I can’t breathe.
I am a Black feminist writer committed to social justice. I write stories about Black children and teens, but within the children’s literature community I have struggled to find a home or what poet June Jordan calls “living room.” In “Moving Towards Home,” Jordan describes a place “where the talk will take place in my language…where my children will grow without horror…where I can sit without grief.” If “home” represents sanctuary—a safe space where one can speak in one’s authentic voice, feel valued, and able to thrive—then the children’s literature community is not my home. I am—and likely will remain—an outsider.
By industry standards, I suppose I am a failed author. Since I started writing for young readers in 2000, only three of my thirty stories have been published traditionally. I turned to self-publishing as my only recourse, and now face the contempt of those who see self-publishing as a mere exercise in vanity.
Self-publishing or selF-segregation?
Last year a white Facebook “friend” suggested that my decision to self-publish was analogous to Blacks in the civil rights era choosing to dine in their segregated neighborhood instead of integrating Jim Crow lunch counters in the South. In her mind, self-publishing is a cowardly form of surrender; to be truly noble (and, therefore, deserving of publication) I ought to patiently insist upon my right to sit alongside white authors regardless of the hostility, rejection, and disdain I regularly encounter.
Since 2009 I have used my scholarly training to examine white supremacy in the children’s literature community where African Americans remain marginalized, despite the 2014 increase in books about Africans/African Americans. This sudden spike (reflected in the latest statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) was not paired with a comparable increase in the number of books by Blacks, however, suggesting that power remains where it has always been: in the hands of whites.
Publishers Weekly’s 2014 salary survey revealed that only 1 percent of industry professionals self-identify as African American (89 percent self-identify as white). That the homogeneity of the publishing workforce matches the homogeneity of published authors and their books is no coincidence. The marginalization of writers of color is the result of very deliberate decisions made by gatekeepers within the children’s literature community—editors, agents, librarians, and reviewers. These decisions place insurmountable barriers in the path of far too many talented writers of color.
I know better than to turn to the publishing industry when I seek justice for “my children:” Trayvon, Renisha, Jordan, Islan, Ramarley, Aiyana, and Tamir. I know not to hope that industry gatekeepers will rush to publish books for the children of Eric Garner as they struggle to make sense of the murder of their father at the hands of the New York Police Department. But I also know that children’s literature can help to counter the racially biased thinking that insists Michael Brown was “no angel” but rather “a demon” to be feared and destroyed. I believe there’s a direct link between the misrepresentation of Black youth as inherently criminal and the justification given by those who so brazenly take their lives.
The publishing industry can’t solve this problem single-handedly, but the erasure of Black youth from children’s literature nonetheless functions as a kind of “symbolic annihilation.” Despite the fact that the majority of primary school children in the U.S. are now kids of color, the publishing industry continues to produce books that overwhelmingly feature white children only. The message is clear: the lives of kids of color don’t matter.
Gaping holes in “mainstream appeal”
A friend who is a librarian in Oakland, CA, recently encountered a young patron requesting a book on Michael Brown, and she had to explain that the traditional publishing process will likely take years to produce such a book. Police brutality is an issue of great importance to the Black community—the poet Jordan has called it one of our “urgencies”—yet the publishing industry has failed to produce children’s books that reflect and/or explain this reality. According to Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton, self-published books “aren’t filling any kind of need that isn’t already being met by established publishers,” as he wrote in a blog post entitled “An open letter to the self-published author feeling dissed.” Sutton finds it “difficult to otherwise think of subjects that scare the mainstream off.”
Really? How many children’s books do we have about police brutality—mass incarceration—lynching—HIV/AIDS? Homelessness and suicide among queer youth of color? How many books show Black children using magic and/or technology to shape an alternative universe?
These are the kinds of stories that I write and am forced to self-publish, because they are rejected over and over by (mostly white) editors whose “most important job,” according to Sutton, “is to understand what contribution your story makes—or doesn’t—to the big world of books and readers.” Longtime editor and children’s literature scholar Laura Atkins counters that mainstream publishers seem to worry about “publishing only those books which they think will be palatable to the ‘mainstream.’ This results in books that tend to target a white middle-class audience.” Many members of the children’s literature community clamor for greater diversity but remain silent when another Black teenager is shot down. They cling to the fantasy that white supremacy has shaped every U.S. institution except the publishing industry. Like racism in police forces across this nation, racism in publishing is cultural and systemic; the problem cannot be solved merely by hiring a few (more) people of color.
The assimilation problem
In her essay, “How to Uphold White Supremacy by Focusing on Diversity and Inclusion,” published on the site Model View Culture, Kẏra condemns the liberal impulse to position “marginalized groups as naturally needing to assimilate into dominant ones, rather than to undermine said structures of domination.” It frustrates me that most people seem comfortable with the reform of the existing system rather than its transformation. The idea of trying something new seems positively terrifying, and those of us proposing viable alternatives are generally shut out of the diversity discussion. At the recent Day of Diversity held during the American Library Association’s Midwinter Convention in Chicago, I once again heard calls for best-selling books that will prove to the corporate publishing industry that there is demand for diversity. Yet Kẏra rightly observes, “When we work for justice and liberation, we can’t accept progress that is conditional on being economically beneficial.”
As a writer who prioritizes social justice over popularity and/or profit, I find “living room” in alternatives to the existing system. Since 2013 I have self-published 10 books for young readers. You likely won’t have heard of any of them, since indie books are excluded from review by the major outlets—which leaves just a few open–minded bloggers, and without reviews, most public libraries won’t add a book to their collection (many don’t consider self-published books at all).
I self-publish for transparency
One reason I self-publish is to provide a degree of transparency that is largely missing from the traditional publishing process, and to refute the claim that the low number of books by people of color is a question of “merit.” Atkins, who has written about white privilege in publishing, observes, “It isn’t clear how books are selected, or how they are developed or marketed. So we don’t really see why books are rejected.”
Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander self-published his first thirteen books and acknowledges that there’s a “long history” of self-publishing in the Black community. Following in the tradition of independent publishers such as Just Us Books, founded by Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson in 1987, Alexander started his own press in 1995 and assumed responsibility for writing, promoting, and selling his own books. But I suspect most fledgling writers simply give up after hitting the publishing industry’s seemingly impenetrable wall.
As an indie author, I have the freedom to write about the things that matter most to the members of my community rather than waiting for approval from a gatekeeper who lacks the cultural competence needed to truly appreciate my work. Like the books generated by Reflection Press or Blood Orange Press, focusing on diverse authors and readers, my Rosetta Press imprint produces stories that are culturally specific and organic—not forced through a white filter in order to be labeled “universal.” Diverse books can foster cross-cultural understanding at an early age. At a moment when 75 percent of whites have no friends of color and public schools are rapidly “resegregating,” the need for diverse children’s literature is greater than ever.
I am partnering with other artist-activists to develop a model of community-based publishing that uses print-on-demand technology to transfer power from the industry’s (mostly white) gatekeepers to those excluded from the publishing process. Currently, as writer-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, I am teaching free writing classes for children and adults and am developing a picture book about the free, 19th-century African American community, which the center will publish independently. I hold “office hours” and have set up a blog so that community members can “ask an author” any questions they may have about writing and publishing.
Instead of investing in a costly (and often antagonistic) MFA in writing, I encourage aspiring book creators to first take Maya Gonzalez‘s online course “The Heart of It,” which puts “the power of children’s books in the hands of the people and the community, in part by demystifying both traditional and self-publishing routes,” she says. An award-winning author of more than twenty books for children, Gonzalez is driven by a desire to restore voice to those who have been silenced: “Through the reclamation of storytelling we can hear and learn from each others’ experience. We can know each other again…perhaps for the first time. We can tell the stories we know we need to hear. And we can heal.”
Libraries producing stories
I am hopeful that more public libraries will embrace a community-based publishing model and assist diverse patrons as they learn how to tell their stories, becoming producers and not just consumers of books. Public libraries have served as a sanctuary for me since I was a child, and I had a library card in this country long before I had a green card. The Brooklyn Public Library sends me into dozens of schools every year, enabling hundreds of kids of color to meet an author who lives in and writes about the magic to be found in their community. Most of my thirteen books for young readers aren’t part of the library’s collection, but perhaps that will change over time. I am hopeful that in the future the bias against self-published books will diminish as gatekeepers realize that it is unfair to punish writers of color for failing at a game that’s rigged. Until then, I will continue to self-publish, and I will offer my “organic” writing to the members of my community. I will find a home where my creativity can flourish. I will insist upon my right to breathe.
Zetta Elliott is an educator and author of thirteen books for young readers, including the award-winning picture book BIRD. She is currently writer-in-residence at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, NY.