Representation Matters: Black Joy Is an Act of Resistance

The viral hashtag #PublishingPaidMe has revealed the glaring disparities in author advances. It's not enough to publish books created by authors of color; change needs to happen on all levels. 

The Black experience does not begin and end with anguish, violence, and pain. However, mainstream media has yet to fully provide a multifaceted overview of Blackness. The privilege of representation isn’t limited to who gets to be on-screen or who has the opportunity and means to sell their novels; it extends to gatekeepers, the people who control the narrative. Like Hollywood, the publishing industry perpetuates systemic inequity.

The collective representation of Black people in the industry is abysmal, as evidenced by multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low’s baseline survey. According to the survey, which was released in 2019, only five percent of authors are Black; four percent are literary agents; one percent comprise editorial; and less than 5 percent account for the respective areas of marketing and publicity, sales, and reviewers. This dire lack of representation is deeply indicative of a whitewashed industry that, fundamentally, prioritizes whiteness over diversity and equity. No matter how many times publishers publicly pledge to “do better,” the numbers showcase their repeated failure to deliver. It is not enough to have books that feature Black characters or marginalized communities; diversity becomes tokenism when representation only serves as an exception to the dominant norm.

Gatekeepers directly impact the types of stories that are published, the people who create them, and the narratives consumed by readers. The recent #PublishingPaidMe hashtag on Twitter clearly illustrates how certain stories are valued over others. The hashtag exposed the astounding difference in advances between white authors and nonwhite authors, especially Black authors. Three-time Hugo Award-winner N.K. Jemisin noted, “A lot of people are treating advances like the earnings for a book, and... no. Basically advances indicate what the publishing industry *thinks* readers will like in the future.”

The publishing industry, at the end of the day, is a business. It is an active part of our capitalistic society, wherein the value of an individual or a group of people is measured by the return on investment. And according to the industry’s business model, Black authors and Black lives are not as profitable as books written by white people. I can’t help but recall the saying that Black children learn at an early age: Twice as good to get half as much. Two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward, who participated in the discussion, revealed, “Even after Salvage the Bones won the NBA, my publishing company did not want to give me 100k for my next novel. My agent and I fought and fought before we wrestled our way to that number.”

In terms of projected audience appeal, white writers seem to be afforded the benefit of the doubt. Mandy Len Catron, the author of How To Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, revealed that her 2018 debut collection garnered a higher advance than the highest advance of best-selling writer Roxane Gay. Len Catron tweeted, "I, a totally unknown white woman with one viral article, got an advance that was more than double what @rgay got for her highest advance." Len Catron was paid $40,000 for her debut; Gay was paid "$12,500 for An Untamed State, $15,000 for Bad Feminist, $100k for Hunger, [and] $150k for [the forthcoming] Year I Learned Everything." Len Catron also revealed, "In the end, the book did not sell all that well. Even though I am super proud of it, it is laughably far from earning out that advance. My publishers took a risk on me: a white, straight, able, cis woman writing about love. Would they have taken that risk on a different writer?"

Such disparities show that whiteness is believed to be the default, and people of color are the “Other.” Publicist Kima Jones, who founded the Los Angeles-based Jack Jones Literary Arts in 2015 and whose company has worked on campaigns for writers such as Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, and Lilliam Rivera, said in an NPR Code Switch interview, “Racism says that black writers and writers of color can't write the 'great American novel.' This conversation is decades old; people need to see that black literature is not anthropology. This is art making. And to say it's anything other than that is lessening the integrity of the art."

Racism within the publishing industry is not only threatened by diversity. As an institution, it turns the concept of diversity into a bare minimum quota. In the case of young adult author Jay Coles, facets of the Black experience are viewed as “trends” with a limited shelf life. When his debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here was released, Coles was told that the “trend” of discussing police brutality was “over.”

Read: Little House, Big Problem: What To Do with “Classic” Books That Are Also Racist

Too often, “diversity” in publishing means having a small handful of Black or non-Black people of color on the client roster, who inadvertently become singular representatives of an entire community. One critically acclaimed book suddenly becomes the sole depiction of a “Black issue.” The danger of a single story lies in its ability to strangle the imagination. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author of Americanah, said in a 2009 TEDTalk, “I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.” There is undeniable power in not only being seen, but having a voice. When the representation of Black people is limited to suffering and death, the expression of joy is a radical act.

As a Black and Asian woman who has worked in media and publishing, I too often witness people in positions of power who believe books and literary works about the Black experience are only interesting or worthwhile when it involves the brutalities of racism and oppression. The death of George Floyd has forced white people to deal with an undeniable fact that Black people have always known: Racism kills. It is a beast with many faces; it doesn't always take on the form of burning crosses or angry white men in Dockers and polo shirts brandishing tiki torches in Charlottesville. Sometimes it looks like the Amy Coopers of the world; sometimes it looks like an established Black author attempting to sell their novel and discovering that they were grossly underpaid.  

The election of Barack Obama did not suddenly erase years of injustice, years of oppression, and the consequences of a rigged system intended to keep Black people disenfranchised. Antiracism books are flying off the shelves and while that is a promising step, one has to wonder if the people who really need to read these works will not only sit in their discomfort in order to grow but practice the necessary steps to dismantle racism.

It’s easy for white people and non-Black POC to say, “I stand with you.” It’s easy to post a black square on Instagram or retweet a link. It’s easy to engage in performative activism to make yourself feel good. What’s harder is actually unlearning implicit biases, listening without adopting a defensive stance or tone policing, and realizing that no one is going to save you from yourself. We do not need white guilt masked as sympathy; we need lasting, meaningful, structural change.

Yet Blackness is not defined by human bondage. It is a rich, nuanced, complex, frustrating, beautiful journey that showcases just as many moments of darkness as it does light. Literature can be a revolutionary force. Books for young people that highlight the struggle for equality are important, but so are works that show joy, works that do not fetishize trauma, or view Blackness as an anthropological study.

In the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Living in a society that nurtures and fiercely protects the legacy of white supremacy and systemic inequality means that Black joy is a radical act of defiance, a refusal to accept the narratives filtered through the white gaze. In order to see these types of narratives, the publishing industry must step up and offer solutions that go above and beyond basic diversity training workshops or issuing polished public statements that contain initiatives that are not put into motion. When the rot is in the soil, a radical change must occur.

Looking for books that feature Black joy? These 37 picture books offer a starting point.

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