This is Not the Diversity You’re Looking For

I’m a huge fan of military history.  A bit of a war hawk, I’m fascinated with how American identity was forged through violence.  French-Indian War, The Revolutionary War, War of 1812, the Mexican American War, various skirmishes with Native Americans, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, etc.  These are the foundations of American identity.  It’s the history we teach in school to small children when we talk about patriotism.

And black people have participated in every single one of those conflicts.  Bet you didn’t know that as early as the Revolutionary War there were all Black units (and not just John Laurens battalion of 3000 enslaved men from South Carolina). No, Blacks have always served, but history has found it easy to ignore our service because most of the time we have been shunted off into our own units, separate and ignored.  It wasn’t until Truman desegregated the military that Blacks began to get more recognition of their service than an historical footnote.  And that desegregation of the military was the first step to ending overt Jim Crow and desegregating wider society. Separate but equal ain’t ever equal.

All of this is why I greet the news of S&S forming a Muslim imprint with so many mixed feelings.  The idea of an imprint to address diversity concerns at first blush sounds great: Yay! You’ve acknowledged that you’re lacking in representation! You’ve identified people to help address the problem! You’re making space for new voices and working toward a solution!

But specialized imprints have existed for a long, long time, especially for books that are targeted at readers from traditionally underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds. And they aren’t a real, viable solution for the unbearable WHAM(white, hetero, able bodied, male)ness of mainstream publishing.  Imprints just more forcefully mark books as the “other”.  Books from imprints aren’t getting the same financial push and the same attention. If they were, you’d see more diversity on bestseller lists.  And the CCBC numbers wouldn’t be quite so heartbreaking.

All that to say: segregated imprints aren’t BAD, but they ain’t GREAT, either.  Imprints are a good intermediary step for publishers trying to find an inclusive way forward, but they’re really a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.  I don’t want imprints to become the solution to the WHAM problem.  I don’t want segregated battalions that history can easily forget and dismiss.  Diverse books aren’t lesser, they aren’t charity.  They’re just as good as WHAM-centric books, and they belong on lists right next to their more WHAM, mainstream counterparts. 

So don’t accept imprints as anything but an intermediary step toward publishers looking at their lists, their whole lists, and integrating and decolonizing them and ensuring they reflect the reality we live in.  Because that is the real diversity you’re looking for.

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