Browse through your bookshelves or think about the books you’ve read this year.
Reflect: How many books are by people of color? By Black writers? Are all those books only focused on trauma or pain? Are all the books you read for fun or pleasure all by white writers?
Ensure that your anti-racism reading translates off the page. After you read a book, ask yourself: what actions or steps are you taking in response?
Divest from Amazon. Buy from Black-owned bookstores.
Until recently, I worked for a public library. Part of my department’s job was recommending books to patrons who wanted suggestions of what to read next. Unfortunately, our staff often only recommended books by writers of color if the patron asked for it specifically— if they asked for books about racism or for Black History Month or about “the immigrant experience.”
But people didn’t ask those questions very often. They asked for thrillers. For books like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. For a book with a good love story. And in those cases, our staff would often suggest white author after white author.
My experience at the library is mirrored in our reading habits across the nation. In the wake of George Floyd, people talked a lot about how anti-racist reading was on the rise, and pointed to the number of Black authors on the bestsellers’ lists (NYTimes). But with one or two notable exceptions, those authors were writing nonfiction explicitly about racism. Meanwhile, the lists were full of white writers writing about everything (Publisher’s Weekly).
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to read Black authors or authors of color only when they write about very specific topics—and it’s a problem deeply entrenched in publishing. “In the industry, stories about police brutality, the struggle, poverty, etc. have been dubbed “issue” books, and it’s a not-so-secret secret that if your book doesn’t fall into this category, it won’t get any real push or marketing,” says L.L. McKinney, author of the fantasy series The Nightmare-Verse (Tor.com). The industry, she explains, focuses predominantly on Black pain.
The results of such pigeonholing are far-reaching. Often, these are the only books about Black people assigned in school— an example of how curriculum can unintentionally result in racial trauma (Teaching Tolerance). Meanwhile, McKinney argues that “there’s the exploitative aspect of non-Black readers taking in this story and somehow feeling they’ve accomplished something. They’ve managed activism by bearing witness to the events of the book, but then don’t follow up with seeking change in the real world. Reading then becomes performative” (Tor.com).
This happens against the backdrop of a publishing industry with a huge diversity problem across the board. Editors are 85% white, sales representatives are 81% white, agents are 80% white, book reviewers are 80% white (Lee & Low). (Interns, however, are only 51% white, a statistic that comforts me not at all.) The viral Twitter campaign #publishingpaidme (started by McKinney and YA author Tochi Onyebuchi) exposed the enormous pay discrepancies between Black writers and non-Black writers (Buzzfeed News). Black writers like N.K. Jemisin, whose amazing Broken Earth trilogy won basically every fantasy and sci-fi award, was paid an $25,000 advance for her book; Roxane Gay got a $15,000 advance for Bad Feminist (NPR). Meanwhile, white authors with less experience in the same genre were pulling in six-figure advances.
So it’s not that reading books about “issues” is problematic. It’s problematic when those are the only books by Black authors (or authors of color) you read. It’s problematic when you turn to writers of color when you want to be educated, but white writers the rest of the time. Instead, we should also be reaching for authors of color when we want a lighthearted, fluffy book. When we want to read something to decompress from our months of election anxiety. When we want to travel to a different world. We shouldn’t have our “race/racism bookshelf”, crammed with writers of color, and have every other shelf filled with white writers.
It can be hard to know where to start—especially when major publications and newspapers don’t make much space for these kinds of books. Luckily, the Internet is chock-full of so many reviewers and book bloggers of color who have collected so many resources for all sorts of genres. Lists like 8 Great Books Celebrating Black Joy by Enobong Essien, 5 Indigenous Speculative Fiction Authors You Should Be Reading by Rebecca Roanhorse, and The Asian Detective Novel: From Racist Caricature to Authentic Representation by Pooja Makhijani show that there’s no excuse for ignorance. (For parents [and other people who love reading YA or kidlit] check out the organization We Need Diverse Books and their wonderful Instagram.)
And when you choose to buy, purchase from Black-owned, Indigenous-owned, or other POC-owned bookstores, many of which have been hit hard by COVID. Most importantly: don’t buy from Amazon. I know, I know—I too have been seduced by their low, low prices, especially when compared to an indie bookstore. But I’m trying to remember that the $5 or $6 dollars I save buying at Amazon is possible because of their exploitative, unethical practices (which we covered in a previous newsletter). The company can offer cheaper books because “they are cutting other costs: taxes, publisher payments, author payments, and safe-labor practices” (Social Justice Books). (For more on Amazon pricing and problems, check out The Nation.)
We need to imagine a different future. Books can point us there—but only if what we’re reading also helps us imagine and understand a world full of the fullness of Black lives, of the joy in Indigenous community, in the mundane and the silly and the vastness of experience of people of color. It’s important to educate ourselves about the painful reality of racism, but we can’t stop at trauma. Instead, we need to incorporate books by writers of color into all of our reading, and ensure that what we read translates into our actions.
he publishing industry promotes books about Black pain and trauma more than books by Black writers in other topics or in other genres, like fantasy and romance (Tor.com).
It’s important for us to read books by Black writers and writers of color not only when we want to read about racism or want to be educated, but also for leisure—mysteries, romance, thrillers, literary fiction, etc.
The publishing industry is predominantly white. Editors are 85% white, sales representatives are 81% white, agents are 80% white, and book reviewers are 80% white (Lee & Low).