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
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
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.