Championing Blackness in the Literary World: Amplifying Black Artists in Music and Literature Pt. 1
'Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.' - Teju Cole
Literature possesses significant influence regarding our understanding of truth. It is a conduit to education, to enlightenment, to invoking social and cultural change. At this moment in time, the literary industry, like most facets of contemporary society, is fundamentally entrenched in systematic racism. Just 5% of published authors in the UK are people of colour. This shocking statistic perpetuates a lack of diversity and facilitates the promotion of whitewashed narratives.
Because of this, it is imperative that underrepresented voices are amplified by publishing houses, bookshops and literary platforms, and that in turn, our beliefs are challenged and widened. Investing in permanent change requires reflecting on ways to foster inclusivity. Ultimately, this starts by rallying for access to previously silenced perspectives, belonging to people living outside of our own paradigm.
Below is a list of independent bookshops and publishers who are working to amplify black voices and strive for diversity in this way. Support them!
Pepukayis Books: The mission of this bookshop, located in Tottenham, London, is centred upon creating a space for the learning and celebration of African culture in the UK.
New Beacon Books: The UK's first black publishing house, this wonderful independent offers a broad range of genres. Based in North London, the George Padmore Institute was founded in connection to the company, a resource hub for materials relating to the black community.
Jacaranda Books: This award-winning independent publisher and bookshop focuses on showcasing diverse writers from an array of backgrounds. A curated selection of the Jacaranda team's favourite titles is available on their website, offering informed and important reading recommendations.
Round Table Books: This inclusion-driven bookshop in the heart of Brixton, London, was co-founded by Aimée Felone, responsible for the existence of Knights Of, an independent publisher rallying for diversity in the literary world.
Peepal Tree Press: Based in Leeds, this bookshop and publishing house is committed to supporting the 'best of international writing from the Caribbean, its diasporas and the UK'. In 2009 it launched the Caribbean Modern Classics Series, in the hopes of reprinting 'essential books from the past with new introductions'.
Books of Africa: Based in Dulwich, South London, this bookshop specialises in literature of African association.
The Good Literary Agency/The Good Journal: established in 2015 by Shukla, this enterprise aims to represent the under-represented. BAME, disabled, LGBTQ+ and working class authors are actively sought out and championed. They help to develop manuscripts and proposals with aspiring authors before submitting to editors. Their quarterly journal celebrates writers of colour.
Books by black writers to get your hands on:
Here are just three recommendations by black writers to get you started.
This compelling coming-of-age tale explores the landscape of Britain's complex and often shameful relationship with blackness, otherness and class. It follows young protagonist Jesse through his strict childhood, his grappling with queerness, and his journey through sex work. Against the backdrop of the Windrush generation, matters of identity surrounding race and religion are dissected, as Jesse unravels his heritage and forges his own truth in the pursuit of self-discovery.
Girl, Woman, Other: Bernadine Evaristo
The stories of twelve black women are woven together in this sharp and truly ground-breaking novel, raising timeless questions of feminism and race in a fresh and crucial way. Their lives overlap and span decades, but their experiences and voices could not differ more starkly. This book evoked an empathy in me which will burn for a long time. Evaristo's desire for connectedness and togetherness echoes throughout the novel's pages, which ultimately crescendoes with hope and a sense of brilliant urgency.
At the beginning of his book, Pitts writes that the term 'Afropean' 'encouraged me to think of myself as whole and unhyphenated'. This book embarks on the brave journey of reaching unity among African Europeans, and explores the concept that, as Pitts states, 'being black in Europe doesn't necessarily mean being an immigrant'. By dissecting labels, questioning stereotypes and revealing toxic white assumptions, this book resounds as a manuscript for self-reflection, and an important tool in aiding personal education.
Online platforms and magazines to support:
(Source: Zoë Gregory-Wozencroft via Instagram)
Gal-Dem: Devoted to amplifying the voices of women and non-binary people of colour, this magazine and online space strives to diversify art and industry in all forms. Their goal is to catalyse discourse surrounding racial injustice, and dismantle stereotypes in mainstream media by hosting panels, workshops and events, covering a vast spectrum of topics and holding inclusivity at its core.
Literary Natives: This platform aims to connect promising writers of colour to agents and publishers. Their work revolves around carving out space for the acknowledgment of the experiences of black authors, who are perpetually misrepresented or dismissed.
Rife: This Bristol-based print journal works with a multitude of young writers, film-makers and artists to produce a collection of work which is diverse and inclusive. They offer workshops, internships and skill-building opportunities, championing the budding careers of underrepresented creatives.
Spread the Word: Located in London, this development agency campaigns to ensure that the publishing world authentically represents the diversity of the UK's capital city. Open submissions, mentoring schemes and online writing tutorials are offered to talented young writers of colour.
There are many small and simple ways to advocate for change...
1) Speak to your local independent bookshops: examine what might be missing from the shelves. Are the talks and events inclusive in their representation of writers of colour? Normalisation of asking provocative questions is essential to increasing visibility.
2) Review your own personal library and reading patterns. I myself have been guilty of habitually reading books by people who look and sound like me. This actually limits one of the most powerful facets of literature: its capacity to teach. In doing so, I am robbing myself of the opportunity to broaden my perceptions. When was the last time you read a book by someone who lives in a society which is systematically positioned against them, due to the colour of their skin or ethnic background? Providing a platform for their stories is crucial in fostering personal growth.
3) Donate to the #InclusiveIndies campaign. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis crowdfunding page was established to prevent the loss of independent, inclusive publishers.
You can donate here:
4) Be mindful of diversifying children's literature. Every child should be able to see themselves represented in stories. Inclusive Minds is a collective dedicated to improving accessibility and equality in children's books.
You can sign their charter to align yourself or your workplace with their mission here:
Special thanks to Zoë Gregory-Wozencroft whose helpful compilation of ways to champion blackness in the literary world inspired and informed this article.