As a bookworm teenager, I often stumbled across a widely-shared, racist adage online: “If you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book.” Obvious bigoted inaccuracies aside, a more appropriate iteration would be “if you want to hide from the reality of modern Britain, enter a high-street bookshop.”
Stormzy, Skepta, Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega, Mo the Comedian, Michael Dapaah and a host of other high-profile black British men are collectively changing the face and hue of what Britain deems national treasures. But publishing is another story.
We are in the midst of a black British creative renaissance. Black men in particular dominate music charts, scooping film and television roles and shaping British culture from streetwear to slang. But they remain largely absent from our bookshelves as protagonists and authors. In 2016, only one male black debut novelist was published in Britain.
“I believe we are only at the beginning of a publishing revolution for black writers.” says Elijah Lawal, author of The Clapback, a debut “guide to calling out harmful black stereotypes.”
This year may well buck the trend, with an array of writing from a host of emerging black male writers: a forensic examination of black British history in Onyeka Nubia’s England’s Other Countrymen: Black Tudor Society and Jeffrey Boakye’s Black, listed. A memoir from Michael Fuller, the country’s first black police constable, Kill the black one first, and a foray into black European identity in Johnny Pitts’ Afropean: Notes from Black Europe.
Diversity has ridden high on the agenda of most publishing houses; some have launched inclusion initiatives for diverse writers, such as HarperCollins’ BAME traineeship programme and The Scheme by Random House. So why has it taken so long for black men’s stories to be told? Lawal suggests that a lack of diversity behind the scenes (which remains 90 per cent white, predominantly middle class, and mainly female) bars black male writers from being published.
“When I look across the UK publishing industry, I just don’t see a whole load of black men when I am pitching to agents or when I’m discussing which publishers I’d love to work with,” he says.
Debut author Nels Abbey agrees. Though he speaks highly of the Penguin WriteNow scheme which mentors and publishes new writers from under-represented communities (and which both he and Lawal graduates of), he acknowledges there is still a long way to go.
“Despite all of the diversity drives, publishing remains stubbornly un-diverse from an ethnic perspective.” he adds. “The way in which the industry is structured and staffed creates significantly higher barriers to entry for black people.”
“Plus, there are persistent, very negative, stereotypes around black men. So unless your story feeds into those stereotypes it becomes an even greater struggle to get published.”
Abbey’s own book, a satirical self-help book called Think like a white man written under the alias of a comedic “expert on white people”, puts stereotypes concerning whiteness at its centre. “There has been nothing like it before, in fact it is hard to name another black British satirist,” he tells me. “It’s a small miracle it’s found a publisher.”
The last three years have seen an uptake in black British books. Yet until recently their authors have been primarily female, with titles including Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish), Chidera Eggerue’s What a time to be alone, Otegha Uwagba’s Little Black Book, and my own offering with co-author Elizabeth Uviebinene: Slay in your lane: the black girl bible.
“We are starting to see a couple of great books from black male writers bucking the trend.” Lawal explains. “David Olusoga’s Black and British and Akala’s Natives are examples of this.”
But, as is often the case when one minority group begins to progress, society focuses on relative successes rather than structural dynamics. Though both groups are woefully underrepresented, black women’s increased visibility in publishing is vaunted as a comparative privilege to black men; something Lawal vehemently disagrees with.
“The very idea that black women enjoy a privilege compared to black men is laughable to me,” he scoffs.
Still, the unequal representation of black male and female authors is so apparent that audience members at panel events have often accosted my co-author and I to ask when they can expect a “black boy bible,” or to ask what we’re doing to redress the lack of black men being published.
My response was to pitch an anthology of essays about the black male experience to writer and Penguin employee, Derek Owusu. The result is his upcoming book Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space, which features 20 black British male writers.
Owusu recently left literature podcast Mostly Lit, which discusses books through a diverse lens, to focus on encouraging young black boys to read. He intends to launch a book-based podcast with his younger brother later this year.
“In publishing, there’s this idea that men don’t read as much and this thought is then amplified when it comes to black men.” he tells me. “I also think there’s not a lot of information available to working class black men regarding agents, how to structure a proposal and the general ins and outs of getting a book published.
“Publishing is predominantly a white middle class industry and being one of a few black men working inside it, I can see the lack of proximity most of us have to the industry.”
The belief black men are not readers fuels the assumption that black men are not writers. The difficulty they experience in publishing speaks to the problems of a society that is unwilling to challenge what it expects, and accepts, from black men. While black British men rise through the ranks as athletes, musicians and comedians, the UK is still hesitant to position them as “literary” figures – or public intellectuals.
The authors I spoke with voiced scepticism and excitement about the current climate. As it stands, only 11 per cent of people who work in publishing are black, Asian or minority ethnic. Some writers worry that publishers’ newfound interest in black male writers is simply cyclical or cynical – another publishing trend like vampire love stories.
“I dread mistaking increased noise for substantive change.” Abbey says. “And I fear mistaking a flash in the pan for permanence… I will be better placed to answer questions on ‘changes in publishing’ and ‘increased black male voices’ a decade from now.”
Yomi Adegoke is an award-winning British journalist and co-author of Slay In Your Lane. She tweets @yomiadegoke