Black Lives Matter, the Book Community + Personal Accountability

Twitter is my main platform, and the one thus far that I’ve been using to find and share resources and speak out about the racial injustices that not only lead to the death of George Floyd, but the deaths of hundreds of other Black lives at the hands of police. However, not speaking here, especially if I’m going to continue to use this blog as a place to talk about books and eventually be visible as a writer myself, is irresponsible at best and negligent at worst, and only furthering harm through silence, complacency, and a lack of self-awareness regardless of the visibility of this platform versus the visibility of others that I use.

Black lives matter. This is a statement that shouldn’t be controversial, but apparently, in the book community, it is. Simply Tweeting the phrase, sharing a picture to Instagram, with even the faint hint that you think Black people shouldn’t be killed for existing is deemed political, rocking the boat, and too much of a break from our escapist platforms to ignore the conformity and say something. When this is pointed out, largely by Black people within the book community who have faced racism not only in ‘the real world,’ but in the online spaces that are supposed to be safe and welcome them, Black people have been met with tears, anger, and excuses. Black people have been called bullies. Black people have been labeled aggressors.

If this language sounds familiar, it’s because it is. It’s the exact kind of language people use to justify the abuse and murder of Black people daily, and it should not be a surprise that people unwilling to speak out against racism are comfortable using racially-coded language with ease.

The book community as a whole tends to masquerade inclusivity and diversity as its backbone. The truth is that this is largely lip-service paid to its Black members by bloggers, vloggers, instagrammers, and those employed within the publishing industry professionally. It’s not just this week that’s made it apparent, but it’s this week, weeks and months and years before, coupled with the larger global backdrop and the visibility that George Floyd’s murder has garnered that has shown that the book community is comfortable showing Black faces when it means a pretty picture on Instagram or the chance to show off how woke one is to gain subscribers, but when it comes to actually taking a stance that effects our global community, there are crickets that define the sound of silence among otherwise ‘inclusive’ readers.

We champion stories like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and vocally side with the ‘good guys’ in fiction. ‘Good guys’ who are leading revolution, calling out injustice, who face it every day in the fictional worlds we escape to, and yet, when it comes to standing up for it in situations when real people are involved, suddenly our policies are to be apolitical. We can call T.H.U.G an important book, we can uplift Dear Martin as impactful, but when real people are faced with the racism, police brutality and violence that the characters integral to these stories face, suddenly we cannot read. Suddenly our platforms are for escape. When Black people challenge the notion that there cannot be support for fictional Black suffering while you ignore real-life Black pain, we get the gumption to speak up–but not for Black people. We speak up for ourselves, defend ourselves, get argumentative because we’re good allies. We use our one Black friend, one Black relative, one Black partner, as a prop to save us from criticism.

This is why the idea of ‘the real world’ being separate from the book community and in its own ‘escapist’ bubble is baffling to me. As a biracial person, these are the same tactics I’ve seen used by white family members to absolve themselves from confronting their racism against myself, my brothers, and my Black family members. It’s the same tactics I’ve seen past partners use to shadow their prejudice against Black people because ‘well I’m dating you, right?’ There is no separation from the real world and the book world; the racism in both comes from the same bias and the racism in both creates cyclical dynamics where Black people are consistently, systemically, talked over, talked down to, and abused for existing because the bare minimum that people will do in the book community to become self-diagnosed allies gives them the impression that they are beyond critique and when they are critiqued, it becomes less about being a good person and more about maintaining the image of one. This is why when non-Black people’s excuses have consistently over the last week, been ‘I use this platform for escape,’ the audacity jumps out from the screen. As if the Black members of our community have ever been offered the same escape?

We can talk about the need for diverse books until we’re blue, we can peddle the same three YA titles about police brutality, and yet we cannot, collectively, grow a backbone and say that this is not right, that we contribute to the same systems that allow racism to flourish, that there are things we can do as a community and as individuals to combat racism and stem the flow of it among our groups as readers, and the literal bare minimal start to that is simply showing support and so many people couldn’t even do that without boo-hooing on an IG Live when asked.

If I sound frustrated, I am. Because the amount of energy put into collecting and correcting people like this within the book community is something that Black members have been doing for years, and people still will not listen. If it isn’t people refusing to use their platforms because Black lives don’t fit their aesthetic, it’s people trotting out the same tired book recommendation lists to teach grown adults about racism through children’s literature, it’s follow trains that boost numbers but not engagement, it’s respectability politics that argue for nice words over direct call outs, it’s white people only choosing to listen to other white people when they get the fear that their follower count will go down.

They will ask ‘what can I do,’ ‘how can I educate myself,’ ‘what should I say,’ as if the answers have not always been there because Black people have been giving them for years. They will ask, and then turn around and do the very things that Black people have said categorically do not work, make them feel othered within the community, and serve more as a means to assuage white guilt than uplift Black voices. If I sound frustrated, imagine how Black people feel.

The community, objectively, could do better.

It takes more than following ten Black creators on a follow train and calling it a day. It takes more than reading one particularly hyped YA book about Black trauma to ‘get it.’ You have unpack why it is you have spoken over, talked down to, or ignored Black creators and voices within the community before now. You have to unpack years of racism that you have learned through friends, family, peers, your educational institutions, your places of work. You have to examine your interactions with fellow Black creators and ask if you were doing it because you were interested in their content, or for other reasons. Clout? Keeping up the appearance of inclusivity and wokeness? You have to be willing to see how what you read–and in turn don’t read–effects how you view Black people within and outside of the book community. You have to question how many times you’ve stood up for Black people against racism, in and out of the book community. You have to ask yourself why you’ve let things slide and why, if so, it’s okay for you to avoid conversations about race that Black people are not allowed to because the color of their skin does not allow them to divorce themselves from the realities of racism.

You have to do that independent of Black people holding your hand because they have been doing the work for years and should not have to carry the emotional burden of teaching the rest of us how to be an ally and see their lives as worthy from the get. You have to do this with the intent of not only being a better ally within the bookish community, but your communities outside of Booktube, Book Twitter, and Bookstagram. You have to do it without the performance of ‘look at me, I’m so sorry, please forgive me,’ without the expectation that if you make grand, sweeping posts to Twitter, or YouTube, about how you see the light, with the understanding that Black people are not obligated to see you as less of a threat when three seconds ago you were complacent to their trauma.

If your first intention is to gain the forgiveness of Black people and peddle your guilt to show you’ve reformed, go back to the drawing board. It takes a certain level of self-accountability that people in the book community don’t want to face, because it cracks the foundation they have laid for themselves that says ‘I’m a good person, I believe in equality.’ But the fact of the matter is, if you’re not willing to confront yourself and hold yourself accountable while also being comfortable in profiting off the idea of diversity and inclusion, you aren’t a good person. You are opportunistic.

If this post upset you, that’s fine. If this post made you realize you’ve been complacent when you could have spoken up, good. Do something about it. The book community does not exist in a bubble that is independent of what is going on around it. It does not exist in a space where we can continue to claim escapism at the expense of Black peoples’ mental health and lives.

Real-World Ways to Help

Where to Start Educating Yourself

Keeping the Same Energy

  • Buy books from Black-owned stores: https://blog.libro.fm/black-owned-bookstores-to-support-right-now-and-always/
  • Actively seeking out books by Black authors if you do not read Black books/don’t read them frequently in your bookish rotation. A good place to start is Alaysia Jordan’s database, The Bookshelf, which has hundreds of diverse book listings and is updated near monthly. It is incredibly easy to navigate, and while all titles are not by Black authors, there’s no such thing as too much diversity in your reading habits.

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