Organized by the Authors Guild, "Centering Black Voices: Short-Term Progress or Sustainable Change?," an online panel held July 27, offered a wide-ranging examination of the history and potential around the book industry’s continuing struggle to address diversity, equity and systemic racism. The webinar is part of a continuing series of virtual panels on diversity in publishing organized by the Guild.
In opening remarks, moderator Kelly Starling Lyons, children’s book author and founding member of The Brown Bookshelf, outlined the core issue that the panel would address: How do Black authors get attention? Lyons took note of the current state of the industry regarding diversity in the wake of the protests and outcry over the George Floyd murder. “Things are changing, there are new book deals by Black authors every day, new programs to nurture Black writers, but a lot of the industry is unchanged due to white supremacy,” Lyons said.
Lyons (as did every panelist) used the occasion to pay tribute to acclaimed author-illustrator Floyd Cooper and to author, editor and publisher Bernette Ford, two much respected Black book professionals, who both died recently. Both were cited for their long legacy as artists and book professionals, working to address the industry’s lack of diversity. Lyons called for a moment of silence and then cited the importance of the need to see “Black joy, representation, and authenticity” in children’s literature, emphasizing that it was “Floyd and Bernette who gave us this language and showed us what it means to give back to our people.”
Following this remembrance, Lyons noted that the industry is in the midst of a “reckoning over equity.” She asked the panel, which included Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson, equally admired cofounders of the Black-owned children’s book publisher Just Us Books, “Who paved the way to what is happening in book publishing right now?”
Hudson, a notable author in his own right, gave a brisk overview of the long history of misrepresentation and omission of Black Americans in American literature dating from the 18th century. Alongside that, he gave an account of such historic counter-voices to Black erasure as the abolitionist Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 as the first Black-owned newspaper. Hudson cited the importance of 19th-century published slave narratives, “which told the story of the enslaved. There has been progress but it’s always been stymied by forces trying to force us backward.” Later, he emphasized “don’t underestimate the pushback,” noting that “it’s still about systemic racism.”
He was followed by his wife, who mapped the struggle over literary diversity and inclusion beginning with the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v Board of Education, on through the Civil Rights Movement. She cited in particular The All-White World of Children’s Books, a key and controversial 1965 study written by Nancy Larrick, a white women who was then president of the International Reading Association. She also cited the work of Black children's authors and illustrators such as Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Pat McKissack, Pat Cummings and Tom Feelings.
Describing himself as “probably naïve, but hopeful,” Carl Lennertz, executive director of the Children's Book Council, said that over the last five years in publishing “I’ve seen growth. [Diversity] was first called a trend but it’s really a movement and the arc of that movement continues; there’s more organizations involved like WNDB, the Lee and Low diversity study, all calling for change.” Lennertz said the slow increase in the number of senior executives of color, BIPOC creators, mentors, editors and agents, and conferences focused on the issue, “make me hopeful, even though there’s more work to do.”
Moderated by librarian and activist Judy Allen Dodson, the second half of the webinar looked at new developments and new organizations, activists, and movements now focused on diversity in publishing. In addition, Authors Guild general counsel Cheryl L. Davis outlined Guild programs offering contract review and legal advice (including this webinar and others) designed to assist writers.
The new generation of activists include webinar panelists Paula Chase, an author and cofounder of The Brown Bookshelf, and educational entrepreneur and children’s author Denise Adusei, a founding member of the hashtag movements #BlackCreatorsinKidLit and #LatinxPitch.
Chase discussed the evolution of The Brown Bookshelf from a promotional platform launched in 2007 to a “movement” that is “truly out there trying to change book publishing. We want more than a seat at the table, we want to build the table.” Adusei called #BlackCreatorsinKidLit “the babies in the room” of publishing diversity activists. She described #BlackCreatorsinKidLit as a “support group for Black storytellers and illustrators” focused on ways to “illuminate the path to being published,” demystify the book industry, and “increase representation in children’s books.”
Chase and Adusei outlined how both of their organizations are evolving: The Brown Bookshelf is partnering with publishers and looking for financial support; “we can’t work for free as publishing consultants, we need publishers to invest in this process,” Chase said. While Adusei said her group is reaching out beyond children’s literature to Black creators writing for adults, partnering with organizations such as People of Color in Publishing, and looking for a commitment from white allies in book publishing to share how they have been treated in the book industry. “The more we know what is happening in publishing, the better,” she said.