Evangeline Holland

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February 7th, 2016

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).