A recent study entitled ‘Rethinking ‘Diversity’ In Publishing‘ found that authors of color are not afforded the same industry access, creative freedoms, or economic value as their white counterparts. Each stage of the publishing process was generally set up to amplify the voices of white and middle-class people. As an excuse, some publishing houses noted that Black writers can be too ‘niche’ and not appeal to their core audience; even those publishers who stated they would like to publish more writers of color believed it was too commercially risky to do so.
Nevertheless, some publishing houses are making strides towards diversifying their market. Explore the first black author published by HarperCollins and other publications, as well as the programs being implemented to create a more diverse and welcoming industry for authors of color.
The First Black Author Published in North America
Harriet E. Wilson (1825-1900)
Rand, Avery, & Company was a printing company in Boston during the 19th century. It was there that Wilson’s novel Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published in 1895. Our Nig did not sell well, partly because rather than criticizing slavery in the South, it also indicts the economy of the northern states. Specifically, the novel lambasts the practice of keeping poor people as indentured servants, and the poor treatment of blacks by whites. But in 1989 it was rediscovered by literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. and was reissued into publication.
Harper & Bros. First Black Author:
Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
In 1925 Harper & Brothers published the poetry of Countee Cullen, beginning with his debut collection Color. Cullen was celebrated as a poet in both black and white cultures, formulating an aesthetic that embraced both cultures. He came to believe that art transcended race and that it could be used as a vehicle to minimize the distance between black and white peoples. Although he was praised by people of many cultures, he felt challenged to demonstrate that a black poet could excel within a traditional framework of poetry.
Cullen went on to publish several more poetry collections, including On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (Harper & Bros., 1947); The Black Christ and Other Poems (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1929); Copper Sun (Harper & Bros., 1927), and the seminal anthology Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Black Poets of the Twenties (Harper & Brothers, 1927).
An imaginative lyric poet, Cullen wrote in the romantic tradition of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, maintaining a type of resistant to the new poetic techniques of the modernists. His work demonstrates the range of subjects and aesthetic interests that poets of the Harlem Renaissance addressed.
More by HarperCollins:
Richard Wright (1908-1960)
Wright was an American author of novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction. Much of his literature concerns racial themes, especially related to the plight of African Americans during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries suffering discrimination and violence. Literary critics believe his work helped change race relations in the United States in the mid-20th century.
In 1938, Harper & Bros. published Wright’s debut novella collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) before releasing his seminal works Native Son (1940), Black Boy (1945), and The Outsider (1953).
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
Brooks is one of the most highly regarded, influential, and widely read poets of 20th-century American poetry. Many of her works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period.
In 1949, Harper & Bros. released Annie Allen, a collection of poetry by Brooks, which led her to becoming the first African-American writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize. In Annie Allen, which follows the experiences of a Black girl as she grows into adulthood, Brooks married social issues, especially around gender, with experimentation.
Ways In Which the Industry Is Diversifying
Amistad – HarperCollins Publishing
Amistad was founded in 1986 to specialize in publishing the works of authors whose works are exemplary of the struggle of non-white/POC representation in literature. Today it is the most respected and storied African-American imprint in publishing. Amistad was founded to educate, entertain, and empower readers interested in the past, present, and future of Black people throughout the struggle for diversity in the publishing industry. Amistad is dedicated to publishing stories that have seldom been told, expanding historical narratives in new and surprising ways, and starting conversations that provide solutions and direction for people in their everyday lives.
Legacy Lit – Hachette Book Group
Legacy Lit is a Hachette Book group imprint dedicated to giving voice to authors that have been underrepresented, underserved, and overlooked within the industry. Their mission is to strive towards social change, to elevate, and to celebrate diverse communities. They recognize the amount of black authors overlooked by major publications and are dedicated to increasing the number of works published by black authors and stories that have been mis- and underrepresented for centuries.
Publications Dedicated to Diverse Voices
Brown Girls Books
Founded by Victoria Christopher Murray and ReShonda Billingsley, Brown Girls Books is a US-based publisher providing visibility for some of the most talented black authors. Among these diverse voices are Nakecia Bowers, Stacey Evans Morgan, and Terri Haynes. They publish an array of genres from children’s and YA books, to adult fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and anthologies.
Black Classic Press
Founded in 1978, Black Classic Press specializes in republishing valuable out of print works by black authors. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, their works focus on titles discussing African culture and the black experience in America. They are dedicated to educating their readers through text books, poetry & literature, and biographies & memoirs. Featured authors include Ta-Nehisi Coates, G.K. Osei, and J. A. Rogers.
Founded in 2017 by Tahara Saron, BlackGold Publishing has become a renowned online publication for black voices. Saron’s company now has over 200 titles available and is becoming more popular within the indie author scene. Representing young black voices as well as ethnic literary works Saron has created an inclusive and diverse opportunity for authors of color seeking representation. What makes BlackGold Publishing so unique is their team of all black editors, illustrators, graphic designers, business consultants, and staff, with over 35 years of combined, cumulative literary and publishing expertise.
Just Us Books
Now a multicultural publisher, Just Us Books was founded when Wade and Cheryl Hudson realized that there were too few children’s books depicting the heritage and lives of people within the black community. From middle grade, young adult, poetry, to black history and nonfiction books, this publication is succeeding in teaching young readers more about black culture and the people who have paved the way for black success in America.
The diversity of voices published by Indolent Books ranges from black and POC authors to trans, non-binary, LGBTQ+, as well as people suffering from HIV and more. Located in Brooklyn, New York, this nonprofit press was founded in 2015 by Michael Broder, and it specializes in poetry. Their topics of interest are related to justice of all kinds, such as racial or economic justice, but not exclusively. They represent a new opportunity for people from all walks of life to find themselves represented in literature and the publishing industry.
While the pathway to diversifying the publishing industry is still being laid out by major publications, more and more opportunities are arising for underrepresented authors to be heard.
For more representation of black authors, see our Black History Month collection of exemplary black authors of all genres…
- Science Fiction
- Debut Black Authors
- 18th and 19th century Black Authors