Black Lives Matter in the book industry

It’s early 2012 and a young boy is walking home when he is fatally shot in the back by a neighbourhood watch officer. The officer claims the boy – only seventeen at the time – was reaching for a gun. All the boy had on him was a packet of Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea.

Now it’s the summer of 2013, and as the boy’s entire community mourn his death – and many others who have been murdered in the year that has passed – the officer, scared of the boy with black skin holding a packet of sweets, is told by his peers that he isn’t guilty. 

The boy is Trayvon Martin and the man who killed him is George Zimmerman and this is what sparked the movement now known as Black Lives Matter.

I remember watching this all unfold on TV, and erupt across my social media as Zimmerman was released. “A murderer released back into the wild”, I remember thinking angrily, not sure how this was allowed to happen, when they had the evidence, when that boy was so small, and the grown man who killed him was clearly the only threat. And while I am no longer confused about how this was allowed to happen, I’m even angrier today than I’ve ever been before.

It’s now the summer of 2020, almost seven years since Zimmerman was acquitted and the Black Lives Matter movement began – and we are in exactly the same place. Black people are still dying at the hands of institutions like the police, and these institutions are still getting away with it because the system was never designed to protect black people.

Police brutality is the direct result of an institution that is not only broken but was never right in the first place. And, as we see in the statistics on diversity in the publishing workforce published annually in both the US and UK, the book industry, like all other institutions in the Global North, is broken and was never built to protect or service black people. This has to change. And the Black Lives Matter movement should be the wake-up call – a movement that has already inspired change in the industry.

After the protests that followed the deaths of Trayvon, Mike, Sandra and so many others murdered by police, Angie Thomas and Nic Stone wrote what would become their debut novels: The Hate U Give and Dear Martin, which look at police brutality in the US and the lack of justice in the justice system. Both books went on to hit the New York Times Bestseller Lists. Following the publication of both Angie’s and Nic’s debuts, there has been an influx of books that have further highlighted these themes, such as Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone – a high fantasy inspired by Nigerian mythology, and an allegory for race relations in the US. While this change in the industry has brought in so many diverse and incredible stories and authors, it has also resulted in some publishers and agents only looking for books centring black trauma and police brutality. And we, black people, are more than just our pain.

Inclusive publisher Knights Of was started to combat this and ensure that children get to see themselves in books that showcase the vast range of BAME experiences and perspectives. And there are others trying to create change too; other independent presses such as Jacaranda and multiple schemes to support diversity within the big publishers, from scholarships to internship schemes.

You can support the likes of Knights Of and Jacaranda during this time, and ensure they get to continue publishing books that are literally changing lives, by clicking here.

But despite the amazing work of some in the book industry over the last few years, many black authors can still recall times when their stories have not been supported or welcomed. When they have been told to turn their rom com into a tragedy or twist their space opera into a police brutality metaphor, as a means to easily sell their pain to the same white corporations that caused it. While I believe both stories about hardship as well as joy are so important, there is this sentiment often felt by black writers and readers both in the US and UK that the industry values one kind of story over another, particularly graphic depictions of black suffering and death. Overturning this message is central to the Black Lives Matter movement: we matter in life as much as death.

When the industry doesn’t publish a vast range of black literature on all topics and genres (without trumpeting it as a diversity project), it is deeply problematic and goes against the very purpose of the BLM movement. I myself was worried when querying my book and then going out on submission to publishers that it would not sell - because while my book is about institutionalised racism, it is more allegorical and focuses a lot on black teens and their day to day lives. I had seen the lack of diversity in the books published in the UK and worried I’d be rejected – like I have been so many times before.

But I was surprised to find that there were so many people in the industry that wanted to see my book do well and get into the hands of the kids that need it. One of those people being my editor, Becky, and my publisher, Usborne who from the moment I started working with them expressed that I had their full support, from plans to send out early copies to black reviewers to the cover being one that would make black kids feel like they matter. While we still have so much work to do in the industry as a whole, I think it is important for black writers and readers to hear that progress is being made every day. My book might not have been published 20 years ago, but it’s being published today alongside many amazing black authors.

We are not yet where we need to be in publishing, but there has been progress and there are a lot of people behind the scenes, from booksellers to editors to librarians, who wish for this change too.

Trayvon was not meant to die and become a symbol of injustice; he mattered before he died and he matters now that he’s no longer with us. The book industry needs to pay closer attention to the heart of what the movement is about. It is about valuing black people in the full richness of their stories, skills and lives.

The Black Lives Matter movement should make publishers rethink the stories they purchase and promote, questioning not just the volume but the nature of those stories. It should remind people not to be satisfied with such an unequal and unjust system, and to fight for diversity in the workplace at all levels from senior management to internships – ensuring their workforce is reflective of the world we live in. Schools should be encouraged by the book industry to study more than just classics written by old dead white people, allowing children to see themselves reflected in the books they have to study for most of their formative years. Ultimately, I hope the impact this has on the industry is that people realize that our problems did not start in 2016, or 2012; they started a long time ago and require drastic, continued, unflagging efforts towards change if we are going to see significant improvements.

To quote Reni Eddo-Lodge, bestselling author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race:

The mess we are living in is a deliberate one. If it was created by people, it can be dismantled by people, and it can be rebuilt in a way that serves all, rather than a selfish hoarding few.

 

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé's debut novel, Ace of Spades is out from Usborne in January 2021.