0 percent chance that this is random.
Let that sink in for a moment. For the second year in a row, the stats show that it is not possible the absence of black writers within the field is random.
In other words, white people love white people. They love to create stories about themselves. They love to read and imagine themselves the heroes in stories about themselves. They, no doubt, love themselves. The problem, though, is that it comes at the expense of all other writers, including blacks.
So I sit here staring at the blank page and my job is to convince those of you inclined to care that it’s important to have a diverse field in order to have a healthy future. But how do I do that? I could write an anecdote beguiling you with a tale about how the bias in publishing affects me. But I’m black. And you, as these numbers have shown us, don’t care. Whites, it seems, don’t want to read about fascinating, dramatic, or just plain interesting and fun stories unless they center whiteness. Instead, I’m going to use an old trick I saw in a movie once. I’m going to have you imagine that you, as a writer, sit down at your keyboard, as I am doing now, to pen a tale. However, first you must be aware of what image you want to portray, and the way others will perceive your story. Is it too urban or too exotic? You want to create a character after this amazingly interesting person you know, but she too is black. Will the markers that denote her character be too stereotypical for publication? Is she too strong? Too feisty? Too motherly? Too sexy? You see, if she’s too sexy, she may be a Jezebel, while if she’s too motherly, she may be a mammy. Too feisty? She’s a Sapphire, you know that angry black woman that we’re always hearing about. The one that black women work so hard in real life not to project so that others won’t get the “wrong idea” about her. You want to write about a black man? Make sure you stay away from the Buck, Mandingo, and Savage stereotypes, just to name a few. In fact, why don’t you just dig out your copy of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks and scan the whole 433-page volume to make sure you’re not doing more harm to your community than you are helping. After all, there were only 31 stories published by people that look like you in the 365 days that made up all of 2016. So you can’t fuck this up. Oh, but you thought you just wanted to spin a tale.
Now for the trick. As that famous movie shocked both audience members within the film and those watching on screen, I want you to imagine that you have done all of these things and you are white. That’s right, as a white person, you need to be hyperaware of your race in every single circumstance imaginable, you have to represent your race because there are shockingly few stories considered acceptable enough to appear before audiences that don’t include your race, and you must, above all else, remember that you are different. Not like those who will judge your work for acceptable “quality.” And don’t forget, you have to entertain that other race, and their sensibilities, whatever they may be.
But you remember that scene don’t you? The one from A Time To Kill where both jury members and movie goers had to be tricked into thinking a black body was worth defending. Unfortunately, here we don’t have the trick of the camera to show a swollen, broken black body or face. Even if we did, we live in a time now where the advent of the internet and camera phones have shown broken black bodies on our computer screens and in our news cycles practically daily. And let’s be honest, much of white America treats it as entertainment to pick over the wrong doings of the dead black person. Like a game you play similar to your grandparents and great grandparents whose pastime included feasting under the Poplar Trees adorned with strange fruit.
But I am a black writer and this is often what we do. Use history and our cultural understanding to examine the present and imagine a future. Our stories are different from yours, unique in a way that is often difficult for you to engage. But no worries, you are a white writer and evidence shows that white people love stories about white people. And true to my word, this is a story about white people. Or at least, white writers. You see you didn’t have to imagine any of these things before you sat down to write. When the sage advice advises you to write what you know, you can do that and be relatively certain that you know whiteness, from the center — as a normal state of being. It is natural to you. It is acceptable. To you, it is even good. You know if your story is not chosen, that it is not because you are white. That may not stop you from getting upset, however. After all, 31 stories out of the 1089 published last year were basically Affirmative Action stories. Right? We’ve all heard it before, those black people didn’t deserve to be published, and you, white writer, who may even have written a damn good story which aptly features a beautiful woman in a chain-link bikini, have been robbed of your rightful place in the publishing world.
I jest only slightly. Because if you have been paying any attention to this genre for the last few years, you know this is no laughing matter. But also, I do not compare you to your grand-persons who lynched my grand-persons to a tree. That is over the top, and I admit it.
No, you are more akin to the spectator who sat and watched without lifting a finger to help. While no one will die in the writing of this piece or in the lack of blacks being included in genre publishing, the death of culture and voice and understanding of peoples different from you cannot be understated. Do not underestimate the power that you have to simply say no to publications that do not publish diverse voices. That probably means giving up a space or two that you may (probably not, but still) have had yourself.
But, think of it this way. You don’t want to go into your attic and find an old black and white photo of your ancestor smiling under the tree of a hanging black body, just as you don’t want your descendants to one day to find an old shitty blog post, in a long forgotten era of the internet to find you, their ancestor, discriminating against others because of the color of their skin or against their vibrant voices simply because they are different from your own.
About the author
Chesya Burke has written and published nearly a hundred fiction pieces and articles within the genres of science fiction, fantasy, noir and horror. Her story collection, Let’s Play White, is being taught in universities around the country. In addition, Burke wrote several articles for the African American National Biography in 2008, and Burke’s novel, The Strange Crimes of Little Africa, debuted in December 2015. Poet Nikki Giovanni compared her writing to that of Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison, and Samuel Delany called her “a formidable new master of the macabre.”
Burke’s thesis was on the comic book character Storm from the X-Men, and her comic, Shiv, is scheduled to debut in 2018.
Burke is currently pursuing her PhD in English at University of Florida.
About the author
Help us keep this conversation going
We spend around $1,700 paying the various people involved in producing the #BlackSpecFic report and its accompanying essays every year. This type of work is a core part of our mission, and it is only possible due to your direct support.
You can make a one-time contribution directly to our #BlackSpecFic fund, or back us more broadly by becoming a Fireside subscriber. Either way, your cash will go toward helping us ensure a bright future for a thriving, sustainable, and inclusive field.