The Role Publishing Plays in the Commodification of Black Pain

For more than two weeks now, the United States, and much of the world, has seen daily protests and demonstrations following yet another slew of murders of unarmed Black people. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, too many others, have had their lives snuffed out by the ever-present pandemic of racial and police violence. As usual, a plethora of hashtags arose from the social media seas. Among them was #AmplifyBlackVoices, meant to highlight works by Black authors and writers.

This led to a boom in follows, subscriptions, book sales, likes, and retweets across the board. Hundreds, if not thousands of people showed up to support Black authors. At least, they showed up long enough to make a few clicks. I, like my colleagues, am grateful for the boost in visibility and sales. I’m delighted by the prospect of gaining and engaging new readers, but this moment is bittersweet. I can’t truly savor what’s happening in any real capacity, because I’m plagued by a particular question:

Where was this support before?

Before the murders. Before the cruelties captured on video. Before the TL lit up like a Roman candle of anti-Black abuse and trauma.

The joy of receiving enthusiastic messages about how great my books sound, and how happy people are to find them, is tempered by the fact that Black people had to suffer for any of this to happen. And there are so many messages, though one in particular rises to the surface. Probably because it’s the one I receive the most. “Why didn’t I hear/know about the Nightmare Verse before!?”

A few potential answers come to mind, but if I’m going to be honest—and now seems to be the time—it all boils down to this: My Black books aren’t the “right” Black books.

Remember the conversations around the Oscars and Emmys, and the roles Black actors receive awards for? Gang bangers. Drug dealers. Crack heads. Maids. Parts steeped in stereotypes about the struggle, ready-made for non-Black consumption. Accolades are heaped upon films like The Help and The Green Book, while other Black movies are painted as underperformers due to a lack of support. Just like movies and television, publishing has a way of rewarding a particular type of Black story, and—for lack of a better term—punishing the rest.

So, back to the previous line of questioning; why didn’t you hear about The Nightmare-Verse, or many other stories by Black authors? Because our books don’t center on Black pain. In the industry, stories about police brutality, the struggle, poverty, etc. have been dubbed “issue” books, and it’s a not-so-secret secret that if your book doesn’t fall into this category, it won’t get any real push or marketing. These are the “right” Black books I referenced earlier. Nearly all other Black books are treated as less important. They’re denied the time and resources needed to make them successful. They’re ignored by the industry, by librarians, by awards committees, by schools, and yes, even by certain readers. Unless, of course, there’s a protest going on. Then everyone wants those ally cookies, nom nom.

Let me take a brief moment to say, I’m not mad at a single Black author who has written these incredibly important stories. Issue books provide much needed insight into what Black people, black kids and teens, are dealing with. These stories need to be told, and Black authors are the ones who should be telling them. These stories deserve every ounce of recognition they receive.

But this laser-like focus on the “right” books sends a clear message to Black authors, Black readers, and Black people as a whole: your stories aren’t worth much if you don’t bleed on the page for us. Not only does this take Black narratives hostage, and pigeonhole them into being trauma porn, it exposes the intended audience for those stories to tangible harm. Harm that has been documented and discussed extensively.

Every time another Black person has their life snatched away by police brutality or racism, social media is flooded with videos and pictures of the incident. And, every time, Black people have to remind allies how such posts subject Black communities to both old trauma and new. So many cries for justice have gone unanswered. So many bodies and lost lives have been swept under the rug. Seeing these posts not only carves a fresh wound into the collective Black psyche, it opens scars. These posts take a psychological toll that very often manifests physically, and harken unto darker days when white people would make, sell, and send each other lynching postcards as a form of entertainment.

The same thing happens when teachers, schools, librarians, and others highlight issue books over and over and over. This doesn’t serve the children these books are meant for. No one stops to consider the effects of repeatedly subjecting Black children to racism, police brutality, and anti-Blackness on the page without something to break it up. Then there’s the exploitative aspect of non-Black readers taking in this story and somehow feeling they’ve accomplished something. They’ve managed activism by bearing witness to the events of the book, but then don’t follow up with seeking change in the real world. Reading then becomes performative.

Now, Black people know the importance of all of our stories. We know that for every “issue” book, we need at least five more where we can go on adventures, fall in love, solve mysteries, be heroes, do everyday things like everyone else. Black readers need to see themselves in narratives outside of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality. As do non-Black readers. In order to create a safe world for Black people, books that don’t focus on “issues” need to be given just as much space. They provide an opportunity for Black readers to have a moment for themselves, to take a breath, readjust, and simply exist, and for non-Black readers to see us as fully human.

During moments like the one currently gripping this country, and the world, non-Black people like to talk about how much they’re listening. How they hear Black people. How they see us. But when the moment inevitably ends, when the memory of our brutalization fades into memes and TikTok videos and selfies, Black people will be left to pick up the pieces of our broken, battered selves and try to carry on, now burdened with the truth that people only pay attention to our televised and printed genocide.

The follows and subscriptions will stop. The engagement will decrease. The likes and RTs will dwindle. The hype and industry support will dry up, like it always does. Only one type of story will be worth amplifying, anymore. Back to basics. Back to only acknowledging one aspect of our humanity, which happens to be one of the most painful.

The Hate U Give is an amazing book. Dear Martin is an incredible book. Monster is church stomp worthy. These and all other stories like them are phenomenal works that highlight topics that are important to the Black community. Please, keep buying them. Keep reading them. Keep teaching them. They are needed.

But so are books like Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia, which is about a Black boy who goes on an adventure to save a fantastical realm. How about The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, a book about a Black girl in a fantastical world where the price of beauty is a steep, dangerous one. Then there’s A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow, which is about two Black girls who are sister friends in a world peppered with the paranormal. Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds is about Black kids dealing with loss, love, and time travel! A Blade So Black is about a Black girl charged to save the world from beasts from the dark world of Wonderland. As I said, Black people recognize how vital it is to read books like these in order to avoid being besieged by Black trauma at every turn. It’s getting everyone else to realize the importance of these types of stories that’s the problem.

I can’t say all, but most Black authors I know, if you ask them which book of theirs is the most “successful” in terms of numbers, awards, engagement, it’s gonna be the one that focuses on Black pain.

And don’t get me wrong, Black authors are happy the industry is paying attention in this moment, but it has to go beyond that. It has to go beyond this hyper focus on our trauma. Publishing and the various entities within it have to see all of us, or this equality thing won’t work. Black people are worth more than our suffering.

I am happy to have new readers. I truly am. I’m thankful for the RTs and likes. I’m glad for the support, but I recognize that it’s conditional. I recognize it took Black bodies, dead and dying, for people to show up. And I recognize how, even in the midst of all this progress, publishing remains unwilling to spend big money on anything but the spectacle of Black pain.

L.L. McKinney is a writer, a poet, and an active member of the kidlit community. She’s an advocate for equality and inclusion in publishing, and the creator of the hashtag #WhatWoCWritersHear. She’s spent time in the slush by serving as a reader for agents and participating as a judge in various online writing contests. She’s also a gamer girl and an adamant Hei Hei stan. Her works include the Nightmare-Verse books, starting with the A Blade So Black trilogy, and an upcoming graphic novel for DC featuring Nubia, Wonder Woman’s twin sister, and more.

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