The Publishing Post
Has ‘Racism 2020’ Made Black History Month Redundant?
Traditionally, Black History Month is the only time that Black lives are spoken about and celebrated. But with the huge number of events that have occurred during 2020, both positive and unjust, Black lives have been shouted about more, and more attention has been brought to the injustices many people struggle with on a daily basis. More than anything, 2020 has held up a mirror to the true realities of life as Black people across the world. The injustices in the USA with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd; and the subsequent outburst of worldwide protests has reflected the pain and heartbreak suffered by Black communities during this tumultuous year.
The Black Lives Matter protests and campaigns sparked a sense of commitment from non-Black communities who were reading about Black lives and struggles. However, there have been questions of performative activism on social media, with quite surface acts of support being shown through Blackout Tuesday. Instead of sharing and spreading vital information about the BLM movement, these types of posts found themselves buried under an avalanche of mute black squares. It is obvious that these acts of online support are simply not enough. Educating yourself on Black History, Black Struggles and the Black Lives Matter Movement is a step in the right direction to becoming an ally.
From all-black reading lists to and publishers’ surging interest in sourcing new Black authors, both the general public and the industry have been scrambling to educate themselves, and others, on Black communities. However, the sudden interest in Black titles has underpinned a tendency to intellectualise, philosophise, and effectively overcomplicate the readily apparent truth of structural anti-Blackness. What hides behind that ultimately evasive tendency is an avoidance of making the perhaps less grandiose, but effective, small changes that bring about a tangible impact, a point made by Otegha Uwagba in her recent Cheltenham Literature Festival talk. While many have focused on how it manifests in social media and clear-cut examples like #BlackoutTuesday, performative activism is a resilient beast that adapts to changing circumstances and does the most to prevent a meaningful giving up of privilege. Resisting is looking beyond momentary trends and tags to appreciate the full scope and persistent barrage of anti-Blackness, much in the same way that Black people do not have the luxury to turn it on and off.
Answering the question: ‘Has 2020 made Black History Month Redundant?’ is a double-edged sword. The events of 2020 have drawn attention to the injustices faced in Black communities, but it is important to note that Black lives are not ‘topical’ or ‘trending’. The stories we read are about the harsh realities people have to go through every day. If anything, 2020 has brought more awareness to what it truly means to be Black in a contemporary society. This should be spoken about more than once a year during Black History Month, which also celebrates the achievements in Black communities.
The timing of this year’s Black History Month has brought an often-forgotten truth to the forefront by reminding us of the kind of world that we should be striving towards, one where Black life matters every single day of the year. It was Frantz Fanon, a greatly influential Algerian psychologist-slash-race critic famous for works like Black Skin, White Masks, who once described the négritude (French-speaking answer to the Black power movement) as a means to an end. If we apply this logic, we might think of Black History Month as a transitional event that will one day become obsolete when Black history becomes human history. Fingers crossed for the last Black History Month ever.
Janine Cummins’ American Dirt was criticised for using harmful stereotypes, notably in Myriam Gurba’s essay, sparking conversations about how the industry undervalues #ownvoices authors in favour of giving 7-figure advances to sensationalising ‘trauma porn’.
Barnes & Noble’s ‘Diverse Editions
Barnes & Noble partnered with Penguin Random House to release 12 classic novels with ‘diverse’ covers for Black History Month, but was slated by critics online and ultimately cancelled.
BLACK LIVES MATTER:
Ahmaud Arbery – 23 February
Breonna Taylor – 13 March
George Floyd – 25 May
The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier this year sparked worldwide protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movements; outrage at police brutality; and essential conversations around institutional racism. Art By Ariel Sinhaha.
My Dark Vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa is a novel about a woman re-evaluating her relationship with a teacher as a teenager. Wendy Ortiz’ tweet and essay highlighted the industry’s double-standards: exploring her own experience with abuse, her memoir – Excavation, was rejected by publishers whilst Russell’s was celebrated.
Blackout Tuesday was a day of online act of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Protests, where people posted black squares online. However, it was criticised for overshadowing important information shared by protesters under the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and for encouraging ‘performative activism’.
Publishing Paid Me
Started by fantasy author L. L. McKinney, #PublishingPaidMe highlighted racial inequalities in author advances. An online spreadsheet collated over 3000 responses from authors worldwide. High profile authors such as Roxanne Gay and N. K. Jesimin joined the conversation, highlighting the issue’s complexities.
Edward Colston’s Statue
Nationwide UK Black Lives Matter protests were attended by thousands. In Bristol, protesters pulled down Edward Colston’s statue and pushed it into a nearby harbour. A statue of Jen Reid was erected in its place but torn down by authorities a mere 24 hours later.
Amistad Press started this campaign, to demonstrate the vibrant interest by black book communities in Black literature. The campaign aimed to clout the publishing industry from June 14 to June 20, where everyone would purchase two books by black authors. Read more here.
She was the first black British author to top the UK official book charts. She called it a ‘horrible indictment of the publishing industry” to be the first black author to win in the tragic circumstances.
Black Writers’ Guild
More than 200 published black authors formed the Black Writers’ Guild. Together they sent an open letter to all major publishing houses, calling for the publishers to address their own racial inequalities. Full letter here.
Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing Report
This is the first in depth academic report that looked into the difficulties writers of colours face in the publishing industry in every stage of the process. Despite the push for more diversity the report found that the quality of the treatment of writers of colour is lacking. Read the report here.
British Book Awards
First Black authors to win British Book awards, Candice Carty-Williams won Book of the Year and Bernadine Evarsito won Fiction Book of the Year and Author of the Year.
Penguin Accelerated InclusivIty action plan
Penguin Random House UK’s response to self examination of diversity issues. They plan to perform their mission of making books for everyone by everyone. Their statement can be found here.
Hachette Ethnically Pay Gap
Hachette UK have released the report for the second year in a row. There was an increase in BAME employees however the ethnicity pay gap has also increased for the whole group. Report can be found here.
Booker Prize Shortlist
This was the most diverse shortlist from the Booker Prize in history; four out of six authors were writers of colour, and four were debut novelist.