Over the past 20 years, I’ve worked as an award-winning journalist in the television industry and as a public speaker, success coach, and personal development trainer. I’ve traveled all across the United States, as well as internationally, to deliver keynote speeches on leadership and workplace engagement.
My life’s journey has taken me from an unstable childhood to becoming a first-generation college student, to earning a master’s degree from an Ivy League institution. I moved to New York City with less than $1,000 in my bank account, and now I run my own business in the personal development space, working with major companies and ambitious professionals. I’ve recently achieved another goal: writing a personal development book that compiles all my hard-earned wisdom, which will be released in January by a major publisher.
Almost all of my many engagements—whether I’m speaking at a conference or leading a workshop for a tech company, health-care organization, or trade association—have something in common: I’m one of the rare brown faces in the room. Though my social circles are diverse, the professional spaces I’ve occupied for decades now have been primarily white.
This has never prevented me from connecting with an audience or client in person before. But as I worked on my book, I found myself grappling with a question: When I’m not connecting face-to-face at keynotes onstage or at workshops in the boardroom—when I’m reduced to just an author photo and a short description on the back of a book in a crowded market—will I be invited to take up space on white readers’ bookshelves?
If you were to judge by the latest national headlines, social media trends, and bestseller lists, you might come to the conclusion that Black authors only write about race, inequality, diversity, and inclusion. Of course, that’s only one slice of reality. If you step back and take a broader view, a very different reality emerges—one where we also write fiction and write about philosophy, business, religion, design, personal development, and more.
But where are those Black authors in this current climate, where people are hungry for books that help them explore new worlds, ideas, and ways to grow? Well, we’re right here, writing and making our voices heard. But sometimes it feels like an uphill battle.
To see if my fears had any merit, I asked a group of friends to name some personal development authors who were Black, but with an important caveat: they had to be authors who weren’t already famous before their books came out. Every time I asked this question, I was met with silence. I’m sure they were running through the lists in their minds: Tony Robbins? Definitely white. Oprah? Definitely already famous.
The truth is, they aren’t alone in being stumped. I was disheartened when I looked at my own bookshelf. It’s chock-full of self-development books. But out of this vast collection, I could pinpoint only a few written by Black authors like Les Brown, Lisa Nichols, and Iyanla Vanzant. The rest are all written by white authors.
So what’s going on here? The issue certainly isn’t a lack of talented Black nonfiction authors with something to say. The harsh truth is that throughout the history of the United States, success in business and life has been told and sold primarily by white voices. The converse thinking, it seems, is that if it’s told by people of color, it must not be for everyone—it’s just for people of color.
This isn’t unique to publishing. You see it in the movie and music industries, too (like with the recent controversy over the Grammy Awards’ Best Urban Contemporary Album category).
What assumptions would people make about my ability to connect with them when they saw my photo? I hate to admit that I considered not including my photo on the book. I pictured white readers being intrigued by the cover and then, on the verge of buying, they open the book and see a photo of me and think (consciously or subconsciously), “Oh, this must not be for me.”
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m Black, yes. But I write books for anyone who’s looking to take responsibility for their lives and rediscover what makes them great without compromising who they are. And after walking through all these fears and scenarios that played in my head, I came to a simple conclusion: No matter what, I’m proud to be a Black author. And yes, my photo will be on the book jacket.
As a Black American, I’ve had to compromise my voice, opinions, and experiences to allow my work to be seen, but no longer. And while I remain true to myself, I’m hopeful that my message reaches everyone, across racial and social divides. After all, what’s more universal and human than seeking lasting happiness?
Antonio Neves is a speaker, success coach, and journalist. His new book is Stop Living on Autopilot: Take Responsibility for Your Life and Rediscover a Bolder, Happier You (Rodale, Jan. 2021).