When The New York Times set out to investigate how many current authors are people of color, there wasn’t any data to be found.
So they created a list of English fiction books published by the five major publishing houses between 1950 and 2018 and three research assistants combed through scores of interviews, biographies, and social media posts to determine race. Of the over 7,000 books in which they were able to confirm the author’s race, Black authors accounted for a mere 5% of the total.
In order to help put more books by Black authors into the hands of Richmond readers, the downtown library is hosting the first annual Richmond African American Book Festival this weekend, so people can connect with professionals in the literary field. According to festival organizer, Roy Wyatt, race continues to play a major role in American democracy, affecting just about every facet of society and culture. “Without connecting with other races to better understand each others’ life experiences, we’ll continue seeing the effect of racism and its impact in national politics, public schools, the criminal justice system, and much more,” he says.
The festival specifically aims to address the imbalance in books being published by Black authors and marketed to the public. Over forty authors will be on hand selling their work, along with Books and Crannies, a Black-owned bookstore out of Martinsville, and several publishers. The festival theme is promoting financial, emotional, mental and physical wellness throughout the Black community, with Dr. Ophera Davis, a disaster expert and author of “Hurricane Katrina: Black Women Survivors Resiliency and Recovery,” giving the keynote address. Other featured authors include Amanda Lynch, James Harris, and Kerwyn Phillip, with authors Dr. Courtney Davis, Victoria Phoenix, and Angel Reynolds participating in discussions and workshops.
Because the voices of Black writers and storytellers have historically been excluded from mainstream publishing, an event such as the Richmond African American Book Festival serves as a reminder and opportunity. “The festival is an opportunity for individuals to connect with Black professionals in the literary field,” Wyatt says. “By celebrating African Americans’ contributions to literary culture, we make a conscious decision to see past color to experience the writer’s humanity, drive, intellect, passion, diversity, and depth of their experiences.”
One goal of the festival is to attract all ages and occupations, not just collectors and the book curious. Aimed at authors, teachers, and parents, three panel workshops will be held, including Publishing a Children’s Book for the First Time, Achieving Triumph through Adversity: Helping Students achieve Educational Excellence, and Getting Black Kids excited about Reading and Writing. Meanwhile children can participate in a live version of Candy Land, the classic children’s game, by acting as game pieces in a giant version.
Multiple factors were taken into consideration in creating the Book Festival, from promoting public awareness of the importance of Black contributions to American literature to introducing attendees to the resources and literature available locally to enhance literacy in homes, personal lives and classrooms. Primarily, it’s an opportunity for individuals to connect with people they wouldn’t normally have the occasion to speak to within their community as a means to better understand the life experiences of others and challenge their own assumptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. “We’re happy to provide a venue for the African American Book Festival at the Main Library because it will bring together readers and writers of all ages and provide a platform for local authors, both core parts of our mission to inform, enrich, and empower,” notes Ben Himmelfarb, acting library community services manager.
Novelist Toni Morrison asserted that if there’s a book you really want to read that hasn’t been written yet, you must write it. The Richmond African American Book Festival promises to be full of books by Black authors who set out to write the books they couldn’t find within the white-dominated publishing industry.
“There’s so much we don’t know about people, especially the opposite race, and a lot of our beliefs are based on misconceptions without actually knowing the person,” Wyatt adds. “With more interaction, we get to know someone on another level. A deeper connection to someone closes the gap of misconception that often leads to prejudices, discrimination, and stereotypes.”
First Annual Richmond African American Book Festival will be held on Saturday, April 16 from 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. at the Main Library, 101 E. Franklin St., rvalibrary.org