So, what DO y’all want?

Some days I feel like the old school griot of The Brown Bookshelf whose only job is to remind folks of the origins. You know? I’m here to remind folks where we started and compare it to where we’ve come. So, in that spirit, I got to thinking that maybe behind-the-scenes publishing is saying of writers of color – look, so what do y’all want anyway?

The question is frustrating at best and insincere at worst because representation is the answer. Always has been the answer. And there are no tricks tied to representation. If I tell you that I want to attend your party, I don’t mean – can I send my neighbor to attend for me? Writers of color want to attend the party AND…now pay close attention, because there is an AND. AND we want to be asked to dance.

Verna Myers, an Inclusion Activist (because we’ve reached a time where such a thing must exist) says that “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.” So yes, we want to be invited and we want to dance.

The longer people of color are not partying with everyone else, the more that’s required of representation in literature. In 2007, when we launched BBS, our goal was to highlight our voices in kidlit. We wanted to make sure that the few of us at the party were actually getting to hold the mic now and then to showcase our books. Our hope, was that when readers and gatekeepers realized we were out there, that it would increase our numbers.

Ten years later, that’s barely the case. Worse, ten years later, there’s a new bugaboo – more people wanting to tell our stories and publishing thinking it’s okay. Because, apparently, as long as the story is told through the lens of a Black character well then *dusts off hands* our jobs are done here.

According to Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in 2007, of the 3,000 books they received only 77 were by African Americans while 150 were about us. Ten years later – of 3,400 books received by CCBC- 94 were by African Americans while 287 were about us. Do you see the problem here?

Just barely half of the books about us were written by us (51%) in 2007. And ten years later, though there was a 48% increase in books showcasing African Americans, only 33% were written by us. More books about us, but even less by us. That means the bouncer is stopping us at the club door, in droves, while everybody else is inside partying to OUR stories.

That’s why the question of what we want is insincere. Playing dumb only wastes our time. But, if plain English is in order – We want to tell our stories. All of them. Urban. Rural. Suburban. Historical. Contemporary. Fantastical.

Sorry, but no we don’t want anyone else telling our stories, because they’re OURS. Because we live as Black people everyday. So yeah, we know what it’s like. Why on earth would anyone tell that story? How could they?

And anyone asking – Well why can’t I… – go back to the beginning of the blog post and start over. Read it until you understand why.

We’re having a hard enough time showing African American children in a broad scope of stories. It’s insulting to constantly explain that we want our kids to hear what few stories exist, to come from their mommas, poppas, aunties and uncles.

Spare me any confusion or anger because I want my story told by someone who is familiar with the source material. Ten years ago, I was more willing to engage a discussion about that. So, you’d have to get in your time machine to elicit my empathy.

Meanwhile, I ask you this – how crazy would it sound to you if I went into a party, danced with your shoes on and then came back out and was like- Whew, that was a hell of a party. You should have been there.

NOTE: The representation stats for Native Americans is abysmal, with only 55 total books represented in 2016. While Asian Americans and Latinos aren’t winning this battle, by any means, I want to note that statistics show they’re experiencing slightly more success on being able to represent themselves. In 2016, 90% of books received by CCBC about Asians were written by Asians and 61% for Latinos. Tiny, barely there victory.

13 thoughts on “So, what DO y’all want?

  1. This is very frustrating. It has become slightly easier ( than it was in 2013), to find books by authors of various ethnic backgrounds, but there is certainly room for growth. I’m happy to see Salaam Reads coming out with more titles, and Rick Riordan Presents publishing #ownvoices fantasies, but I need a lot more realistic fiction with black tweens so that my students can see themselves in literature. Thanks for all the work you’ve done over the last 10 years to publicize authors and books.

  2. Yesterday I published a review of Patricia Hruby Powell’s “documentary novel” on Mildred Loving. The review shows how bad things can go when a White writer turns a real person into a character and makes up thoughts and dialogue for that person.

    Same sort of problems occurred in STONE MIRRORS by Atkins. My notes are here; a “not recommended” review is forthcoming.

  3. It’s a few challenges that have to be met: the books being acquired by publishers, existing books getting the promotion they need, assisting gatekeepers with book talking them to both the primary audience and others who may find the book’s topic interesting. I feel like the tools are in place for the latter two. As long as publishers continue to pursue the stories by authors of color, I think we have the other two challenges covered by BBS and other campaigns.

  4. I listened to a podcast today where the host was describing the need for Africa American speculative fiction by referring to those in the middle of the period of enslavement who hadn’t seen people like them who had be free and weren’t close enough to the end of it to imagine what it could be like. We cannot imagine what it can be like! Even with all we’ve come through, even with all the individual and collect successes we’ve had, we still cannot imagine what it could be like. I still do a lot of work centered on representation/diversity but I know that counting the numbers of books, addressing bigotry and injustice in single titles are baby steps. My mantra has become decolonization, not diversity. We don’t want token IPOC in books that are published, edited and written by Whites. We don’t need to be a token at the table. Yes, it’s good to see high quality fiction appearing by Indigenous writers and those of color and we can cite all the pockets that have no representation, but let’s not just look in pockets: lets look in the suit coats and high heels. Let’s look where money is spent and decisions are made. I don’t know that I can influence getting more LGBT+ people on board as editors, publicists, managers… or people with disabilities or IPOC in those positions but I know it’s about more than the books.

    I hope to spend 2017 promoting marginalized authors and their works. I’m sure there will be some calling out of stuff that is just wrong, but that’s not where I like spending my energy. That’s stuff good editors should be tending to before books are released.

    Paula, is BBS rolling out anything new in 2018?

    1. Edi, we’re batting around some ideas. I think we’ve found that the best way to manage on our end beyond the 28 Days Later campaign are participating in panels and other workshops where we can shine the light on these issues. Not sure we’ve ever attempted to tackle the suits and heels angles, but it’s a valid one for sure!

  5. Hello! I have recently written a book entitled Jamal and Me, which is being sold on Amazon. I am an African-American children’s book author, and my book’s protagonist is African-American as well. I would love to know how to access your organization to get my book more visibility. I am also intrigued by the opportunity to network with more authors. Any suggestions or thoughts you have would be very much appreciated!

    1. Hi Carol. Thanks for visiting the website. The best way to networking and getting your books exposure is simply networking within as many different outlets as possible. The Brown Bookshelf is connected to a variety of other sites who believe in diverse books and own voices. So visit those on our blog roll and others you see following us on Twitter. It will go a long way to introduce you to like minded authors and book advocates.

  6. I would like to help spread the word and get BBS out to the masses. I know a few authors of color who are not featured on this site, but would make GREAT additions to this amazing website. As a mother, I am constantly looking for ways to promote the truth of our culture to my children. I wish I had known of this site earlier(for my 17 yr old twin daughters), but I’m appreciative that I know of it (for my 7 yr old son) now.

  7. A very important conversation. We have to take advantage of everything mainstream publishers do to support our work, but expecting them to increase the number of books written by Black people, because we ask to to do so, is naive given their history.

    The fact of the matter is there were far more than 94 books for children that were written by Black people. The books the Cooperative Children’s Book Center received does not reflect the all the books (do they provide a list?). Our problem is that we do very little to identify the best all the book publlished and promote them.

    We have just started a movement which uses the hashtag #readingblack. #ReadingBlack encourages readers of all colors to read books written by Black writers and to buy those books from Black booksellers.

    For anyone interested in joining the movement there is a platform where we are sharing ideas and strategies to publish the books we find to be important and to ensure readers are made aware of them.

    Again expecting mainstream publishers to carry this burden by themselves has never happened. We must assume carry some, indeed most, of the load ourselves.

  8. Thanks for this post! As a white female librarian, I come to this blog to get information about what books written by people of color that I’m not hearing about are out there. Keep doing what you’re doing. Part of my job is trying to make sure that all of the children who come to the library see themselves in books and you help me do that as I’m not qualified to determine what books present an authentic experience.

  9. The inclusiveness of literary work is tiring. Yes, there has been a bit of change but there still needs to be more of a push when it comes to showcasing African American writers. It is important for the children growing up to see that they can be writers to. That there is value in telling their stories. @marthabokensbaum I am glad that you are actively looking for new works to include in your library so that all children are represented in the choices that they have when they visit.

  10. I have to admit that I have been extremely naive to my children’s and classes books. I have not been checking the diversity I provide them, and especially have not had an open eye to the diversity of there author’s. I was very enlightened by this article, and by the education class I am taking this semester of college. I will be honest, this class is the only reason I have been opened up to my ignorant behaviors and have started to pay closer attention.

    It is awful the statistics you have posted. I am hoping people like me, either by reading this blog or taking classes or wherever it might be, start to pay attention. I hope that awareness is spread and change is made. You should get every credit deserved whether it be by the stories, authors, whomever. Your story is only YOURS to tell!

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