On 13 June 2020, Reni Eddo-Lodge became the first Black British author to take the overall number one spot in the UK’s official book charts with her her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, shortly after Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other topped the fiction chart. Eddo-Lodge responded on Twitter writing “Feels absolutely wild to have broken this record. My work stands on the shoulders of so many black British literary giants – Bernadine Evaristo, Benjamin Zephaniah, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Stella Dadzie, Stuart Hall, Linton K Johnson, Jackie Kay, Gary Younge – to name a few.”
These books have been around.
They’re not new. They have always been there and Eddo-Lodge is correct to say that the Black authors she’s mentioned represent only a few.
The rise in sales of books penned by Black people has elements of being a display of geniune interest or allyship, but also carries with it elements of performative or optical allyship, which Layla F Saad defines as “The visual illusion of allyship without the actual work the allyship’ in her book Me and White Supremacy. While there may also be an attempt at genuine allyship, I have to ask, why now? I struggle to understand why people needed to see a horrific video to come to terms with racism and anti-Black racism in particular.
It appears that much of this has been driven by social media and the increase in information with such frequency and rigour that for many it became became a toss up between staying silent, hoping things would blow over and realising the need to respond. In this instance, because things weren’t “going back to normal”, people knew they needed to start acting and reacting in an attempt to look like they were responding in order to avoid looking indifferent.
And this is where the books come in – it’s a way of showing that you’re responding or doing something. It’s a visual representation of you trying to do ‘the work’. But you are also just buying a book. It’s important not to inflate this into something that it’s not. If you simply want to buy a book to give yourself a pat on the back instead of actually engaging with it – then why have you bought it?
To read work by a Black author in a way that is not performative, means to actually read it. This may sound like the most obvious thing in the world, but it isn’t. We are all guilty of accumulating books – we buy them with the best of intentions but inevitably there are always books that just end up sitting on our bookshelves. However, there is something to be said for the way that we select which books to read and engage with. Are you actively and routinely looking to broaden your reading horizons or are you only reaching for the books you think you’ll identify with? And then, if you do in fact select a book by a Black author to read – how do you approach it?
Are you reading it as a tick-box exercise because you feel an obligation to read a book by a Black author in the current climate? Or are you reading it because you’ve heard it’s a good story and that it’s well written and you’re excited to dive in?
You should approach books by Black authors in the very same way that you approach any other book. If you’ve simply bought a book because you think you’re doing someone a favour, or doing so out of pity it’s just insulting.
What is also insulting is the on-going demand for Black authors to provide their trauma and their struggles in their writing. Black people are not pre-disposed to be non-fiction writers or to be educating others on race. There seems to be a reluctance to accept that Black people are just living. If you say Black lives matter, then allow people to live. So often, fiction is just that – about living. Life doesn’t look like constantly rehashing trauma. Life doesn’t look like constantly going to the past to try and prove to somebody why you deserve to live. While it is necessary and needed to go through the history and the statistics, it’s equally important for writers to have the freedom to ask “Well, what does my life look like?” Or “What do I imagine life could look like?” and write stories accordingly.
If you pigeon-hole Black authors into only writing about race, you limit someone’s imagination and limit their ability to write on themes of their own choosing. If Black people aren’t allowed to reflect their lives as a story to be enjoyed, as opposed to something to be learned, then you are doing them a disservice. In effect, what you’re saying is “white people are the only people that live certain lives”.
So don’t simply buy a Black authored book because it is currently trendy to do so, and if you’re doing so with a good intention, maintain the momentum and make it consistent. One of the best ways to do this is to read works by Black authors within the genres that genuinely pique your interest. If you usually read romance, science fiction, poetry etc. go in search of Black writers who are writing these books- they won’t be hard to find.
There is always space for you to recognise that your knowledge is lacking and a book may be the starting point for learning and remedying a gap in your knowledge, however, it cannot be about a current moment of “anti-racism”, it has to be more long-term. Don’t approach these books as hard work, or as a checklist that you begrudgingly have to tick off. Rather, approach books written by Black authors the same way that you would approach any other book – with joy, enthusiasm and curiosity.