Celebrating Black History Month 2021

Black British writers, publishers and bookshops – because we love books!

Last week we started celebrating Black History Month with general information and links to organisations or sources (more knowledgeable than us) to explain anti-racism and white allyship. This week we’re honouring some of the Black British people at the forefront of bringing us arguably some of our most treasured things: books.

We love books and creative writing at Autumn Voices. We are, however, keenly aware of the justified criticism aimed at the world of publishing in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and we’d be remiss not to mention that. To be clear, this is criticism that has been levelled at UK publishing by Black people and people of colour (or from other marginalised communities) for a long time, and it is sadly only recently the industry has absorbed it and started to implement change. Some of you may have seen this article:

The journey to addressing the systemic inequalities in UK publishing for both writers and publishing staff alike is an unfinished one. It’s been promising to see more Black people and people of colour appointed to more prominent positions across the publishing sector, as well as nominated for and awarded literary prizes and celebrated for editing, translation, illustration and agenting. Black-owned bookshops and publishers are also starting to receive more attention and praise for the brilliant work they do, and industry magazine The Bookseller has opened its doors to examine its own in-house inclusion and turned the spotlight on the industry by inviting guest editors from underrepresented communities. This includes publishing an edition dedicated to celebrating Black writing and talent across the book trade. Penguin Books also put together a useful guide to organisations and initiatives across the book trade that could use our support:

So, what more can we tell you about?

Representative Organisations and Festivals

There are lots of trade bodies and umbrella-style organisations that represent various sectors of the book trade in the UK, but there are now organisations specifically set up to represent and amplify Black people. In 2020, over 100 writers formed a signatory group calling for significant and widespread change, and they became the first members of The Black Writers Guild to represent the Black publishing community in the UK. The Guild was set up by Sharmaine Lovegrove, Afua Hirsch and Nels Abbey, and there are now over 200 published Black writers, including bestselling and award-winning novelists, forming its membership, and calling for change. 

There is now a Black Agents & Editors Group (BAE) – a community for agents and editors of African descent working in UK publishing, and they provide access to information and mentoring along with spotlighting the work of its members.

Black History Month also runs an Online Black Book Festival every year as part of its digital activity, designed to showcase Black British writers and Black writers globally, and Black Ballad celebrates the work of Black women, including writing.

Bookshops, Prizes and Publishers

There are hundreds of UK publishing houses, ranging from miniscule to massive, and thousands of bookshops if you count both independent and second-hand shops alongside branches of nationwide chains like Waterstones. The visibility of Black authors and their stories on the shelves has, however, been dismally low until now. That is thankfully starting to change. The Women’s Prize, Man Booker Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature, among others, have started to feature more writers of colour (as well as older writers, hurrah!) among their shortlists and winners. Major UK poetry prizes are also fairly recognisable for this growing inclusion, we’re pleased to see, and the increased profile and visibility of prize-nominated books guarantees their presence in review sections, in our social media feeds and on the shelves and ‘recommends’ sections in our local bookshops. 

Bookshop.org has a helpful list of both newly published and older titles to inspire and educate readers, helpfully categorised to guide you through their suggestions. Their featured bookshop this month is Round Table Books in Brixton, which is one of the bookshops mentioned in a link to Black-owned UK bookshops featured in last week’s blog:

While books highlighting Black authors, voices and stories are increasingly being published across many UK publishing houses, there are some presses or imprints that are doing the most visible heavy lifting. Imprints like #Merky Books, launched by Stormzy and Penguin Random House, and Dialogue Books under Little, Brown Book Group, have built their lists by deliberately challenging the mainstream and lifting voices that often go unheard. There are also brilliant independent publishers like Jacaranda Books, Verso, Peepal Tree Press and Cassava Republic – the oldest of which has been around for 35 years – who are blazing a trail for African and Caribbean writing across multiple genres and standing at the forefront of very exciting publishing projects. Knights Of and Sweet Cherry Publishing are doing the same thing for children’s books. 

New Beacon Books has operated as a London publisher and bookshop specialising in African and Caribbean literature since 1966, making them the official Autumn Voice of these brilliant and inclusive presses!

Writers

There are many brilliant Black writers being published and it’s tempting to write a full directory, but we can’t quite manage that, so where do we start? With older writers of course! 

Our Autumn Voices audience is people aged sixty and over, so we’re going to mention a few of our favourite Black writers from that age group in the UK. 

Source: bevaristo.com

Bernadine Evaristo

We love the novels of Bernadine Evaristo, the Booker-Prize-winning author of Girl, Woman, Other, (among many other titles and counting). She was the first Black woman and Black British person to win that award in its fifty-year history, which is sobering, and her newly-published memoir, Manifesto, will discuss, among other things, her refusal to give up.


Source: Scottish Poetry Library

Jackie Kay

The wonderful Jackie Kay is a prolific and award-winning poet, playwright and novelist, and from 2016 until 2021 was Scotland’s Makar, or National Poet. As part of her role, she was commissioned to author a poem for Scotland’s new ‘baby box’ full of essential items given to new parents, modelled on the programme started in Finland. Kay persuaded Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – a keen reader – that poetry was essential. Well done Jackie! Autumn Voices salutes you!


Source: Wikipedia

Margaret Busby

Margaret Busby, now in her seventies, was Britain’s youngest and first Black female book publisher, and in 2020 was voted one of the 100 Great Black Britons for her literary activism and contribution to the world of publishing, as well as her career as a writer and broadcaster.


Source: Edinburgh International Book Festival

Malorie Blackman

We’re going to include Malorie Blackman here too. She’s technically not an Autumn Voice yet (she turns sixty in 2022), but her acclaimed Noughts and Crosses series for children and young adults, which addresses racism head on, as well as her vast array of other published and lauded works, makes her a special case! She held the position of Children’s Laureate from 2013 until 2015 and has been the recipient of countless awards and prizes as well as a tireless campaigner for racial justice and inclusion, especially in the book trade.


We’d also like to give an honourable mention to the following: poet and playwright, Benjamin Zephaniah; children’s writer and presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin; politician and memoirist Diane Abbott, MP; comedian and writer Sir Lenny Henry; and, although they are no longer with us, novelist Andrea Levy and broadcaster and writer Darcus Howe. 

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