It’s Black History Month
One of our authors was at Cheltenham literary festival this weekend.
She went into the Waterstones (official bookseller for the festival) and said she was dismayed by the lack of books by black authors, so she asked why was there such a lack especially as it was Black History month. The reply "Cheltenham Festival is 75 years old and predates Black History Month."
Of all the lame excuses, this one tops them all. I find it amazing how whatever the circumstance white privilege always manages to use history for its own benefit. I mean, so many things predate Cheltenham festival, including black authors.
The problem here is the inability to say "Sorry we got it wrong”.
Another question though is. If a white author had asked this question, would they have got the same answer? I don’t think so. Because this was about systemic racism and as most black people will tell you, it often means that we get a lower standard of customer service than our non-black peers.
You see, her answer didn’t just demonstrate that she didn’t really care about black authors and literature, she also didn’t care about this customer. If she had she would have paused, given the question some thought, put herself in the customers shoes, thought about representation. Instead, she screamed Attack and battened down the hatches, aimed and fired! Cheltenham is 75 years old this year. The same as Windrush. Do you think that registered at all? Probably not.
Like many black people I have complex feelings about Black History Month. It needs to exist and yet it shouldn’t need to exist. I make my peace with it because I understand that it is a window for many who have never considered black culture and history. But when things like this happen, I wonder what lengths people will go to ignore our history and culture, to submerge themselves in white privilege no matter the cost to others.
If you are non-black you may struggle to imagine how exhausting this is, for every enquiry to be turned on you, to leave a shop feeling deflated, to constantly explain and defend your right to exist. Take my word for it. It is exhausting.
If ever I wonder why we need a black bookshop. . ...
Then for good measure lets add this small piece of research to the mix. Publishing deals in UK and US in the last year. A researcher recently published the statistics on diversity in publishing October 2022- October 2023. It was exactly what I expected to see. White authors make up the majority of those published across UK, US and Canada.
These figures are disturbing. And remember getting published is one hurdle. Getting a marketing budget and (as Waterstones have demonstrated) getting shelf space are further hurdles.
This industry needs to do better, way better and bookshops are part of the industry. They need to think why it is they won’t give black authors the shelf space and they should not the current excuses are just not cutting it.
But to be honest, the best way for that message to get home to them is through you. You need to ask those questions, the awkward, uncomfortable ones because that is how we make change, by being the change.