Black Authors Are Boxed Far Too Much In the Literary Industry

A recent article in the New York Times made me cringe. The article wrote about black chefs and how despite the fact that they have always been around, cooking some of the world’s greatest food and showcasing food from around the world, they have still be boxed, hampered not by their talent, but by their race.

Simply put, white chefs will be accepted writing any cookbook. Black chefs need to explain themselves and mold themselves into what is “expected” when preparing to release a book.

See the problem?

Just reading the article made my migraine twenty times worse. Being a multi-genre author who is African American, I must say that I have enjoyed being an author and retaining my full rights along with my husband who also is an author doing the very same thing.

We publish under our Akirim Press publishing brand, refusing to be boxed or manipulated into believing that black and ambitious is a horrible disruption to what is needed in the literary industry for us, or any black author, to be successful.

I’ll refer to and quote the article for what I mean about black and ambitious in case I lost you somewhere between those three words.

When J.J. Johnson, a Black chef in New York City, was shopping his second cookbook around to publishers this summer, seven publishing houses said they were interested before they knew anything about it, he said. But after one editor read the book proposal, she called it too ambitious. Another told Mr. Johnson he was reaching for the stars, in a bad way.

It felt like coded language intended to brush him off. “Using words such as ‘ambitious,’” he said, “they would never say that to my white peers.”

The NY Times written by Elizabeth A. Harris and Concepción de León

Since when has ambition been a bad thing? The answer is that it hasn’t ever been a bad thing. For when one looks it up in the dictionary, the word means everything good – showing a strong desire to succeed or intending to satisfy high aspirations and therefore hard to achieve.

Since when did ambitious become not possible? Oh. When there is a black author behind the masterpiece, making it a more difficult sale, not because of the art, but because of the artist’s race.

Many publishers are skeptical of a great black-created anything because the color the author’s skin hampers the success of the non-stereotypical book, although the book is ultra-spectacular.

The trend is stick to the stereotype, and don’t be so ambitious. Stand close to but not in front. Yes, yours may be top shelf, but it won’t move from the shelf…says the publishers who don’t want to push it but at the same time want to cash in and win by marketing black authors within one narrow lane or in a box when, of course, it’s the trendy thing to do.

Do you understand now?

I, personally, haven’t had to deal with this at all from a publisher, however, I have felt it as a black independent author from the very beginning. People are more apt to take me seriously if writing about historical or urban, type-casting my creativity, as if my noir, sci-fi, dystopian and horror are such an oddity or, just for kicks, too ambitious. Fact is, I love writing them all, and I wrote them to succeed, not fail, with my ambitious black self.

As I moved toward the end of The New York Times article, although I am no cook by a long shot – trust me – being a black fiction author along with fellow authors who are black cookbook authors, I felt a bond, that we would all nod in agreement to if we were all packed into the same room, independent author or signed, fiction writers or nonfiction writers, both young and older and in different generations, we would say that, yes, one type of thing is and has always been “expected” of us, but it is always up to us to remind everyone that we won’t and should never be boxed into one thing.

We have no specific small lanes that should be chosen for us, and it’s time that the literary industry and everyone else accepts this fact. We won’t be suffocated in narrow, oxygen-depleted alleys of creation.

Diversify, yes, publishers, but don’t just diversify the stories and art for a short spell. Believe in true diversity by making your lives diverse. Diversify your minds. Actually embrace it. Get out of and stop inviting us into your stuffy box titled ‘stereotypical black stories only, please!‘ because you, as publishers, are hindering everyone else who are already beyond that.

It starts there first. Everything else will follow. Shouldn’t it?

Written by Mirika Mayo Cornelius, writer, author, entrepreneur at Akirim Press

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