On Friday night, I went to see a screening of the movie Dear White People, a wonderfully funny and warm but still very biting comedy about race relations on an Ivy league campus. (“Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count.” ) The filmmaker, Justin Simien, said that he wants the movie to start a conversation—nothing gets better without a dialogue. He also cited as his inspiration great black cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s and movies like Do the Right Thing that had things to say and left you feeling not just entertained but moved, sometimes uncomfortably so.
So race was at the front of my mind the next day when I went to the NYC Teen Author Book Festival to see some of my authors present on different panels. The audience was probably 90% white women in their 30s and 40s. This is an observation, not a judgment. But it’s something I kept thinking about because in the middle of New York City, that’s an awfully homogenous crowd.
I was not alone thinking about race that day. One of panels was called “Summer Reading” and the four authors discussed their novels, each set during the summer. At the end, an audience member stood up to say that she had been at the festival for two days and only seen one author of color. She also mentioned that she works with underprivileged teens in Hartford whose summers wouldn’t at all resemble those in the books being read from. She wanted to know what the panelists had to say about that.
It was an uncomfortable moment not just because a big issue was being raised but because my first thought was, “These four authors have nothing to do with planning this event and shouldn’t be asked to speak to such a large issue when they were just there to talk for five minutes about their particular novels.”
That’s a lie. My first thought was, “Please don’t let my client say anything stupid.” Listen, I’m an agent. It’s just in the bones.
Happily for me, my client on the panel, Gae Polisner, actually had a very thoughtful response, explaining that she writes fiction that comes from a very internal place and that her leads resemble her because she can only write from a place she knows and understands and just hopes that she touches on truths universal enough that they’ll resonate across the broadest spectrum of people possible. That is a great answer for an author. It does, however, leave some great big questions for an industry. Take a look at these articles by Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers.
Those articles were spurred on by a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin showing that of 3,200 children’s books released in 2013, 223 were by authors of color, and 253 were about people of color. That’s less than 7%. To give some perspective, nationally, approximately 27% of the population is people of color.
Happily, I have easy answers to this diversity gap.
Ha! Just kidding. I don’t have easy answers. I actually don’t have any answers—just more questions. Like where is the root of the problem? Is it in the largely white make-up of the publishing industry? Are we weeding out material by and about experiences we simply don’t understand? Is there an institutional racism that hasn’t been broached yet? Is the problem that people of color aren’t encouraged to pursue careers in writing? Is it possible that there aren’t enough of these books being published because there aren’t enough being written? And, perhaps my own biggest question: are we too overwhelmed or scared to ask these questions because we don’t know what we’ll uncover about ourselves?
I won’t lie—I almost scrapped this blog post several times. It makes me nervous to bring up such a big subject because I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to offend, and I don’t want anyone to cringe while they read it. But in the spirit of Dear White People, let’s do it. Let’s have the conversation.