I’ve had a few conversations lately with folks who are tired of the neverending diversity in publishing campaign. We’ve all decided it’s just not worthwhile to invest our valuable time and energy in an industry that truly does not WANT to change. As I say more and more these days, “It’s not a question of merit or money. It’s about POWER.” And when folks are accustomed to being dominant, they aren’t likely to share power willingly. Yesterday I met with my BookUP students out in Queens for the first time—how wonderful to walk into a classroom at 9am and find all the students reading at their desks! And most of them were boys, which is why I push back whenever folks claim that boys don’t read. Many are reluctant readers, but not all. I introduced myself as Kristin and then let them examine the dozen assigned books with my three novels mixed in. When I asked which book they wanted to read most, two boys named Ship of Souls and The Deep. Unfortunately my books aren’t part of the First Book marketplace; they don’t accept self-published submissions and my publisher, Amazon/Skyscape, is looking into submitting Wish and Ship of Souls. In the meantime, I offered to photocopy chapters and bring them in for us to read aloud.By any means necessary, right? Find a way around the obstacle.
This morning I woke up with a migraine but was so grateful to find on Facebook this speech given by Toni Morrison in 1975. She perfectly articulates what I’ve been feeling for the past few months. We do need to push for justice in publishing but we also need to keep our eyes on the prize:
Racism was always a con game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It’s the red flag that is danced before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract. To keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy. Keep it focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence is to define black people as reaction to white presence…
It’s important to know who the real enemy is and to know the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing YOUR WORK. It keeps you explaining over and over your reason for being.
It may very well be left to artists to grapple with this fact (the distraction). For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar and the names of people shipped not only the number. And to the artist one can only say: not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever. You must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power.
And I urge you to be careful for there is a deadly prison. A prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.
Wise words. After the speech Morrison took questions and made these remarks about audience:
…you write for all those people in the book who don’t even pick up the book. Those are the people who justify it. Those are the people who make it authentic. Those are the people you have to please. All those non-readers…They are the ones to whom one speaks. Not to the NY Times. Not to the editors. Not to media. Not to anything. It is a very private thing. They are the ones who say, “yea, uh huh that’s right.” And when THAT happens, very strangely or actually very naturally what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as very inward and private, the end result is its communication with the world at large.
I don’t really care about that control. Life is short. Freedom is in my mind. That’s where one is free. There’s always some other constriction. But the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity. And to do it better next time.
And the key – the artist’s role is to bear witness, to contribute to the record, the real record of life as he or she knows it. Perceptions that are one’s own… You exercise control only when you assert control.
I just hired an illustrator to work on my picture book about blues women, the Great Migration, and lynching. I remember telling my students about this story while teaching a course on lynching at Ohio University. More than a dozen years have passed and I’m finally putting it out into the world. Because as Morrison explains, “the very important point is to do the work that one respects and do it well. And to make no compromises in its authenticity.” I haven’t given up on the traditional publishing industry but I am going ahead with the stories I know they will never print. “You exercise control only when you assert control.”
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