Generic image
Thinkstock

Recently, in the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz described his experience in his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program: His first year, he almost dropped out because it “was too white.”

States Diaz: “I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experience as a person of color.”  

Advertisement

Diaz’s experience is not unusual. A decade ago, in my incoming class of the graduate program in fiction writing at New York University, there were three women of African descent—one from Ethiopia, one from the American South and myself, from Uganda. There were also two men of African descent—one biracial Jewish man and one from the American West. An Asian-American student rounded out the diversity.

In grad school, we five of African descent were lucky. But it still was not enough. The way the MFA-fiction program worked, even though there were five of us that year, we were sprinkled, one each, throughout the five workshops to create diversity for the other nonblack students. So I actually was never in a classroom setting with another black writer. Instead, in this world of fiction writing anchored in whiteness and absent of black characters, I had to defend my identity both on and off the page.

Why does this lack of diversity matter? Stories are how we see ourselves. Stories are representation. Stories are how we shape meaning. They are the legacy of our culture, determining which conversations are given voice and which people are valued.

Advertisement

As black people, our writing draws from our lives and cultural experiences, things like the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Mike Brown; civil rights and slavery; revolutions and genocides in the various African countries we hail from—things often termed “too political” by the white establishment and ill-liked in workshop, and later passed over at book auction. Samantha Chang recalls being told by the director of her program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop not to write Asian-American characters if she wanted to be a success. Diaz writes that his workshop at Cornell had “an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force,” and was never to be talked about “except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”

But for a lot of us writers of color, the impetus to become writers was because of racial injustice, and this was paramount in our work.

The situation does not end with the student body. Nearly all professors in MFA-fiction programs are white. There are just 14 tenured or tenure-track writers of African descent out of the 262 tenured or tenure-track faculty teaching in the top 50 MFA-fiction programs in the United States as defined by the 2012 rankings in Poets & Writers magazine.

In part this is because faculty appointments are based on the number of publications (and reviews) one has amassed, and black writers are published (and reviewed) significantly less than white writers, as Roxane Gay noted in an informal count she completed two years back. And that, in part, is because, as studies have repeatedly shown, racial bias imbues every area of life, even the arts and the academy.

So, in all this, what is the likelihood that a black writer will come across a professor who understands his or her cultural expression and wants to invest in him or her? What is the likelihood that a white student in an MFA program will study with a black professor and learn to appreciate this culturally specific craft and black writers? What is the likelihood that black writers will be included in an MFA syllabus? What is the likelihood that a white writer will realize the necessity of writing diverse characters outside of stereotypes and unconscious racism? What is the likelihood that that white writer, when getting a job as an agent or editor, a book buyer or reviewer, or a public relations or marketing guru, will be open to black writers when black writers have been absent from his or her entire literary journey?            

Not very high.

“I think of the publishing world as primarily white, absolutely,” states editor Dawn Davis, one of the few African-American gatekeepers in publishing and the new head of Simon & Schuster’s 37 Ink imprint. 

Advertisement

“They were established by relatively wealthy white men, and they sort of perpetuated their own kind from school connections, things like that,” confirms Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster.

To sell a book, a black author will have to get it past a white gatekeeper, whether agent or editor. And for a book to succeed, states editor and co-founder of the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee Cheryl Klein, “it’s important to have advocates at every stage, from editing to marketing, from librarians to authors, so it’s an industrywide effort.” The amount of money invested in a book’s marketing campaign can make or break the book.

One best-selling African-American fiction author describes receiving the upcoming catalog from her Big Five publisher and noticing that she was the only black author included. States the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about and/or by black people.”

Advertisement

The above-mentioned survey conducted in 2012 by Gay found that of the 742 books reviewed in the New York Times, only 31 had been written by black authors—21 men, 10 women. Writes Gay: “Nearly 90 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times are written by white writers.”

And the revolutionary Kiese Laymon, as well as countless other black authors, speaks of having work turned away because “there is no market for black fiction” or writing about the black experience in America is “too political.”

The justification from the publishing world is that there are not enough black authors submitting work and that black authors themselves must advocate for change. Here, explains sci-fi/fantasy wunderkind Daniel José Older, “the agent places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it.”

Advertisement

States Rutgers professor and Silver Sparrow author Tayari Jones: “I remember when there was a little cluster of black folks in NYC publishing, but now I think they can be counted on one hand.”

But there is hope.

“African-American women are the largest group of readers in the country. The most likely to read a book: college-educated black women,” declares Dawn Davis. This is the market publishers deny.

Advertisement

“Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist,” Asian-American Writers’ Workshop Director Ken Chen adds, “and if you can’t imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can’t imagine selling books to them.”

African Americans and fellow people of color who write fiction have created spaces like VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation), Kimbilio Center for African-American Fiction, Canto Mundo, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop for solidarity and advocacy. And those few exceptions who have become shining lights, like Diaz, are unafraid to speak out. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books have also been created.

Diverse classrooms, faculty and books are important. With black writers and black MFA professors absent, our stories will continue to be left out or squeezed into shallow, racist stereotypes when occurring at all in popular culture, news and other media—these false, socially constructed narratives of blackness dangerously permeating all aspects of our culture, whether within the political arena or in racially biased enforcement of law and justice.

More in The Root’s ongoing coverage of educational issues:

An Educator’s Perspective: It’s Too Easy to Blame Parents When Kids Can’t Read

America’s Unspoken Education Issue: Black Kids Need Black Teachers

Recently, in the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz described his experience in his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program: His first year, he almost dropped out because it “was too white.”

Advertisement

States Diaz: “I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experience as a person of color.”  

Diaz’s experience is not unusual. A decade ago, in my incoming class of the graduate program in fiction writing at New York University, there were three women of African descent—one from Ethiopia, one from the American South and myself, from Uganda. There were also two men of African descent—one biracial Jewish man and one from the American West. An Asian-American student rounded out the diversity.

In grad school, we five of African descent were lucky. But it still was not enough. The way the MFA-fiction program worked, even though there were five of us that year, we were sprinkled, one each, throughout the five workshops to create diversity for the other nonblack students. So I actually was never in a classroom setting with another black writer. Instead, in this world of fiction writing anchored in whiteness and absent of black characters, I had to defend my identity both on and off the page.

Advertisement

Why does this lack of diversity matter? Stories are how we see ourselves. Stories are representation. Stories are how we shape meaning. They are the legacy of our culture, determining which conversations are given voice and which people are valued.

As black people, our writing draws from our lives and cultural experiences, things like the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Mike Brown; civil rights and slavery; revolutions and genocides in the various African countries we hail from—things often termed “too political” by the white establishment and ill-liked in workshop, and later passed over at book auction. Samantha Chang recalls being told by the director of her program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop not to write Asian-American characters if she wanted to be a success. Diaz writes that his workshop at Cornell had “an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force,” and was never to be talked about “except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”

But for a lot of us writers of color, the impetus to become writers was because of racial injustice, and this was paramount in our work.

Advertisement

The situation does not end with the student body. Nearly all professors in MFA-fiction programs are white. There are just 14 tenured or tenure-track writers of African descent out of the 262 tenured or tenure-track faculty teaching in the top 50 MFA-fiction programs in the United States as defined by the 2012 rankings in Poets & Writers magazine.

In part this is because faculty appointments are based on the number of publications (and reviews) one has amassed, and black writers are published (and reviewed) significantly less than white writers, as Roxane Gay noted in an informal count she completed two years back. And that, in part, is because, as studies have repeatedly shown, racial bias imbues every area of life, even the arts and the academy.

So, in all this, what is the likelihood that a black writer will come across a professor who understands his or her cultural expression and wants to invest in him or her? What is the likelihood that a white student in an MFA program will study with a black professor and learn to appreciate this culturally specific craft and black writers? What is the likelihood that black writers will be included in an MFA syllabus? What is the likelihood that a white writer will realize the necessity of writing diverse characters outside of stereotypes and unconscious racism? What is the likelihood that that white writer, when getting a job as an agent or editor, a book buyer or reviewer, or a public relations or marketing guru, will be open to black writers when black writers have been absent from his or her entire literary journey?            

Not very high.

“I think of the publishing world as primarily white, absolutely,” states editor Dawn Davis, one of the few African-American gatekeepers in publishing and the new head of Simon & Schuster’s 37 Ink imprint. 

Advertisement

“They were established by relatively wealthy white men, and they sort of perpetuated their own kind from school connections, things like that,” confirms Carolyn Reidy, CEO of Simon & Schuster.

To sell a book, a black author will have to get it past a white gatekeeper, whether agent or editor. And for a book to succeed, states editor and co-founder of the Children’s Book Council Diversity Committee Cheryl Klein, “it’s important to have advocates at every stage, from editing to marketing, from librarians to authors, so it’s an industrywide effort.” The amount of money invested in a book’s marketing campaign can make or break the book.

One best-selling African-American fiction author describes receiving the upcoming catalog from her Big Five publisher and noticing that she was the only black author included. States the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin: “Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about and/or by black people.”

Advertisement

The above-mentioned survey conducted in 2012 by Gay found that of the 742 books reviewed in the New York Times, only 31 had been written by black authors—21 men, 10 women. Writes Gay: “Nearly 90 percent of the books reviewed by the New York Times are written by white writers.”

And the revolutionary Kiese Laymon, as well as countless other black authors, speaks of having work turned away because “there is no market for black fiction” or writing about the black experience in America is “too political.”

The justification from the publishing world is that there are not enough black authors submitting work and that black authors themselves must advocate for change. Here, explains sci-fi/fantasy wunderkind Daniel José Older, “the agent places the onus of change on the folks with the least institutional power to effect it.”

Advertisement

States Rutgers professor and Silver Sparrow author Tayari Jones: “I remember when there was a little cluster of black folks in NYC publishing, but now I think they can be counted on one hand.”

But there is hope.

“African-American women are the largest group of readers in the country. The most likely to read a book: college-educated black women,” declares Dawn Davis. This is the market publishers deny.

Advertisement

“Your ability to imagine that there is a market has to do with your ability to imagine that those people exist,” Asian-American Writers’ Workshop Director Ken Chen adds, “and if you can’t imagine that people of color actually exist and can buy books, then you can’t imagine selling books to them.”

African Americans and fellow people of color who write fiction have created spaces like VONA (Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation), Kimbilio Center for African-American Fiction, Canto Mundo, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop for solidarity and advocacy. And those few exceptions who have become shining lights, like Diaz, are unafraid to speak out. Organizations like We Need Diverse Books have also been created.

Diverse classrooms, faculty and books are important. With black writers and black MFA professors absent, our stories will continue to be left out or squeezed into shallow, racist stereotypes when occurring at all in popular culture, news and other media—these false, socially constructed narratives of blackness dangerously permeating all aspects of our culture, whether within the political arena or in racially biased enforcement of law and justice.

More in The Root’s ongoing coverage of educational issues:

An Educator’s Perspective: It’s Too Easy to Blame Parents When Kids Can’t Read

America’s Unspoken Education Issue: Black Kids Need Black Teachers

Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.