I am a black man, and it feels especially great to say this year. (Where Kanye West was his usual, self-confident self in his Video Music Awards speech, I’m a little more apprehensive.)
N K Jemisin’s brilliant novel [The Fifth Season] won the Hugo Award for Best Novel earlier this year, and “The Get Down”—like “Empire” before it—is a huge hit on television (or Netflix), on the back of a 2015 that brought Marlon James the Man Booker Prize and the timeless franchise “Star Wars” having John Boyega as one of its leading actors.
But for every great stride towards equality, there are stark reminders to temper joy, such as Alton Sterling [fatally shot by Louisiana police this year], the anti-immigration factor in the Brexit vote and the recent council decision to evict the local bookselling business at Brixton Arches.
I’ve wanted to become a published author for as long as I can remember, so the obvious industry to get into was publishing, feeling like I had something to offer. In my formative years, I didn’t have (m)any black literary heroes, character or author, and I struggle with that idea now. The lack of diversity in books I’ve seen is reflected in publishers’ workforces. I’ve had the pleasure of working at two independent publishers in the past two years. My proximity to decision-makers as a PA gives me incredible insight into how the businesses are run.
At the first, Canongate, I was the only black person in the office, but I was never made to feel it. Where I am now, Titan, there are many more BAME staff: I’m still not used to seeing that on a daily basis. It’s not just a question of size, it’s a point of action, because there are bigger companies with far less diversity, despite running initiatives to address this. Finding my workplace remarkable is anathema to me.
I am writing this with an all-encompassing feeling of fraud; a nagging feeling that there are so many other—crucially, more significant—black people who would use this platform with perfect insight and eloquence. My many self-identities might be legion, but blackness as a signifier often continues to be reductive. It takes a lot of strength to admit fault in anything, but changing this narrative is one of the reasons I began working in an industry that has so much control over what narratives are heard. It’s an industry that has begun the process of change, a change our multicultural society deserves.
Progress is slow, but it’s happening. There’s a double-edged sword to this; one I’ve not felt more keenly than when I was invited to speak on a diversity in publishing panel and the chair—someone I know— mispronounced my name. (There are people in my current workplace who continue to say my name incorrectly, despite hearing it the right way for six months.) My solace was my participation in the event.
But too often these panels talk about us, not to us. This is a wall that shows no signs of coming down, when even on panels about minorities, we are the minority. These panels are like visiting a foreign country with a phrasebook rather than speaking the language. The phrasebook keeps the traveler’s head down—navel-gazing, to take the analogy further, erecting a barrier between them and the world they are trying to under- stand, running the risk of offence and a clipped form of interaction.
Moves have been made to get more people speaking the language, but congratulations will have to wait. The change is ongoing.
Kwaku Osei-Afrifa is an executive PA at Titan Entertainment Group.
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