Monday, January 25, 2010

Publishing Is Not Color Blind

STATUS: Ready to head home. It’s after 7 o’clock.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RESPECT by Aretha Franklin
(I'll admit I did pop her on just to write this entry.)

In order to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, I blogged about three terrific African-American authors and suggested that folks might want to check them out and even potentially buy an African-American author to honor the day.

One commentator admonished me with “there's an unspoken implication that readers only need to think about books by black authors on a particular day, kind of like Black History Month.”

I actually don’t disagree; however, I still would have recommended some great AA authors on MLK day regardless of the unspoken implication that they might “need” the extra help by highlighting them on a special day.

Why? Because publishing, sadly, is not color-blind and despite some big AA break-out authors, books by people of color are not published equally.

It’s the truth.

And now I’ll explain.

First off, I want to point to yet another recent controversy spawned by the Publisher Bloomsbury Children’s. They didn’t quite learn their lesson the first time around with the cover fiasco involving the novel LIAR. They had to do it again with a debut novel called MAGIC UNDER GLASS.

Maybe I should assume that in this case they thought any publicity was good publicity because really, are they this inept?

Notwithstanding this recent issue, in general when you browse the bookstore fiction shelves and there are people depicted on the cover, how often are they non-white?

Perhaps iconic images for all books are the way to go….

But here’s another case in point. Let’s go back to my author, Kim Reid, and her debut memoir NO PLACE SAFE—which is an amazing read by the way.

This is a memoir. Logically speaking, where do you think this book ought to be shelved in bookstores?

Gee, I don’t know. Maybe it should be shelved in memoir—say next to Mr. Frey who might have been better represented in fiction? Or, how about in the same section that houses THE GLASS CASTLE or EAT PRAY LOVE—both of which are memoir books.

Nope. Barnes & Noble shelved this book in African-American studies.

Yes, you read this correctly.

And go find the AA Studies section in your local BN store. See what other titles are there. That’s like shelving A MILLION LITTLE PIECES under drug addiction and nowhere else.

Yep. This despite the fact that Booklist called it a gripping memoir, “Part mystery thriller, part coming-of-age story, and part civil-rights history.”

Shelving like that can kill a book.

So I don’t care what my suggestion implies on MLK day, I’m darn well going to highlight Kim’s fantastic memoir and I’m going to do it again here by giving you the opening pages--especially since we've been talking about opening pages that grabbed an agent's attention. If this doesn’t compel you to buy it, well, I’m not sure what will.


The summer before I started high school, two boys went missing and a few days later, turned up dead. They were found by a mother and son looking for aluminum cans alongside a quiet wooded road. It was already ninety degrees at noon, even with an overcast sky, because it was the end of July in Atlanta, Georgia, which I imagine is similar to the heat in hell, except with humidity. The mother thought she saw an animal at the bottom of a steep embankment that started its descent just a couple of feet from the road. The combination of heat and damp created a smell that frightened her. Something about the odor must have told her it wasn’t an animal at all, must have made her call her young child to her lest he discover the source. They left off the search for discarded cans and walked to a gas station where the mother called her husband, and he called the police.

The boys were friends, one about to celebrate his fifteenth birthday, the other had just turned thirteen, same age as I at the time. One went missing four days after the first, but they were both found on the same day, not two hundred feet apart in a ravine just off Niskey Lake Road. The two detectives first on the scene, responding to a signal forty-eight (person dead), noted in their report that either side of the road was bordered by trees, like most streets were in Atlanta at the time. Loblolly pine, white oaks and the occasional stray dogwood that played unwitting hosts for the creeping kudzu vines that threatened to take them over completely. The officers also noted that the woods and ravines lining both sides of the road were “used as a dumping ground for trash.” This was where they found the first body. A vine growing from a nearby tree had already wrapped itself around the boy’s neck, unaware that his last breath had been stolen from him days ago.

While making notes of how the child’s body lay among other thrown-away items littering the road’s shoulder, the detectives caught an odor on a small hot breeze coming from the north. Being detectives, they knew the smell immediately and it led them to the second boy’s body. At the time, no one knew the boys were friends because the police didn’t know who they were. By the time school started, only one boy had been positively identified. More than a year would pass before a name could be given to his friend.


It wasn’t much more than a blip in the news – two black boys being killed in Atlanta in 1979 didn’t get much news coverage. The only reason I knew what I did was because my mother, an investigator with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office at the time, told me to be a little more careful. She said it was probably just a coincidence, but just as likely not, that the boys were close in age, black and found in the same wooded area.

Warning me to be a little more careful because those boys were killed was a waste of words. By my thirteenth summer, I’d learned to be nothing but careful, whether I wanted to or not. I couldn’t help but think like a cop. Even though they were my favorite, I rarely drank frozen Cokes because I avoided going into the convenience stores where they were sold (an off-duty cop still in uniform is a sitting duck if she walks in during a robbery). At restaurants, I never sat with my back to the door (you need to be aware of everyone who comes in and out, and know your entry and exit points). I always tried to carry myself like I wasn’t scared of shit (even if you are, don’t let them know or they have you). My friends called me Narc.

Ma told me about the boys while we got ready for work, sharing her bathroom mirror. I combed my hair while I studied her use of blush – the sucking in of cheeks to find the bones, the blowing of the brush to prevent over-application. This girly part of her never seemed to go with the other part, the other woman – the one who, as a uniformed officer, carried a .38-caliber service revolver in her thick leather holster, along with other things difficult to associate with a woman, especially a mother: handcuffs, nightstick, and the now illegal blackjack – solid metal covered in leather for handling an uncooperative perpetrator, or bad guy as I called them. Perpetrator filled my mouth in an uncomfortable way.

My use of cosmetics was limited to tinted lip-gloss and a brush to tame my thick and unruly eyebrows. But I watched her anyway, filing away the technique for the time she’d let me use real make-up to turn my face into something that resembled hers.