Evangeline Holland

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February 7th, 2016 by Evangeline Holland

On Black Art, Beyonce, and Diversity in Publishing

Beyoncé Formation

I’m forming a knee-jerk reaction against the word “diversity.” At this point it’s like saying Beetlejuice three times, and then a serious debate/rant/conversation will materialize, and then die down until the word is chanted in the mirror again. And the word/conversation keeps being framed as though ~diverse~ authors, editors, agents, other industry professionals, and readers only came into existence once mainstream audiences and media began to discuss the issue.

(But, if you want to read the latest pithy and amazing testimonies, I point you to Piper Huguley, Christina C. Jones, India Valentin, and the hashtag #WritersofColor)

Which brings me to the topic of this post.

One of the academic points I love love love to read about and discuss is African-American performance and identity via the arts. Two “soundbites” from Du Bois converge here: the concept of Double Consciousness and his criteria for Negro art.

When I opened my Instagram app and saw a post from Beyoncé’s account, I mosied on over to Tidal to see what she was up to. A caveat: I’m not a member of the Beyhive (cue gasps of shock), but I respect her longevity, work ethic, and the way she can put on one helluva show. But as I watched Formation, I was speechless in shock and awe. The melody is kind of throwaway, but the lyrics and accompanying music video leapt out to me as completely fulfilling Du Bois’s criteria. The Veil was ripped off.

I closed the Tidal app after watching the video twice and bemusedly anticipated the onslaught of yaaas, slay, and queen to fill social media and my favorite pop culture sites, as well as a gazillion thinkpieces on every single media website in existence. So my eyebrows rose considerably when so many other people got it and called for the thinkpieces to be written by black women.

Later on, as I began to formulate this post, I mused over Beyoncé dropping this overtly black female political music video into the mainstream. Granted, Beyonce hasn’t ever not celebrated her black womanhood or the black womanhood of her audience, and videos like Bootylicious, or Déjà Vu have head-nodded to black icons—yet, they’ve never as blatantly talking to the black community only as the lyrics and video for Formation.

I’ve been having lots of thoughts about “diversity in publishing,” but they didn’t snap until this video. In a nutshell, I feel the topic is flattening and compressing into an eventually generic conversation the more it spirals into mainstream circles.

The conversation assumes that black (or other POC) art should be fully accessible to the mainstream to be ~marketable~ and enjoyable.

(I find this is probably where the pearl-clutching over “quality” comes into play–the book reads “poor” because it’s not written for you; it’s not written in the same voice and vernacular to which you’ve grown accustomed after years of reading canonical literature and A-List genre fiction writers).

It assumes that diverse voices must be packaged exactly like mainstream work to succesfully reach mainstream readers.

It assumes that diverse voices need mainstream attention to pull them into the spotlight–that the diverse writer’s core audience isn’t enough to declare said writer successful.

Last year, British writer and Man Booker winner Marlon James caused an uproar when he stated that “writers of colour pander to the white woman.” Somewhat around the same time, an older Pew Report about college-educated black women being the most likely to read a book popped back up. And then there’s the Lee & Low survey, which clearly shows that the gatekeepers in publishing are mostly white women.

But all of this is to say that the push to normalize diversity risks erasing the nuances. It chances pushing the intra-community dialogue between the writer and his/her readers out of focus. It may do the opposite of what the campaign intends, which is to nurture and nourish diverse voices.

Space needs to be made for all, but if the book is fulfilling Du Bois’s criteria, it should still have the same shot at similar shelf placement, advance, and marketing dollars as a more mainstream novel (and POC authors ought to have the ability to shift back and forth between audiences—like Beyonce).

Comments

3 Responses to “On Black Art, Beyonce, and Diversity in Publishing”
  1. Laura Vivanco says

    “the book reads ‘poor’ because it’s not written for you; it’s not written in the same voice and vernacular to which you’ve grown accustomed”

    This resonates with some of the commentary I came across when trying to find out more about the idea of the “melting pot”: it seemed like for some people what that meant was they accepted difference in skin-colour but only in return for non-Anglo people conforming to Anglo cultural and linguistic norms.

    • Yes, exactly. I see the myth of the melting pot as kin to the whole concept of “American Exceptionalism.”

      What pushed me out of the prose rut were the texts I studied in a fantastic literature seminar I took last year, and my reading predominantly outside of the romance genre (also last year). I experienced a variety of voices, each playing with and shaping language to fit their art and story, as opposed to remaining as neutral as possible for the widest, most accessible reading experience.

      I think that the structure and construction of romance makes it the least malleable and adaptable genre when it comes to fully integrating culturally diverse voices. Romance jargon—the descriptions, the character archetypes, the characterization and plotting shorthand—is entrenched even in writing workshops and how-to articles. And because the genre entwines itself so tightly with personal identification/fantasy, it inherently refuses room for prose outside of the standard.

  2. This is going to be long and probably rambly. Just know I’m in awe of your mind.

    First, thank you for posting this.

    “And the word/conversation keeps being framed as though ~diverse~ authors, editors, agents, other industry professionals, and readers only came into existence once mainstream audiences and media began to discuss the issue.”

    Why, yes. I don’t write romance unless someone is looking for characters that look like X. Then, only then, am I relevant.

    “So my eyebrows rose considerably when so many other people got it and called for the thinkpieces to be written by black women.”

    It’s the climate of the times. POC are so much more aware of the chasm. They’ve read the thinkpieces regarding #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlMagic by someone not in the know. What seems to be clear cut instances of injustices, or a lack of understanding in the mainstream is hand waved or not even mentioned. In other words, mainstream America was given the chance to do thoughtful, fair breakdowns and too often they failed horribly to grasp even the obvious, bigger issues.

    “yet, they’ve never as blatantly talking to the black community only as the lyrics and video for Formation.”

    And what I find interesting here is that some are saying that just looking at the lyrics or at the lyrics and video that it’s not “black.” It’s not empowering. I would urge them to think about what black means in America. For many, because of the simple roots of America, black means Southern. As far back as many can reach, the buck stops in the South. Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia, etc. Then all they can find is Negro girl 11 in ancestry records.

    “The conversation assumes that black (or other POC) art should be fully accessible to the mainstream to be ~marketable~ and enjoyable.”

    And here is where my head kind of imploded. I, too, didn’t think of that. I’ve always seen it as is African American, Asian, Latino or Hispanic, so “other” that there is absolutely no mass appeal? There’s such a need for connection as in “I am not alone.” That, to me, is the call for inclusion. No matter my race or culture, we all want to be heard, accepted, loved. With that thought we are all telling the same stories, right? Not to wash out the nuance of our differences, those are so very important, but can’t we connect and tell our stories as varied and enriched by our chosen culture?

    “I find this is probably where the pearl-clutching over “quality” comes into play–the book reads “poor” because it’s not written for you; it’s not written in the same voice and vernacular to which you’ve grown accustomed after years of reading canonical literature and A-List genre fiction writers)”

    And here I’m hit with the thought, the most important stories sometimes are told to someone who is not only familiar but have lived and thrived in all the nuance that would be foreign to someone else. Back again to the South, but Southern fiction is written unapologetically for those who grew up and will die below the Dixie Line. If you can catch on, good. If not it was never written for you in the first place. And because of that, my favorite and probably one of the top ten lines for me of all time is from gods In Alabama ““There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel’s, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus.”

    I get it even as a Cali girl because my folks, all of them, came from the South. Every custom, every saying and belief I live and breath.

    That circles back around to it’s not for you and that’s okay. Why would anyone expect for someone who was never even versed or have had a crash course in “blackness” to get why Beyonce’s Formation is so damn important? If someone was never told their nose, something so simple, was ugly for centuries…why would that resonate? If someone was never told their natural hair was undesirable…why would they be moved to celebrate that one small line, that shout out?

    “But all of this is to say that the push to normalize diversity risks erasing the nuances. ”

    With that said…lol

    Maybe it’s Pollyanna of me to not buy into that. We’ve seen the…maybe not normalization, but familiarity of different cultures into the mainstream. Most people, I would assume, know about Quinceañeras—a celebration of a girl turning 15 in the Latin culture. Just as they would know a Bar Mitzvah. Those celebrations have not lost their nuance simply because the mainstream understands what it is and the importance of it in its culture.

    Me, I think the problem is acknowledging blackness in this country means acknowledging the biggest, ugliest wrong done to the black community. You cannot talk about African Americans and their roots in this country without digging into two hundred years where an entire race was considered furniture. Things to be auctioned off, inherited. Black becomes synonyms with shame. No one wants to talk about things they are ashamed of. Even if they had nothing to do with it.

    So someone who is considered mainstream, accepted as such struts their blackness. They bring up beauty standards. They point out the mistreatment of blacks in regards to law enforcement. They spotlight NOLA and Katrina—to date the biggest and most evident disregard for poor blacks. The one safe black person who didn’t bring up the ugly past did.

    How dare she?

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