Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) wrote “What White Publishers Won’t Print” in 1950. Seventy years later, #PublishingPaidMe exposed what we now know as the disparity of publishers’ pay advances to Black writers compared to White writers.
There is a historical notion that Black books won’t appeal to a broad audience that has long been discredited through the success of many Black novels, plays, and poems. Writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Hurston wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in 1937 while on an anthropology assignment in Haiti. She used African American Vernacular (AAV) as a covert means of resisting gender, race and class oppression.
Her use of AAV, her portrayal of Black women, and Black cultural traditions centered Black lives in her stories. Hurston explores the depth of the Black community and ushers the reader into the world of leading Black female and male characters.
Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, an all-Black town. She was a leading and controversial figure during the Harlem Renaissance. When she used AAV in her banned and seminal novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she set herself apart. Her novels often highlighted the quest for freedom and Black female liberation and justice. Criticized by peers for not writing in the protest tradition and not depicting the harsher side of Black life in the South. However, Hurston was fully aware of discrimination and struggled during Jim Crow. Hurston touched on race and gender issues throughout her career in her essays.
Jim Crow is a set of laws and behaviors used to enforce racial segregation and discrimination. Following the Civil War and post-slavery, freed slaves were hopeful for a society filled with opportunities – opportunities their White counterparts have always received.
As a fiction writer, Hurston is also well-known for her use of symbolism and metaphors. As a non-fiction writer, her talent for storytelling, in her autobiography “Dust Tracks on a Road,” affirms her identity through several accounts that depict her life.
In an essay that resonates today, “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” published in the Negro Digest in April 1950, Hurston discusses something we now know as the disparity of publishers’ pay advances to Black writers in comparison to White writers. She explained that there isn’t a “demand for incisive and full-dress stories around Negroes above the servant class is indicative of something of vast importance to this nation” further Hurston notes:
“that was in slavery time, yes, and we have come a long, long way since then, but the troubling thing is that there are still too many who refuse to believe in the ingestion and digestion of western culture yet. Hence the lack of literature about the higher emotions and love life of upper-class Negroes and the minorities in general.”
Hurston believed that publishers:
“will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works unless the story or play involves racial tension. It can then be offered as a study in Sociology, with the romantic side subdued.”
In a New York Times’ opinion article on “Just How White Is the Book Industry?” by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek:
“Zora Neale Hurston identified the chicken-or-egg dilemma at the heart of publishers’ conservatism. White people, she wrote, cannot conceive of Black people outside of racial stereotypes. And because publishers want to sell books, they publish stories that conform to those stereotypes, reinforcing white readers’ expectations and appetites.”
Publishing has come a long way, but now 70 years later, Black writers are experiencing low pay advances that are not comparable with other writers even though they are winning national book awards. The notion is that a Black writer’s work may not succeed in the mainstream, giving them lower pay advances. The hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, started on Twitter by L.L. McKinney, a Black young adult author, to show racial differences in advance payments in publishing, shined a light on this issue last summer.
“…When publishers say that they follow the market, they’re doing it because of tradition. And the tradition is racism,” said McKinney to the New York Times.
Because the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 are primarily of diverse people and topics, it is imperative to continue supporting and making opportunities equitable for Black writers. It’s time to continue to reform the publishing industry’s advanced payment practices from a bygone era that has been passed from generation to generation. The publishing industry must continue to strive towards equity because, as Richard Wright once said, “every first-rate novel, poem, or play lifts the level of consciousness higher.” Reimagining the pay advance structure based on modern-day values must be a top priority.
Before joining Lynn University as an outreach librarian, Sabine was a teacher and librarian at YOUmedia Miami, a media technology program at the Miami-Dade Public Library System for teens and before that was a content specialist in programming and production with WPBT-TV South Florida PBS in Miami. Currently, she is an adjunct professor at Lynn University’s College of Communication and Design, and is one of the primary faculty advisors for the student newspaper, iPulse. As an outreach librarian at the Lynn Library, her research specialties and liaison area are to the Communication and Education students. Sabine is writing her first book on empathy-based library marketing and communications and how to be equitable and inclusive in libraries with ALA-ACRL. Her Master’s degree in Library and Information Science and Master’s degree in Mass Media and Journalism are from Clarion University in Pennsylvania.