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  • Kacen Callender

WIP: Black and Queer

I was scrolling through LGBTQReads.com the other day, looking at the queer middle grade titles, as one does. There’s been such an exciting explosion of queer MG in recent years, but it struck me, violently, how few titles were by Black authors, and featured Black protagonists. For books that are already out, there was Jacqueline Woodson, and there was me. Mariama Lockington’s In the Key of Us will soon be released, too. Three authors. Four books, out of the sixty-six listed queer MG titles. It really, seriously, truly is not an honor to be one of the only ones.

On the YA side, I counted twenty titles that are currently out featuring Black, queer protagonists, out of almost 500 books. There’s definitely a widespread issue of too-few books featuring Black protagonists pointblackperiod, but I want to focus on the Black and queer intersection of identity because of the anti-queerness in the Black community that I don’t even think can be cracked open until more attention is focused on the largely white-run publishing industry, which only makes things doubly harmful for Black, queer creators. We’re not going to see that widespread community-based acceptance and grassroots support in the same way that Black, straight, cis creators do because of anti-queerness, and we’re not going to get the same amount of support that non-Black creators do from an anti-Black publishing industry. I know that plenty of people will bristle at the thought that the industry as a whole is anti-Black, but yes, it is anti-Black, because it’s a system that’s in a society that’s inherently anti-Black, and the fact that there’s no equality in the number of books and authors, without fair pay as proven earlier this year by #PublishingPaidMe, and so much more, are just the symptoms of an anti-Black industry.

(Oh, what? It’s only cool to talk about this when people are uploading black squares on Insta? Anyways…)

I’ve been dreaming of a non-profit I’d like to start to help break down systemic racism, anti-queerness, and transphobia, and I started to wonder if similar tactics could be placed to breaking down anti-Blackness in the industry. So much focus has been placed on biased non-Black readers who expect Black people to adhere to their idea of queerness (I’ve focused a lot on this in the past myself), and showing them their racism, their bigotry, and why they are wrong to say that they just couldn’t connect with the voice or the character was too unrelatable/unlikeable—but as many who study racism will say, we can’t do much to create actual change if we argue with racists in the streets. We need to change the system, the policies, first, before minds can follow. Many awesome orgs have been focusing on systemic change, but like I mentioned before, I worry that Black, queer stories will generally be left behind.

“But Kacen,” someone might be thinking, “obviously Black, queer stories aren’t being left behind. Felix is being adapted into a TV series!” Yes, and I’m super excited about that! But I’ve had my fair share of issues, too. Felix was sold out almost within a month of releasing, and couldn’t be found in most stores. Having worked in publishing, I know that this means many accounts didn’t think that Felix would sell as many copies as it did, and it’s possible that sales were even lost because of this. Plus, as excited as I am for the Felix TV show, and as much of a dream it really, honestly is, more visibility does not mean equality and equity. We also cannot and should not prop up a TV show as “proof” that everything’s better now. It isn’t better until all Black, queer authors start to receive the same industry support as non-Black creators, and this is something that I can’t stop thinking about or talking about until that happens.

And, yes, I’ve published a number of books featuring Black, queer protagonists to awards and acclaim, which is a huge honor—but this doesn’t always equal the financial support I need to be able to live and write, and this doesn’t mean that other Black, queer authors are receiving the financial support they need, either.

There’s such a strange balancing game to play as a marginalized creator, especially Black, with multiple intersecting identities. I’m grateful for where I am in my life—I’ve come so, so far in this dream of mine. But does that mean I should ignore the inequities and not try to fight for, or at least talk about, the change that’s needed? Should I just be a “good Black” and sit down and shut up and be happy for what I do have, in the way that so many Black people across so many industries are expected to do? That balance is so difficult when I wake up, grateful to have shelter, to have access to food and water, to be able to breathe, to still be alive, and still know that so many people are suffering because of white supremacy, and wanting to fight the anti-Blackness I see in the industry in any way I can, including writing blog posts like this. I know that these issues will only ultimately affect so many other writers and creators, and the young people who need our books, but are facing gatekeepers who don’t let our books into children’s hands. How do marginalized creators find that balance of gratitude and continuing to fight inequalities and inequities?

I threw myself into writing as many books as possible, as quickly as possible, because I knew I’d have to help break down a lot of barriers first before I could personally start to see equality, but I’m starting to give up on the idea that I might be able to experience that in my lifetime, and I’m now just trying to focus on survival, and what I can do to help others survive this system as well. I remember a moment when I was in publishing, and was told that a Black, queer YA book I wanted to acquire would be considered too “niche” to really break out. There’s another Black, queer book that I love that I was told wasn’t expected to sell many copies, and so barely any marketing/publicity went into the book, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a common story for Black, queer titles, from what I can see—many did not receive the same marketing/publicity push, and so were set up to fail in comparison to other queer titles, when these books could have thrived to greater success. This is, of course, anti-Black.

As I scrolled through LGBTQReads, counting the number of MG titles, I thought of one author who has emailed me on and off, detailing her struggles with finding a publisher for her own middle grade featuring a Black, queer character. I remember the time I was in publishing as an associate editor, and the fact that I would often do everything I could to make an offer on a book, not only because I loved it, but because there was a gap in the industry, a desperate need for its story. I really can’t believe that there’s at least one other Black, queer person (that I know of) trying to publish an MG and, looking at the incredibly huge gap in the industry, that it has yet to receive an offer. How many other people are out there, still fighting and struggling to even get through the gates?

I would love to see editors make commitments to seek out and buy at least a specific number of stories by Black authors, including at least a specific number of intersectional Black and queer authors, every year. I would love to see a commitment of at least a certain amount of money and resources to push for stronger marketing and publicity, to give us the same chance that others have to succeed, and for bookstores and different accounts to take at least a specific number of books, and for major accounts to not have their booksellers trained to sell books by white authors, as so many do, but to hand sell books by Black, queer creators as well. Read our stories. See us, and be excited for our voices, in the same way that you are excited for so many non-Black stories. Try to actually have genuine love for us, which translates into real support, and don’t just say empty phrases like #blm when you’re afraid to look anti-Black.

To my knowledge, there’s only one Black, queer book by a Black, queer author that has hit the NYT bestseller list on the children’s side—Dread Nation by Justina Ireland. It’s also interesting to me that this is an SFF title, almost as if we need to be killing zombies to be considered exciting, and that our contemporary voices still aren’t enough yet. I knew Felix wouldn’t hit the list because of the number of books taken by accounts, but I really, truly expected You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson to hit the bestseller list, and for at least one more barrier for Black, queer books to be broken down. It might not seem like much, but using the argument, “Well, so-and-so was a NYT bestseller, so maybe this book will do well, too” can and has helped so many authors.

We have seen queerness receive a high-level push, a high-level acceptance, when it’s by a queer creator who isn’t Black. It’s beyond time for at least one Black, queer creator to receive a rockstar-level push, for the industry to get behind that person as they have gotten behind Angie Thomas or Adam Silvera, and for that person to open the floodgates for new Black, queer titles so that I don’t have to practically scream in frustration when I look at my inbox and see that an author still hasn’t been able to sell their MG featuring a Black, queer protagonist, because the industry as a whole still needs to have our worth proven to them. I feel like I and too-few authors have slowly been chipping away, trying to create change one story at a time—trying to survive one story at a time—and it’s exhausting. I’m exhausted.

Please support these authors:

Kayla Ancrum: https://kancrum.com/

Dean Atta: https://sites.google.com/site/deanatta/about

Rebecca Barrow: http://www.rebecca-barrow.com/books.html

Kalynn Bayron: https://www.kalynnbayron.com/

Jay Coles: https://jaycoleswritesbooks.tumblr.com/

Ryan Douglass: https://ryandouglasswriter.com/

Alechia Dow: https://www.alechiadow.com/

Akwaeke Emezi: https://www.akwaeke.com/

Isaac Fitzsimons: https://www.isaacfitzbooks.com/

Camryn Garrett: https://www.camryngarrett.com/

Kosoko Jackson: https://kosokojackson.com/

George M. Johnson: https://iamgmjohnson.com/

Leah Johnson: https://www.byleahjohnson.com/

Claire Kann: https://www.clairekann.com/

Emery Lee: https://emeryleebooks.com/meet-cute-diary/

Mariama Lockington: https://mariamajlockington.com/

Candice Montgomery: https://www.candicemontgomery.com/

Junauda Petrus: https://junauda.com/

Jacqueline Woodson, OG: https://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/

Julian Winters: http://julianwinters.com/

Bil Wright: http://www.bilwright.com/

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