Racial Inequality in Publishing and #BlackPublishingPower
By Elias WondimuJune 18, 2020
The social media initiative of #BlackPublishingPower responds to centuries of patent inequality in the publishing industry. The call to amplify Black voices through institutions that have historically suppressed them follows a three-week period of Black Lives Matter protests, both nationwide and international, in response to the murder of George Floyd. And it has already led to a record-setting accomplishment in the publishing world; all top 10 books on The New York Times’s nonfiction bestseller list were related to the subject of antiracist activism. The issue of racial inequality is not new, and neither is the call to allyship. Yet the degree to which people are responding to that call, at least online, is unprecedented and overwhelming.
Whether you are new to the work of antiracism or not, it is imperative to understand the imbalance of power White writers and publishers have created and sustained in the history of knowledge creation, and why buying two books by Black authors is not all we should be doing to combat it. The racial injustices that we are still fighting today reach back to the establishment of the days of Gutenberg, when knowledge production began on a mass scale in Europe.
The number of books written about Africa and its inhabitants increased along with the total number of books being printed, but the “experts” in the subject remained White European males with an agenda. When we talk about Blackness and the continent of Africa, our perceptions and beliefs are rooted in texts that promoted the subjugation of Black people for economic purposes. The ability to exploit and enslave populations of African people was carefully devised and upheld by the same voices that crafted false narratives in order to devalue the lives of African and non-White people.
The period between the invention of the printing press and the liberation of the 1960s, when the continent of Africa began to be decolonized and the Civil Rights movement swept across the United States, is characterized by a fiercely guarded narrative of White supremacy. The past 60 years of publishing alone has not and will not correct the damage caused by those five centuries of systemic racism.
Even if being oppressed and dehumanized on the basis of your skin color is not your lived reality, you do not have to look very hard to find glaring instances of such overt discrimination. Beyond President Trump’s racist tweets, other world leaders have unashamedly made public statements that echo the White supremacist thinking of 19th-century philosophers. In 2007, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed an audience in Senegal with the statement, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history […] They have never really launched themselves into the future.” Sarkozy’s racist remark sounds a lot like that of George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who in the 1830s stated that “Africa has no history and did not contribute to anything that mankind enjoyed.”
More recently, Human Rights Watch reported targeted discrimination against African nationals living in Guangzhou during the COVID-19 pandemic. All African nationals in the city were subjected to forced testing regardless of symptoms, a large majority were evicted with no notice, and many were refused service at local businesses. While Chinese authorities deny that these blatant violations were made on the basis of race, there was no scientific reasoning behind them, as most reported cases of COVID-19 in Guangzhou occurred as a result of Chinese nationals returning from travel outside of the province.
These global instances of overt racism are just examples of innumerable experiences that Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color experience daily, from early in childhood through adulthood — experiences commonly referred to as microaggressions. In his sold-out autobiography How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi pivots from the term microaggressions, first introduced by psychologist Derald Wing Sue in 1970, to “racist abuse.” This shift in language emphasizes both the severity of these actions and their long-term impact on victims.
The historic dehumanization of Black people everywhere threatens to control the future of those who are Black or of African descent, perpetuating racist abuse. The collective understanding of Black personhood is dictated by old texts, which created a misinformed identity bias that non-Black and Black consumers can both potentially buy into. Books rooted in racist thought are used as primary reference materials in academia, and they continue to inform new literature. As a result, the old narrative of White supremacist scholars, philosophers, and politicians is in a symbiotic relationship with racist policies devised and enforced by those in power today. This same narrative relegates Black men and women to the stereotypes perpetuated by films, television shows, news broadcasting programs, streaming contents, and books of all genres and for all ages.
The fact that after the closure of Howard University Press in 2011 TSEHAI Publishers has remained the only Black University Press in the Americas, not to mention Asia, Europe, and Australia, illustrates the disparity that permeates not only this country’s cultural landscape, but also the landscape of the non-African world. Only generational, Indigenous knowledge production can address the imbalance of power in the publishing industry as a whole.
We all must stop and recognize our complicity. Of course Black Lives Matter, but without the sustained ability to tell our own stories, the world will not be able to truly know us and to learn about our contributions to the human family and world civilizations. That is why we need to commit ourselves to solving this deeply ingrained problem on a grand and generational scale by taking control of narratives about ourselves seriously. Investing in Black-owned publishing houses, encouraging Indigenous knowledge production, and advocating for policy reform are necessary steps to take now in order to pave the way for those who will continue the work after us. Buying two books from a Black author, publisher, or bookstore is a start, but not a permanent solution to this centuries-old global problem.
Elias Wondimu is the CEO and President of TSEHAI Corp., a global knowledge company, and founding director of TSEHAI Publishers and its four imprints. Since the 2011 closure of Howard University Press, TSEHAI is the only African or African-American publisher housed in an American or European university. In this unique position, Wondimu plays a crucial role in filling the global knowledge gap on Ethiopia and Africa.
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