The annual celebration of Black History Month is the perfect time to dive deeper into Black culture and history through Black literature. Reading Black literature is one of the best ways to explore cultural narratives that will allow readers to understand Black history and the Black experience, but it can often seem difficult to access. The diversity gap in publishing reflects the industry’s historic gatekeeping and promotion of heteronormative narratives and perpetuated whiteness, and prevents readers from placing value in Black literature.
As Mychal Denzel Smith writes in Harper’s magazine, “The white audience does not seek out Black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview; instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance.” Black writers and their stories and literature are essential to the greater understanding of Black struggles, accomplishments, joy, and heartache. These specific dialogues live beyond archetypes of Blackness and should come from the Black imagination.
The Big Five publishers: Penguin, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan, and Simon and Schuster, sometimes face criticism about their lack of diversity, or promotions of BIPOC and queer literature. Africana and Black studies sections exist in bookstores and libraries, but they are often small and very specific, similar to other BIPOC literature sections. Major and popular BIPOC authors still struggle to obtain success similar to their white counterparts—Octavia Butler, for example, published her first book in 1976 but didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller List until 2021, nearly 15 years after her death.
The lack of Black author representation stems from a lack of marketing and an inconsistent promotion of Black authorship. Social movements like #PublishingPaidMe highlights the publishing industry’s historic biases in promoting Black authors and literature. A Lee & Low survey also reports that marketing departments in publishing are on average 77 percent white, 84 percent cis-women, 87 percent heterosexual, and 94 percent able bodied/without a disability. The lack of diversity and inclusion ultimately shapes the success of some books.
Getting more Black authors published
Due to issues found within the industry, Black writers are usually forced to publish through other methods. There has been an increase in book blogs, literary personalities, and independent book promotions. Librarians, public libraries, and educators have also been more supportive of diverse titles in comparison to the trade market and other traditional routes of marketing and promoting BIPOC literature.
What truly assists with the promotion, and representation, of Black authorship is a greater number of Black Indie publishers and Black-owned bookstores. Over half of the books in the US are published through indie publishers and they are a great resource for BIPOC authors. Black-owned publishing companies are hard at work to increase the visibility of Black authors. With virtual programs and individual social media platforms, Black literature is being circulated all over the world around the clock.
Hannah Erhlich, director of marketing and publicity and Lee & Low Books, says that “when you’re marketing diverse books, it’s important to build connections with influencers within communities that the book is about who will become the evangelists.” This has been seen online, where social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have provided a space for authors and independently owned publishing companies to fruitfully circulate and promote Black Literature. Last June 12- June 20th, Amistad Press launched a hashtag campaign— #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower— in an effort to draw more attention to Black authors. Despite all of the biases faced, Black literature is in high demand.
Exploring with Black literature
Each year, Black History Month ignites many reader’s interests in Black culture and history, but Black History Month should not be the only time of the year a reader explores Black literature, as it is available each day of the year.
Black achievement, joy, and creativity can be explored with Black literature. Black characters and representations of various intersections also contribute to the Black experience, and are celebrated throughout the wealth of literature in the world. Womanist theory, Black feminism, eugenics, self-help books, Black Buddhism, and Afro-Hispanic literature are just a few of the topics written about by Black writers— there’s a book out there for any reader’s interest. Black Literature is a fulcrum, providing a stable base for well-rounded balances of information about the Black experience, struggles, identities, and cultures.
The brilliance and the intellectual range of many Black authors is immeasurable. Without Black authors, canons of literature and book collections around the world would lack some of the most vibrant narratives in existence. Join BookClub in reading Black authors this month as well as every month, and share your favorite Black authors with us on social media at @bookclub.com.