‘A Conflicted Cultural Force’: What It’s Like to Be Black in PublishingHistorians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, publishing, interview
Kerri K. Greenidge
Author, ‘Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter’
‘I tend to think, being a historian, that triumph over racial discrimination or racial bias isn’t like, one person gets through and then the floodgates open.’
I knew entering graduate school what I wanted to study, which was African-descended people in New England. And from the beginning, I was told that nobody was going to publish that, unless I was writing about slavery, or unless I was writing about the busing crisis. No one was interested in that history, because No. 1, it hadn’t been done before, and No. 2, there weren’t that many Blacks in New England. My book on William Trotter, every place I submitted the manuscript to, the response was that no one was going to read a book that didn’t have white people as a protagonist, and who was going to read a book about a Black man that nobody had ever heard about?
If there’s one thing I would say about my own story in terms of racism in publishing, it’s that whatever breakthrough successes I have had have been due to Black women who have steered me in the right direction. Black women have been the ones who have guided me and told me how to navigate situations. In that sense, I’ve been very lucky. But until I plugged into that, it was very, very frustrating, in terms of being told that no one was going to read certain Black stories, despite the fact that I had a doctorate and presumably had a little bit of expertise.
The reception for the book was not something I expected. I just wanted to get the history out there and change the narrative we have about Black history and about Black New England and Blackness in spaces that we don’t think about it being in. That was my goal, and the accolades are just the icing on the cake.
I tend to think, being a historian, that triumph over racial discrimination or racial bias isn’t like, one person gets through and then the floodgates open and everyone goes in after them. I don’t particularly have any belief that this moment is going to fundamentally change the industry. I think that what that will take is a fundamental change to all of the avenues through which people produce work. All of that has to change before publishing can change.
Particularly in this moment, there is this idea that what America has to do is come to a moment of reckoning and we’ll all learn the error of our ways and things will be reformed, and from a historical perspective that’s not the way history works. I point out to my students that the first time the phrase “postracial” was used was the 1910s. That’s not to say that I don’t think the current moment is a significant moment in a long struggle for rights and equality for Black people, because I think it is. But I also think people are very shortsighted about history and what it takes to make a sustained change.
In terms of publishing and academia, I think those two fields will only catch up if the political momentum on the streets turns into something. Seeing young people starting a movement in the streets in the middle of a pandemic gives me hope and confidence. Seeing this generation of young people turning years of trauma into something that’s exploding around the world is inspiring.
Kerri K. Greenidge is an assistant professor in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism and Diaspora at Tufts University.