Actors will be boycotting the Oscars this year in protest of the lack of diversity amongst its nominees and the film industry as a whole. But another industry, publishing, is just as rife with its own diversity issues — though its major players are less prone to the megaphones of TMZ or the flashing visibility that accompanies a walk down (or a planned absence from) a red carpet.
Despite the groundbreaking work of Chris Jackson, one of the publishing world’s only black editors (Spiegel & Grau), writers of color, specifically black writers, are underrepresented. A survey by Lee & Low in 2015 found the publishing industry to be 79 percent white, caucasian and only 4 percent black or African-American. Lee & Low also noted that the number of books by or about people of color published each year has remained at a static 10 percent for nearly 20 years. The American Library Association’s 2015 State of America’s Libraries Report warned that “authors of color, as well as books with diverse content, are disproportionately challenged and banned.”
In regards to America’s persistent race bias, Toni Morrison once said, “I can’t be the doctor and the patient.” As consumers, publishers and fellow creators, we can do the work of acknowledging America’s black writers to help remedy this deficiency in the industry — and the work is easy. It’s not about completing some arduous duty to others. It’s about delving into new perspectives and worthy stories laid in front of us in lucid prose and stunning verse from some of our nation’s best authors. Though it’s Black History Month, this celebration shouldn’t be limited to its confines. The goal is to be well read, and the bookshelves of the truly well read are as diverse as the world around them.
Ta-Nehisi Coates dropped out of college and had a kid before he realized that he had to really take himself seriously as a writer. Now the winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant, deemed by many to be James Baldwin’s successor, Coates has taken residence in Paris after touring the US extensively for his National Book Award-winning book, Between the World and Me. Along with his biting essays for The Atlantic, Coates has written multiple books and has also written the latest installment of Marvel’s Black Panther comic book series.
Recent Work: “The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness” – The Atlantic
Known For: Between the World and Me – Spiegel & Grau
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
Ghansah is an essayist, critic and teacher particularly skilled at extrapolating social significance from black culture makers. “I try to write about the struggle…and in another segment I try to write about the vanguards,” she said in an interview with the Longform Podcast. Her essays on Jay Z, RZA, Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Jimi Hendrix align the historical with the pop cultural in an entirely stimulating format. She has contributed her words to such publications as The Paris Review, The Believer, The New York Times Magazine and The Los Angeles Review of Books, to name a few.
Recent Work: “The Watts Consolatio” – The Believer
Known For: “If He Hollers Let Him Go” – The Believer
Robin Coste Lewis
Compton-born Robin Coste Lewis suffered such brain damage after a fall that she was bedridden for two years. Her doctor told her that she could only write one line a day; she turned this into a National Book Award-winning book of poetry. Voyage of the Sable Venus, Lewis’ debut collection, is at once semi-autobiographical and art-historical. Each poem takes the title of a different piece of art, ancient or modern, that in some way featured the feminine black body.
Recent Work: Voyage of the Sable Venus – Knopf
Growing up in a boisterous house with his mother and four sisters, young Hilton Als struggled to get a word in. He determined, by age eight, that writing would be the medium he’d commit his voice to. After cutting his teeth at Vibe and The Village Voice, he relentlessly made his way to become theater critic at the The New Yorker magazine, where he got started with “Talk of the Town” pieces in 1989. He has written two books, The Women and White Girls, and is known for bold and intimate examinations of race, art, pop culture, gender and masculinity.
Recent Work: “The Waves” – The New Yorker
Known For: White Girls – McSweeney’s
Growing up, Claudia Rankine split her time between lives in Kingston, Jamaica, and New York City, which imbued her writing with a distinct, cross-cultural perspective. Citizen: An American Lyric is not only a stunning collection of prose poetry, but also an intricate and intimate mapping of American racism. Its emphasis on race bias, often at its most quotidian, is a powerful device that continues to resonate even a year after the text’s publishing. It is the only book of poetry to be a New York Times Best Seller in the nonfiction category.
Recent Work: Citizen: An American Lyric – Graywolf Press
Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Laymon earned an MFA at Indiana University before taking his place as a professor of English at Vassar College and a Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi for the 2015-2016 term. “I want everything I write to be honest and in the real and imaginative service of black folks, particularly Mississippi black folks,” Laymon told a 2015 interview with Hypertext Magazine. He particularly excels at the imaginative. His novel Long Division is an experimental, historical (by way of time travel) interrogation of race in America that is both haunting and humorous.
Recent Work: “Review: ‘Democracy in Black’ is a bracing call to action for African Americans” – Los Angeles Times
Known For: Long Division – Agate Bolden
Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning theater critic for The New York Times, grew up the daughter of a distinguished doctor father and a socialite mother embedded in the Chicago elite of the 1950s and ’60s. Her recent memoir, Negroland, unpacks her trajectory from the specifically privileged heights of the black, Chicago bourgeois to the tender depths of her college-aged experiences with both black radicalism and crippling depression, to her steady rise in the publishing world thereafter.
Recent Work: Negroland – Pantheon Books
Known For: New York Times theater criticism
A self-described “mulatto” of both Irish and African American ethnicity, Mat Johnson is a professor of creative writing and the recipient of the United States Artist James Baldwin Fellowship, The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. Johnson’s latest novel, Loving Day (named after the Supreme Court decision passed in 1967 that legalized interracial marriage) is a humorous and necessarily nuanced examination of the lives of mixed-race Americans. Before that, Johnson was highly regarded for Pym, his farcical sequel to Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, as well as for his work on three graphic novels for Vertigo/DC.
Recent Work: Loving Day – Spiegel & Grau
Known For: Pym – Spiegel & Grau
Roxane Gay has lived quite the life. Born in Nebraska to Haitian immigrant parents, Gay experienced intensely traumatic sexual abuse at a young age which served as a sort of before-and-after waypoint in her life. She then followed a rigorous academic path that earned her enrollment at Yale, from which she later dropped out after running away to Arizona without telling anyone, leaving her parents to hire a private investigator to find her. Now an associate professor at Purdue University, Gay has a particular slant towards pop culture and writing that addresses themes like the body and sexual assault. Gay has produced an ample amount of fiction and nonfiction alike to such publications as McSweeney’s, The New York Times, Time, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Bookforum, Slate, Salon and more.
Recent Work: Hunger (forthcoming) – HarperCollins
Known For: Bad Feminist – Harper Perennial