On the 22nd February, my publishing company, the Jeli, will launch by publishing 29 Steps, the very first story in a five work collection aptly titled The Launch Collection. Whilst this comes as a very significant stage in what is, in a sense, a lifelong journey for me, it is also part of a much bigger story:
Stories of Blackness — Chapter 1: Readers
“We were only reading books about white boys and their dogs.”
That’s a quote from Marley Dias who started a campaign earlier this year to collect and donate 1000 books where black girls are the main characters. Marley was prompted to start the campaign when she discovered that not one of the books assigned to her fifth grade class featured girls of colour.
Marley’s story is emblematic of the publishing industry’s relationship with black women and girls, in particular, and black people more generally. Her very public campaign is reflective of the openness of black readers; we read out loud and in public; one only needs to look to people such as Brown Girl Reading on YouTube and Well Read Black Girl on Twitter/ Instagram/ Tumblr alongside hosts of others on those and other social networks. They embody Ken Saro-Wiwa’s proclamation that ‘Literature should be taken to the street’ — in this case we are out here and reading in these digital streets.
Moreover, this neglect is actually rather incomprehensible from an economic standpoint. Studies show that black girls and black women are the most prolific readers. How then could any publisher not see the benefit in targeting them specifically and explicitly?
In addition, Marley’s story reflects the way in which the mainstream publishing industry too often ignores black readers. Even when books contain black protagonists, publishers seem reluctant to allow black people to see themselves:
— Tweet courtesy of Mikki Kendall
— The US Hardcover edition of Sandra Newman’s novel The Country of Ice Cream Star did not depict it’s protagonist, a young black heroine.
Last year, the rallying cry ‘Representation Matters’ was repeatedly proven true through the exploits of our brothers and sisters, such as Viola Davis, John Boyega, in the film and television arena. It’s about time we saw the same happening in publishing. That’s why I have created the Jeli, a publishing company and community for black readers and readers of colour. I want women and girls like Marley to see themselves on the covers and in the pages of the books that they read.