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Here’s how I felt after attending a People’s Townhall on publishing’s “radical future.”

Aaron Robertson

June 26, 2020, 2:33pm

During a virtual town hall last night, as a group of four friends were discussing what it was like to work as people of color in publishing, I thought of the things I’d valued blindly in elementary and high school, to say nothing of college.

I grew up with my mother’s side of the family in Michigan, in and outside of Detroit. Though my mother’s economic situation has since changed, she wasn’t particularly well-off for most of my life—when applying for college, I still qualified for scholarships available to low-income students of color. Still, I knew my mother and I would never face critical deprivation. Some close relatives made a good amount of money. They had the emotional and, if necessary, monetary means to offer my mom and me a safety net.

I’d realized my love for writing and reading at a young age and had the freedom to nurture it. Unfortunately, some members of my family peddled racist, self-hating stereotypes about Black people in the inner city (we were, for the most part, Black suburbanites).

That kind of thinking poisoned me. I’m still scrounging for cures. (Many years after my high school girlfriend and I split, I wrote her a message thanking her for showing me James Baldwin’s short story, “Sonny’s Blues.” In ways I didn’t initially appreciate, Baldwin threw me a lifeline, which Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Leon Forrest pulled to shore.)

So, I grew up code-switching. Man, did I. I knew how to navigate whiteness, master it, in fact, which often meant cloaking myself beneath it. I “talked white.” I grew up writing mediocre poetry and fiction with white protagonists. I was the teacher’s pet, the Black boy who rose above to snatch the master’s chain, the rags-to-(intellectual) riches local kid who exceeded his station (“Single mother! Father once imprisoned! Write a memoir!”).

Much of my undergraduate and graduate training equipped me with an education predisposed to perpetuate icons of whiteness, white systems of thought, in whatever industry I chose to pursue. It’s embarrassing to confess all the ways imperialist academic departments’ love of French poststructuralism can fuck a brother up.

At the People’s Townhall, the four employees didn’t have answers for any aspiring white allies who may have been watching (all 1,000 spots for the Zoom session were filled). They talked about some of the usual problems facing BIPOC writers, publicists, editors, etc.: tokenization, genre pigeon-holing, exhausted emotional reserves, the extra labor required for voluntary mentorship initiatives, expectations of perfection, and so on, and so on.

In this moment, I’m refurbishing my personal value system as I also try to undo arrangements that place Black people’s imaginations in chokeholds. When I attained the dream I thought I wanted (some kind of writing/publishing gig in New York City), I realized I had no idea what I wanted from it. There was a vague sense of, If you stick it out for 20 years you’ll be a gatekeeper too. 

We’ve gotta cut that out. The “changing the face of our company” reforms that are happening across the digital media and publishing landscapes are important, and private reflection is important.

But if our companies do not currently have shared Google Docs open with early drafts of plans to engage elementary and high school students and people who do not live on one of two coasts; or to build partnerships with publishers that extend beyond the Big 5 to smaller, virtually unknown presses that champion writing by and for people of color; or to give concrete career advice and a rolodex of contacts to our interns; or to provide curious young writers with first-hand industry testimonials and research about hiring practices; or to ensure those on the highest rungs of leadership meet regularly with those on the lowest; or to assist with literacy programs around the country—what are we doing instead?

I recently put a Post-It on my wall to remind me of something I often forget: “Unless I act, I have no true right to despair.”

Hold me to it.

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