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Acknowledgement Series: Recognizing Influential Black Writers & Poets

As the next wave of the Civil Rights Movement sweeps the nation, I find my perspective of the world has changed. Learning more about differing views, experiences, and realities has helped provoke a change-of-heart and broadened the horizons of my reality. As a writer and journalist, I have an inherent responsibility to speak out against societal wrongs and highlight current issues. Words have power, and since the death of George Floyd, I’ve found myself wracking my brain for a way that I can help make a difference. I may still be learning to understand, but what I do know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that silence is not an option.

As I’ve watched events unfold in our nation over the past two weeks, I’ll admit that these words did not come easily. As a white woman who has never experienced first-hand what the Black community faces, I found it difficult to fully remove the metaphorical veil.

I felt like the veil protecting racism has finally torn and been unmasked, exposing it for where it really, truly exists. The truth is that it is not as far removed from my realm of experience as I believed it was. It is deeply rooted in the depths of our society- in our communities, our neighbors, our families, and in ourselves. Only, I never realized how much it had seeped its way through us. Like a successful pandemic, it is a virus that has overtaken our hearts and poisoned us so thoroughly that we have been trained to condemn on sight. It has led us to turn a blind eye to the suffering around us and trained us to look past the damage without consciously realizing that we’re all in some way infected.

Looking through the veil is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It’s revolting, despicable, horrendous, there aren’t words strong enough to describe all the emotions I felt at what I saw. But with the anger, outrage, and sorrow came a greater understanding. Despite the ugliness, I’m glad that my eyes have been opened and that the systemic fog has been lifted. I realized that you can’t fix a problem you can’t see, but you can do your best to open your eyes to the truth until you can.

The reality is that I can sit here and type this post, close my laptop, and then go about my day as if everything is normal- that IS white privilege. It is the very notion that I don’t have to worry because, if I chose to, I could pretend that nothing has happened. Our society allows me to pretend, even when people are dying, and buildings are burning right before my own eyes. Because it does not directly affect me, I can still feel safe and in control. And that is what is so dangerous about it.

Being able to sweep racial atrocities under the rug means that people can’t change. The problem is that there are a lot of people like me. White people who are content to leave things the way they are because they have never personally experienced what it is like to be Black and forced to confront racism each and every day. We don’t have to worry about whether our children are going to live to see thirty. We don’t toss and turn in bed wondering if they will have a future outside of prison. We have never had to give our 8 year-old children “the talk” about how to deal with the police without being shot, or what to do when someone calls you a racial slur.

The truth is that most of us don’t have anyone in our daily lives who can tell us what it’s like to not be us. We surround ourselves with like-minded people because it’s comfortable. We sleep easier at night when the veil is intact, and the illusion is all we can see. Why? Because it’s easier to casually sip our coffee and pass judgement on others than it is to fix the problem.

It’s not that we don’t see it happening or don’t understand the consequences. It’s the group mentality of “if I don’t do something, someone else will”. The expectation that if it doesn’t directly affect us that it is socially acceptable to ignore it. That the polite thing to do is not bring it up in a gathering of our friends and families because it will make everyone feel “uncomfortable”.

This is the reason why change is slow and at times progress has been halted. Our lack of acknowledgement, lack of communication and transparency amongst each other, and lack of accountability keeps change from happening, even when it desperately needs to. It is fear and pride that holds us back. Fear of public ostracization and pride because we can’t admit it when we’re wrong. Not to ourselves, not to our friends, and not to those we’ve hurt by contributing to the problem. Because of this we rationalize what we see on the news. We pretend that things are fine and don’t need to be fixed. We reinforce these concepts within our social circles and turn our faces away. No one ever speaks up, even when we know we should.

I want to be explicitly clear here. This is in no way, shape, or form okay. It was NEVER okay. Pretending a problem doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it solves itself. It only hurts everyone involved and forces people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Change comes from finding the courage to acknowledge that something needs to be done and then taking action to follow through. It’s about breaking the toxic cycle and vowing to do better while embracing humanity and rejecting brutality. It’s about looking another human being in the eyes and saying: I see you. I hear you. I’m willing to speak the truth.

The next step after acknowledgement is action. I asked myself: What can I do to help fix this?

Aside from donating, educating myself, protesting, praying, and sharing information, I can choose to amplify diversity on my social platforms. I can raise up those who have not had accurate representation within our society, especially where I’m personally involved, in literature and the publishing industry.

It is for this reason that I decided to start this Acknowledgement Series today on Writing It Wells recognizing influential Black writers and poets. This series will be posted every Saturday from June through September in honor of the Black community and will feature short bios on these writers and their literary works. The coinciding hashtag for this series will be #LetThemHearUs. It represents all Black writers who have been overlooked or purposely censored and serves to give them the spotlight they deserve.

It is my hope that by highlighting these men and women that I can help educate others. They deserve to have their voices amplified and to be heard outside of Black History Month. Their voices should be integrated into our bookshelves as if they always belonged there, because they do. By broadening the horizons of perspective, I hope to use my influence to bring about a more just literary world at large.

Why Diversity in Publishing Matters

Writers and publishers have an immense amount of influence on our society’s culture. Those making decisions about how books should be written and what types of books are published determine which stories and experiences are highlighted and which are silenced. If there is a lack of diversity within those working within the publishing industry, it means that diversity is not being represented within the range of the books being chosen for publication. A lack of representation means that there is less media for minority voices being published and less for readers of color to relate to. It then perpetuates the cycle of systemic racism because what we see in mainstream culture is almost completely white-washed, reinforcing the fabric of the veil.

In 2015 Lee & Low Books released the first Diversity Baseline Survey (DBS 1.0). It was the largest diversity publishing survey of its kind. It included small, medium, and large publishers (3 out of 5 BIG 5 publishers participated). DBS 1.0 also surveyed all the major book review journals. In total 8 review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes from across North America participated.

The purpose was to:

• Diagnose the diversity problem within the publishing industry.

• Survey publishing house and review journals regarding the racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability makeup of their employees.

• Establish a concrete statistic on diversity within the publishing workforce.

• Reissue said survey every four years to determine any changes regarding improvements in representation and inclusion.

This survey was then repeated in 2019 (DBS 2.0).

2015 The Results:

Image is from Lee and Low Books, Instagram profile. Information is from the Diversity Baseline Survey 1.0 survey released in 2019. Date posted: 12/10/18. Date accessed: 6/12/20.

· The number of diverse books published each year over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, on average, 10 percent.

· Just under 80% of publishing and review journal staff are white. 7.2% were Asians/Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders. 5.5% were Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans. 3.5% were Black/African American. 2.7% were biracial/multiracial people. 0.5% were Native Americans. And 0.8% were Middle Easterners.

· While all racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, Blacks/African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos/Mexicans are more severely underrepresented.

· Board Members and Executive Positions: 86% White

· Editorial: 82% white.

· Marketing and Publicity: 77% white.

· Sales: 83% white

· Reviewers: 89% white

2019 The Results:

Image is from Lee and Low Books, Instagram profile. Information is from Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Diversity Baseline Survey 2.0 survey released in 2019. Image posted on 6/3/20. Date accessed: 6/12/20.

The Diversity Baseline Survey 2.0 had the same process as 2015’s survey, but it surveyed an even larger segment of the publishing landscape with all BIG 5 publishers participating, all major review journals, and the addition of academic presses and literary agencies.

Here's what was determined:

· 76% of publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents are white.

· 7 % are Asian/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

· 6% Hispanic/Latino/Mexican

· 5% Black/African American

· 3% biracial/multiracial

· Native Americans and Middle Easterners each comprise less than 1 % of publishing staff.

As results of the 2019 survey shows, the number of African American voices in publishing today is still almost non-existent. While they make up more than 13% of the U.S. population they only make up 5% of the publishing workforce and only 1% of editorials. This means that there is a huge discrepancy between realities. There is an entire race of people who make up a large part of who we are as a nation who are not being accurately represented nor given the opportunity to share their personal experiences, let alone any other minority group. Compare this to the overwhelmingly white-washed media we see every day, and you begin to see how harmful this can be.

Not only has it denied African Americans and other minorities of the opportunity to see themselves and things that are relevant to them in books, but it keeps predominantly white communities from being exposed to and sharing their experiences, something that is necessary in order to promote understanding and compassion. This helps to strengthen the veil and allows ignorance to be fostered. By opening the presses to more diverse stories, we can use the influence welded by the publishing industry to change the world for the better. What we are exposed to now is only one side of the story. And, as all of us writers know, when you only write one piece of the novel, it's not a very good book.

If you would like to see more information on the Diversity Database Survey, I've included the source links below.

Also, a big round of "thank you's" to my sensitivity readers who helped make this post possible: Riley Wells, Melissa Murphy, Emerald Barton, and Erin Samples. You guys are amazing! Thank you for all your help and honesty.

#LetThemHearUs #writingitwells #writingseries #Acknowledgement #blackwritersandpoets #June #July #August #September #writingadvice #writingtips #writinginspiration #blacklivesmatter #amplifymelanatedvoices #blackculture #leeandlowbooks #DiversityBaselineSurvey

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