On June 19, 1865, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, a declaration that freed all enslaved people in Texas, a distant Confederate state where the Emancipation Proclamation went unenforced, establishing Juneteenth as a day to celebrate the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans. On June 21, 2021, 156 years later, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday—a long overdue national commemoration of the end of chattel slavery.
The Juneteenth national holiday comes at a time of intensifying popular interest in the history of slavery, slave rebellion, emancipation, the Reconstruction era, and Jim Crow, as well as in the history and evolution of Juneteenth itself and its regional celebration over many years in a variety of African American communities beyond Texas. PW reached out to a variety of adult, children’s, and YA publishers and editors to find out more about Juneteenth (and related topics) and its significance as a publishing category for the trade and academia.
The following publishers shared details about their views on the category as well as their latest Juneteenth-focused titles: Suzy Capozzi, executive editor at Union Square Kids; Susan Ferber, executive editor of American and world History at Oxford University Press; Sonali Fry, v-p, copublisher at Crown BFYR and v-p, publisher at Little Golden Books and Sesame Street; Elizabeth Mitchell, executive editor at HarperOne Group; Polly Pattullo, publisher at Papillote Press; Andrew Smith, senior v-p and publisher at Abrams Children’s; Kate Stein, v-p, sales and marketing at Casemate Group; and Nancy Toff, v-p, executive editor at Oxford University Press.
Now that Juneteenth is a national holiday, is it likely to be the inspiration for new published works?
Smith: Publishing vibrant stories for children by Black creators continues to be one of our top priorities at Abrams. We are committed to publishing books that sensitively showcase the complete history of enslaved people, starting well before 1619 and proceeding through Juneteenth. From creators Schele Williams and Tonya Engel, we are proud to have recently launched the picture book Your Legacy, an empowering introduction to African American history that celebrates and honors enslaved people. Candacy Taylor’s Overground Railroad: The Young Adult Adaption chronicles the history of the Green Book, the groundbreaking guide for Black travelers that is little taught in classrooms.
Stein: There are more and more conversations in the publishing industry that have brought to light issues and stories that need to be talked about, and in many ways these conversations are a breath of fresh air. I don’t think that the holiday itself will necessarily prompt changes in our publishing program, but I do think we will be inspired by these conversations to continue to push ourselves in new directions.
Fry: Yes, absolutely. The subject of Juneteenth had been overlooked in mainstream discourse and thus underpublished for many, many years. We are really focused on filling gaps on our list to make sure stories about Juneteenth are in the marketplace and readily available for young readers.
Mitchell: At HarperOne, we always try to publish the stories and histories that need to be told. We’ve been seeing great passion and talent from our authors in filling in gaps in the telling of Black history. The national holiday of Juneteenth puts emancipation into conversations and focus. So mission, talent, and reader curiosity are converging, and what we get, as a result, are great books.
Toff: Yes and yes, but the history of emancipation, Reconstruction, and Black freedom movements has been at the core of scholarship and history writing for decades now. From a publishing perspective, establishing the national holiday was a temporary booster to the longtime visibility of Black History Month.
Susan Ferber: Every generation of writers and readers has found something inspirational about the formal recognition of the emancipation of the slaves. Two landmark examples are W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, which came out in the 1930s, and Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, from the 1980s. Reconstruction did not happen all at once, on a particular day. So there are as many individual stories of what the end of enslavement looked like as there are former enslaved people: reunifying families, establishing schools, running for political office, pressing for compensation, finding new homes and work, moving, and more. In my view, the impetus for writing about this era was already happening well before the federal government established this federal holiday last year. And of course the end of slavery has long been recognized within African American communities; this holiday has brought greater awareness for non–African Americans.
Pattullo: Papillote Press is a small independent publishing house whose books come out of Caribbean experiences. The Caribbean does not celebrate Juneteenth, but the equivalent in the English-speaking Caribbean is Emancipation Day, which falls on August 1, the day in 1834 that all enslaved people in the British Empire were freed. Any Caribbean publisher’s list will necessarily and rightly reflect the history of the region and its struggle for freedom, representation, and civil rights, whether in the past or present and whatever the genre. So, I would hope that that struggle is embedded in the Papillote Press list whatever the occasion. Certainly, Black Man Listen: The Life of JR Ralph Casimir, the forthcoming biography of one of the Caribbean’s greatest––and least known––associates of Marcus Garvey, fits perfectly into a celebration such as Juneteenth. The celebration of these milestones––a shared experience for both Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans––must surely contribute to a greater interest in the issues that publishers can no longer ignore.
Capozzi: It’s so great that Juneteenth is finally being recognized as a national holiday! Numerous authors have already written on this important piece of history in past years, such as Floyd Cooper, Carole Boston Weatherford, as well as our own author, poet, and activist Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, who makes her debut as a picture book author with Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem, with art by Al Bostic. Her stunning free verse unpacks the story behind the celebrations and importance of this day. Her powerful words are matched by the beautifully expansive art from Bostic, an award-winning realist painter. We’re bound to see more picture books on the subject, but now that the day is observed, there will be more opportunities for books around this area to be highlighted and amplified.
How does the topic of Juneteenth and Reconstruction fit into your acquisition plans?
Stein: As a military history publisher, we are constantly looking to tell stories that haven’t been told before or to tell old stories in new ways. I think this newfound importance of Juneteenth in our national consciousness has allowed us to pursue books like Robert Conner’s James Montgomery and others––because there is a desire to read about these stories. We will continue to expand by publishing new voices and new perspectives.
Montgomery is a controversial figure among Union commanders, as he was known for the extreme and often violent measures he took against pro-slavery civilians. We immediately loved that it was a nuanced look at this morally gray historical figure, who has often been written about and remembered for his worst moments instead of his good intentions. We also loved that he included things that are hard to find, even in something as thoroughly written about as the Civil War––stories about Montgomery’s interactions with Black soldiers and his relationships with other famous abolitionists of the time, like John Brown and Harriet Tubman.
Fry: It’s very centric to my publishing plans. Two of my first picture books for Crown Books for Young Readers cover slavery, emancipation, and post-emancipation. Standing in the Need of Prayer takes us from 1619 up to the present day with lyrical text from Carole Boston Weatherford and stunning illustrations by Frank Morrison. Black-Eyed Peas and Hoghead Cheese, written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Steffi Walthall, is a story about a little girl whose grandma tells her about their ancestors and African American history while they prepare their New Year’s Day meal. I’m looking to acquire books that highlight the struggles and victories of enslaved people as well as those who came after them.
Mitchell: HarperOne Group has a long legacy of publishing important works of Black fiction and nonfiction. Illustrated Black History by George McCalman is a book that fits into everything we are doing to give readers beautiful, relevant and inclusive projects across all our imprints.
Toff: Reconstruction has been a core topic at Oxford University Press for decades. To take just a few examples, OUP published Allen Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History in 2018, and in 2020 in paperback as a Very Short Introduction, a series of concise introductions to topics designed for the general reader. Reconstruction and freedom are core to Jonathan Holloway’s recent The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans, published in 2021. William Wiecek deals with the legal aspects in detail in a forthcoming book on Blacks and the Supreme Court. And we will continue to publish enthusiastically in this area, as it is critical to the development of American law, business, education, politics, and race and gender relations.
Ferber: As a history editor, Reconstruction as a transition period, which spans events during the Civil War through a long and transformative moment for African Americans moving from slavery to freedom, has always been a period on which I’ve acquired. So, for me, the national recognition of Juneteenth hasn’t altered my acquisitions plans, but I am hoping it brings recognition to not just this event but to what in historical circles has been dubbed by Elliott West as the Greater Reconstruction, which encompasses the reunion of North and South in the east and the consolidation of national control in the west, including violence against Indians, and spans a period from the 1840s to the late 19th century.
I’m seeing original works mining sources and looking at them in new ways, so that makes for an exciting new generation of literature to acquire. One of my new books, R. Isabela Morales’s Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom, underscores the fluidity of the period after the Civil War when there was temporarily an opportunity for a mixed-race family to try to exercise their newfound freedom, to find communities in the Midwest and the western United States that were receptive to them as neighbors, and to accrue and pass down some generational wealth. Morales showcases how even within one extended family there was no consistent experience of social and economic mobility after slavery. It really was an ongoing process.
Pattullo: Based in both the Caribbean and the U.K., Papillote Press tries to spread the word about the Caribbean in the U.S. by selling its titles to North American publishers. For example, the North American rights to the 2019 book In the Forests of Freedom, by the Dominican historian Lennox Honychurch, about Dominica’s maroons—escaped rebel slaves—were bought by the University of Mississippi Press, while the 2015 book Your Time Is Done Now, about the 19th-century trials of rebel maroon slaves in Dominica, was bought by Monthly Review Press. These may be niche markets, but it does suggest that the U.S. is reaching out to the Caribbean these days and recognizing that particular shared identity
Smith: Our Megascope imprint, curated by comics creator and academic John Jennings, is dedicated to showcasing speculative graphic works by and about people of color. The recent YA graphic novel Across the Tracks: Remembering the Tulsa Race Massacre and Black Wall Street was published as a love letter to Greenwood, Okla. It depicts the founding of the flourishing community—its businesses, people who lived there, and their achievements—and personalizes and reframes the tragedy that nearly erased it. We see the need for books that celebrate underrepresented Black voices and that foster conversation and celebration of the Black experience in present day, too. Chad Lucas’s middle grade novel Let the Monster Out features a cast of characters that reflect the diversity of the real world, and deftly discusses what it feels like to be the only Black family in town.
What are you hearing from your publishing partners—agents, retailers, and distributors—about books on Juneteenth, slave rebellion, emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics? Are there trends? Are there more of these books? Is the market expanding?
Smith: Our partners are hungry for stories that center Black voices and allow children to see themselves reflected on the pages. One trend we’re seeing is an influx of books that showcase the full breadth of African American history and ancestry, beginning in Africa long before 1619. The forthcoming title Our Story Begins in Africa [Sept.] by Patrice Lawrence and Jeanetta Gonzales tells children of the ancient origins of Black history, offering a new approach to families wanting to talk about Black history and Blackness from its very origin. We’re also seeing demand for Black history and stories that expand beyond the history of enslavement to cover the contributions of Black Americans in science, art, scholarship, and more. We’re currently developing a new nonfiction graphic novel series with award-winning author Tonya Bolden that celebrates these types of African American history and achievements, focusing on inspiration and innovation.
Fry: Our retail partners continue to support Juneteenth with dedicated space to feature a wide selection of Black interest titles for Juneteenth. Additionally, Juneteenth has raised the baseline for Black interest titles not only in June but throughout the calendar year. In terms of new publishing, I’m definitely seeing more submissions centered around Juneteenth and emancipation.
Toff: There is so much good scholarship in this area, and we are working with many scholars on such titles. For example, William Chafe has been toiling in this vineyard for many years. He draws on a collection of 3,500 oral history interviews at Duke University to write Lifting the Chains: The Black Freedom Struggle since Reconstruction [July]. The issues of voting rights, the power of the Black church, and the importance of community—and of race relations more broadly—have been core to American history for nearly two centuries.
Ferber: Oxford University Press has long been a publisher of books about slavery, rebellion, and emancipation, by Black and white historians—dating back to the 1960s and ’70s with such influential works as Richard Wade’s Slavery in the City and Leon A. Leon Higginbotham’s In the Matter of Color. So our commitment to works on these topics isn’t new and definitely hasn’t been connected to any momentary trend from retailers or distributors. From within the historical community, the importance of these books has been well established for many decades. Some of the new trends in the field are connecting to the history of capitalism, environment, reparations and justice, and cross- and trans-national trends, including considering Mexico, Canada, and Indigenous history as part of the conversation about this period.
I think what agents and retailers are hoping for is to capitalize on the massive public discussion of African American history from the 1619 Project and the Black Lives Matter movement to open up a much wider audience, but this isn’t the first time in American history or in the industry that there has been a resurgence of interest in these topics, and the books don’t all become mass phenomena. However, these authors in the aggregate are adding important new angles and new readings of events, and that might start to change the dated stereotypes that get perpetuated about African American history. There’s going to be a significant wave of new books in the next few years. I hope they do find a readership that will buy and support this ongoing work—and not just because of current events.
Pattullo: Again I can only speak to the Caribbean and U.K. position—Papillote Press is based both in Dominica and the U.K. I feel that the increased interest in Caribbean literature and its many internationally recognized writers has boosted Caribbean publishing despite its fragility at many levels. I note that in the U.K. there has been much soul-searching in the publishing industry, triggered—far too late—by the Black Lives Matter campaign on such issues as societal racial inequalities and reparations. As a result there has certainly been discussion about the number of books published by Black authors, the diversity—or not—in publishing, and how to reform the structure of a mainly white industry.
Whereas in the past there was an ingrained assumption that books by Black authors were unlikely to sell in significant numbers, this appears to be changing. The publishing industry, I believe, is now more willing to celebrate and promote its Black authors; prizes, bestseller lists, press coverage, and so on certainly confirm this. A national holiday such as this can focus both the market and industry. With the wind in its sails, perhaps the publishing industry can demonstrate that—both in terms of its product and in its workings—more than just taking advantage of Juneteenth and Emancipation Day, it is taking the meaning of it to its heart as well as its bank balance.