Where are the Great American Authors of Color?

Tonight, I noticed a friend’s Facebook post asking what people thought of the results of PBS’s Great American Read. I think I remember taking part in one of the polls, but I’m not much a reader–I’ve only read 14 of the titles on the list, which is more than I expected.

However, as a Scholarly Publishing Services Librarian in the process of launching a library publishing program, I am interested in the power dynamics of publishing–whose stories get told? Who has the authority to tell them? How does systemic racism in publishing, education, and librarianship push the voices of authors and scholars of color to the margins of the published record?

Image: PBS

So, my interest in looking at the results of the Great American Read wasn’t to see how many of the books I read (I did that count when I started writing this post), but to see how authors of color fared. Not surprisingly, not well.

The top book is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a story about racism written by a white author. Which in itself is fine, but it is often used in school curricula to teach about racism. While many school boards have weighed removing the book from its curriculum because of the novel’s use of the n-word, Andray Domise presents a more compelling reason to remove the book from school curriculum: there are better books out available to teach race to teenagers, books by Black authors that center Black characters and presents racism from their perspective. In other words, books that explore racism through the voices of the oppressed. Indeed, education intended to raise awareness of racism and multiculturalism should highlight and center voices of color.

As for the authors of color that made the list, most of the 19 appear towards the bottom of the list. Only three authors of color cracked the top 50: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series placed second, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is #27, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is #42. Meanwhile, 7 of the bottom 10 are written by authors of color. There are no books from Native American authors.

What does this say about the status of diversity in publishing? Hannah Ehrlich, from Lee & Low Books, argues that the makeup of the list is another indicator of the need to push for more diverse books. The 100 titles in the list were selected from those generated in an initial poll of ~7,200 people, then curated with the assistance of 13 literary agency professionals. Do we owe the presence of any of the books by authors of color to the intervention of the professionals? The Washington Post‘s Mark Athitakis points out that many in the top 25 are books people are likely to have read in their childhood (He also calls out the list’s lack of diversity). School boards, educators, and librarians play a large role in determining which books end up in students’ hands–as a librarian, I believe it’s crucial that our collections are reflective of a diversity of identities and lived experiences.

To go back to the books I’ve read on the list–two of my favorite books did make the list: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Other books by authors of color among my favorites include Sapphire’s Push and Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior.