thought not surprised, which discouraged me a lot) that those who tuned in were all people of color. Until we make this a community-wide conversation, which, by the way, needs to extend far beyond the issues faced by African-American authors, though that ended up being a focus of our conversation yesterday, we will fail to do what would be most transformative: get to know one another's work, and start reading, reviewing and championing one another's books across racial lines.

Some ideas for actions you can take TODAY.

1) Become a fan, on Facebook and on their websites, of the women who gave so graciously of their time yesterday: Carleen Brice, Bernice McFadden, Virgina DeBerry and Martha Southgate. Read Martha's article, "Writers Like Me" that ran in the New York Times in July 2007, and Bernice McFadden's article, "Black Writers In a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making," from the Washington Post. Sign up for their email lists, follow their blogs, and, oh yes, buy their books. You can also friend them on She Writes and ask them for recommendations, too.

2) Subscribe to the blog of She Writes member Tayari Jones, who all these women recommended as a excellent critic and a reader with great taste. I recommend Black Book Bloggers, too.

3) Check out Thirty-Two Candles, by She Writer Ernessa T. Carter. From Carleen: "If you liked any kind of women's fiction, like Bridget Jones and books that are about funny, witty, quirky characters, you should be reading this book whether you are white or black or Asian or whatever. You should be reading this book because you will like it. It shouldn't be something that just black women are gonna know about. And the issue is, you guys are missing out!"

4) Take a good hard look at your own bookshelves. Are they as white as Amazon's June picks? If the answer is yes (and I think it may be yes for me) -- get online, or go to the bookstore, or the library, and do something about it. And let your sisters at She Writes help you figure out what. (For some great lists, see LaTonya's "Top Ten YA Books Written By Women of Color" and Bernice McFadden's "Writers You Should Know and Read.")

And finally, please comment on this post with your own feelings, recommendations, and books you recommend written by women of color, so we can expand this conversation in all the directions it needs to go. I promise you that on She Writes, we will keep on having it.

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Comment by Elaine Weaver-Crepps, M.A. on October 31, 2010 at 12:01pm
Very valid points were raised here on the issue of the segregation of black authors in bookstores and how the work of black authors is generally ignored. I feel powerless; there isn't much I can do to about resolving this issue. I stay abreast of the work of black authors through reading the book reviews published in Ebony and Essence magazine. I would suggest that all of you do likewise.
Comment by Dera R Williams on July 29, 2010 at 12:35am
Great blog! I am delighted the dialogue has opened. It is going to take all of us to transcend the racial reading divide. Thanks.
Comment by Carleen on July 5, 2010 at 12:51pm
@Ernessa, I hope you never, ever recover from your "bad case of optimism." The world--all of us, writers, readers, nonwriters, nonreaders, male, female, all the races--needs more optimistic people. I believe you're right that bringing optimism to the problem is much more effective than bringing pessism. That's what I try to do at the blog and in life. As you say, some days it's easier than others though. But after watching The Empire Strikes Back I'm all Yoda-fied and feeling good. Thanks!
Comment by Ernessa T. Carter on July 1, 2010 at 9:26am
@Carleen Yeah, I'm a bit up and down with the optimism myself. There are days when I feel overwhelmed by the odds, and I think reading articles like this ... well, you know how black women are always complaining about how reading articles about how low our marriage rates are is a constant source of depression for them? That's how I feel about the recent slate of articles about how black books just don't sell to white people.

I don't want to get depressed and give up. I have to write. I have to believe that a win is on the other side of that long road. That if 32 CANDLES doesn't sell the way I want it to sell, then the next book will. And so on. And in a bigger sense, I feel like the energy I put into this now will lay some groundwork for other black authors.

SINS OF MY MOTHER was a ratings success -- seriously a black movie on Lifetime. Whoever thought we'd see that? "White Readers Meet Black Authors" sells books in a positive way. And most importantly, your books touch people. I'm inspired by that. What you've done so far makes me feel optimistic. And you're just at the very beginning of your career. Two books in, Terry McMillian wasn't where you're at today.

I emphatically have a bad case of optimism. And I choose to focus on the fix, because focusing on the problem will turn me into (even more of a) neurotic mess. But yes, let's have this conversation again in three years. I'm curious to see how I feel about this topic then.
Comment by Carleen on July 1, 2010 at 9:00am
I have to say, Ernessa, while I agree with you, I feel a bit sad from your comment. You sound like me three years ago. It's hard to maintain that optimism. I hope your experience is very different though and I hope you're able to keep hope alive!
Comment by Carleen on July 1, 2010 at 8:56am
I've read several Jennifer Weiner novels, actually. I think you'll find many black readers read lots of white authors.
Comment by Judith van Praag on June 30, 2010 at 10:26am
Kamy,
Thanks for your post and all the connective links that illuminate the argument.
I was listening and trying to respond, but I had technical problems (more about that below).

As a multicultural reader I wasn't aware of the segregation in bookstores. I've never even noticed that books are shelved by ethnicity, but that may say more about how I receive books (for review) and where I shop: online and in used book section. Most if not all of the new books I buy are after author presentations at the library or at Elliott Bay Book Company (plug).

The discussion made me consider my own bookshelves. Years ago, when I deliberately started reading more by women writers, I initially segregated their books from those by male writers. Reason? Easy to find and also a sense of pride: the shelves equal to a place in history I could aspire to.

As a European artist I never accepted the idea that there was a difference in possibilities for men and women, I refused to be "a woman artist", I was an artist period. This notion made me give up the segregation on my bookshelves as well.

On my shelves there never was and is no segregation by ethnicity. But I realize that's personal. I'm biased by a multicultural interest. In Europe I worked as an artist/ designer for multicultural theater, and in the U.S. as arts reporter for publications that serve multicultural community. This gives me the (mistaken) idea that everybody has similar interest and access. I am informed by my interest and curiosity.

Readers are not just informed by statistics or the display in bookstores. Our librarians play a major role in what their patrons see when they enter the library. I realize that in our Seattle Public Libraries eye-catchers are directed at the ethnicity of a neighborhood. Thus South Seattle is known for the largest collection of Spanish literature, Beacon Hill and the International District have an amazing collection of Asian and Asian American lit and librarians at Rainier Beach the neighborhood with the highest ethnic diversity (59 languages) and close to a third of the population African American puts books and movies by African American authors in the foreground. Every time a white reader walks into the library s/he sees the works by authors and filmmakers of color. Nancy Pearl warns that library programs such as "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book" is not an exercise in civics, and not to expect too much, but still, to get all of a city to read work by writers of color is a start.

What is your library doing for writers of color?

PS Household problem: Computer connection and phone connection BlogTalkRadio didn't stream in sync, reacting through Skype called for (extra for I have Skype account) sign-up and I finally opted for just listening.
Advice to myself: read the "Listener Tips" on SW's BlogTalkRadio page before listening or just dial the phone number and push #1 when you want to have your say.
Comment by Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant on June 30, 2010 at 10:03am
I have read Good in Bed, In Her Shoes and The Guy Not Taken. Have also read Helen Fielding, Candace Bushnell, Sophie Kinsella, Melissa A. Bank among many others...
Comment by Kamy Wicoff on June 30, 2010 at 9:39am
And I haven't read any of her books! So what does that tell us? Not much.
Comment by Ernessa T. Carter on June 30, 2010 at 9:11am
I read every single one of her books up to GOODNIGHT, NOBODY.

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