Biography: Where White Lives Matter




OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, demographic changes have significantly altered our country’s population, and the election of our first Black president has signaled the beginnings of a major sociocultural shift. Yet biography, the genre responsible for chronicling the lives of significant and relevant individuals, remains staggeringly undiverse. The best-seller lists and book review pages of The New York Times, the Guardian, and even The Daily Beast overwhelmingly feature books about the lives of white men or women, past and present.

At the same time, biography has lost significant shelf space to memoir. Hugely popular volumes like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, both of which were made into Hollywood films, have gained an almost cultish following. Some have correlated the rise of the memoir to the parallel trend in confessional blogging, social media sharing, and selfie culture. But whatever the cause of this surge, the genre has made greater strides than its cousin, biography, in highlighting the stories of people of color and other marginalized individuals, as demonstrated by the remarkable success of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, which tackles the United States’s legacy of racial brutality; Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, a memoir of survival and grief in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; former child soldier Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone; and transgender writer and activist Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness.

In the world of biography, the closest thing to the cultish devotion that certain memoirs have attracted has been Hamilton: The Musical, the Broadway sensation created by and, until a few weeks ago, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, which was inspired by Ron Chernow’s sprawling chronicle of the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. An unprecedented multi-genre juggernaut, Hamilton garnered a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, broke the record for Tony nominations, and earned Miranda, who is a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, a MacArthur Genius Grant. But while it has been revolutionary in demonstrating the power and reach of biography when adapted to pop culture idioms like hip-hop, it is still yet another chronicle of a “white,” male, American statesman. Interestingly, while it has long been known that Hamilton’s West Indian mother was mixed race, it was the diverse casting in Hamilton: The Musical which first inspired broad public discourse about his ancestry.

An informal exploration of the field of biography, from key organizations to staple institutions, provides the most obvious explanation for the lack of diversity in its subjects; the authors, publishers, and editors of biographies are, themselves, overwhelmingly white. This is not surprising. In fact, there’s been much talk about the lack of diversity in the publishing sector, from the VIDA Count that revealed the woefully low number of books by women reviewed by The New York Times, to the publishing industry’s own field survey, which noted the shocking lack of racial diversity in the field (89 percent white). One arena in which some progress has been made is the Young Adult sector; We Need Diverse Books, an initiative that grew out of an online campaign, has called attention to the importance of providing children of all backgrounds with access to nonfiction and fiction featuring characters that reflect a diversity of experience, allowing them to see themselves in their reading.

Biographers International Organization (BIO) is the central institution representing and linking biographers. Given that there are so few educational programs or degrees in biographical writing, practitioners tend to come from diverse professional backgrounds, including journalism and history. Unfortunately, that seems to be where much of the diversity ends. A review of BIO’s board, staff, award recipients, and attendees at its annual conference testifies to a pervasive lack of cultural and racial diversity. Its programming reflects this same uniformity. At its 2015 conference, there was only one session dedicated to writing about the lives of people of color. And while it was an excellent session, moderated by Valerie Boyd, a Black writer and biographer of Zora Neale Hurston, it was a sparsely attended break out session, rather than a plenary. It’s hard not to regard this as a tokenizing gesture from an organization that notes its commitment to diversity. Thankfully, its 2016 conference featured a plenary conversation between T. J. Stiles, biographer of 19th-century American figures including Jesse James, and Annette Gordon-Reed, a Black writer, academic, and famed biographer of Thomas Jefferson. One may hope that this is indicative of slow shifts in awareness, which will be followed by shifts in membership demographics.

Signature Reads, a cultural and literary site created by publisher Penguin Random House and dedicated to “making well-read sense of the world,” features a series called Biographies We Need, exploring current and recent cultural icons who are awaiting their biographer. Out of the 28 individuals highlighted, most of whom are writers, 26 are white, one is Garfield the Cat, and only one is a person of color — Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki. No mention of the likes of music mavens Quincy Jones and Ravi Shankar, author Amy Tan, or sound pioneer Amar Bose. When we look at the Random House list of subjects in need of biographies, we cannot help but ask — who, exactly, is conducting this search? Fortunately, some cultural icons of color, like Jones and Shankar, took it upon themselves to pen memoirs or autobiographies, so that the stories of their lives and perspectives might be preserved.

The fact that the life of Ravi Shankar has yet to receive book-length treatment has been particularly disheartening to me as I work on a biography of his sister-in-law and musical collaborator, Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar, which is slated for publication in India. Ravi Shankar was the most prominent exponent of Indian music in the West, and his influence was felt in jazz, classical, minimalist music, rock, and beyond. When I approached US-based publishers with my proposal for a biography of Lakshmi Shankar, I was told that it was too “niche,” that her story had too narrow an appeal. This response was in spite of the fact that almost all of them knew and admired Ravi Shankar, or that Baby Boomers, who had witnessed and were impacted by the arrival of Indian music in the West in the late 1960s, currently make up the second largest demographic age group in the US population (millennials are now the largest), or the fact that an Indian female perspective on that pivotal era, might be of great general interest.

In March, New York University’s Biography Seminar hosted a panel of prominent editors working in the genre. All four of the panelists hailed from large publishing houses, and were white, as were the two panel moderators. During the nearly two-hour discussion, the editors provided their perspectives on the state of biography as a genre, as well as their experiences acquiring, editing, and publishing individual volumes. They mentioned countless biographies, yet only one was about a person of color.

In the question-and-answer session that followed the panel discussion, Nell Irvin Painter, a Black biographer and academic who chronicled the life of early Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth, said she had noticed the dearth of biographies by and about people of color while serving as a judge for a well-known literary prize for biographies. She went on to recount how she receives many inquiries from discouraged writers of color who don’t know where and how to proceed with their proposals for biographies. Each editor on the panel looked from one to the next — and finally one editor acknowledged that the publishing sector does suffer from a lack of diversity, and this is, unfortunately, reflected in the biographies that get published. Another editor, who seemed incensed by the question, deflected, noting that the decision about which biographical proposals to pursue must be determined not by data but by the “gut instincts” of the acquiring editor, because it is he who keeps his finger on the pulse of society.

Interestingly, this panel of biography editors also discussed what they regarded as the biggest threat to their field: digitization. As more and more communication happens digitally, how can it be archived, so that, later, the story of someone’s life can be told? Who owns this material and what happens to it as our technology advances and old media are rendered obsolete?

But I would submit that perhaps the field of biography and its institutions should also be cognizant of another threat to their genre. By 2042, it is predicted that the United States will become a minority majority, with the nonwhite population surpassing the white. Beyond the fact that the vacuum of biographies of people of color continues to perpetuate an incomplete and inequitable account of history, it also doesn’t make sound business sense. Other businesses have acknowledged the changing demographics and have viewed this trend as an opportunity, researching and creating targeted products for each segment of the population. However, instead of being mindful of this approaching horizon, publishers are busying themselves with commissioning yet another biography of Abraham Lincoln to add to the hundreds that already crowd the shelves, ensuring the genre’s diminishing prominence and profits.

Presidential biographies are a mainstay of the genre, so the close of Barack Obama’s presidency will, no doubt, usher in many treatments of his life, which will have to contextualize his presidency in the long and complicated story of American race relations. How much weight should be given to his identity relative to his policies and actions? And who will tell the tale? After all, the most prolific and celebrated presidential biographers — Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, Ron Chernow, David McCullough — are white. One hopes that the recent release of The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America by Black academic, writer, and radio host Michael Eric Dyson will be only the first of many books seeking to examine the significance of Obama’s presidency through the lens of race.

Just across the street from where the panel of biography editors held court is The Public Theater, where Hamilton was first performed. The field of biography will need to evolve and become more inclusive — both in terms of the lives it chronicles and of those who are encouraged to chronicle them — lest the life stories of countless people of color are lost to history. Meanwhile, each night, the diverse cast of Hamilton lifts its collective voice and poses the vital questions: “Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?”

¤

Kavita Das writes about culture, race, social change, feminism, and their intersections. She’s a contributor to NBC News Asian America, The Rumpus, and The Aerogram, and is at work on a biography of Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar, to be published by Harper Collins India.


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