A clarion call of civil rights activists is that black lives matter. What would happen if they were essentially written off entirely? The question is far from rhetorical, because the U.S. publishing industry cast most African-American life stories into oblivion for much of the country’s history.
Before demands for racial justice rocked the nation in the 1960s, leading publishers produced stunningly few biographies or autobiographies of black figures, no matter how triumphant or tragic, virtuous or vice-ridden their life stories.
Founded in 1924, Simon & Schuster published its first African-American biography in 1968. The work was an illustrated children’s book, “Harriet and the Promised Land,” which tailors the story of Harriet Tubman’s heroism on the Underground Railroad for juvenile readers.
When Holt, Rinehart & Winston marketed Coretta Scott King’s memoir, “My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.,” in 1969, the company and its predecessor firms had previously accepted just three blacks as subjects for biography or autobiography.
When Random House brought out Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” also in 1969, the firm had published five African-American narratives since it was founded in 1927.
The book industry’s aversion to black biographies and memoirs extended even to celebrities who would presumably have generated the greatest popular interest.
From the beginning of the 20th century through World War II, major houses produced just two titles about African-American sports figures. Both books centered on heavyweight boxing champions: a 1927 autobiography of the wildly controversial Jack Johnson and a 1945 biography of Brown Bomber Joe Louis.
On a similar timeline, publishing companies offered just three volumes about black entertainers: Harlem Renaissance-era singer Emmanuel Taylor in 1929; jazz trumpet great Louis Armstrong in 1935; and father of the blues W. C. Handy in 1941.
Across every field of endeavor, from the ministry to medicine, from entrepreneurship to education, book merchants balked at memorializing black experiences and accomplishments.
In so doing, publishers reflected the buying preferences of a white customer base decidedly uninterested in life stories that often indicted white society. They also demonstrated the perniciousness of a caste system that excluded African-Americans from the ranks of the achievers who tend to draw biographical interest — military heroes, for example.
“What has not been generally recognized is that many more African-Americans were worthy of biographies and that the publishing industry had an abysmal record,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Leon Litwack, an expert on the history of this country’s books about blacks.
“One would have to say that publishers began to publish these books only when the pressure became insurmountable.”
In June, Beacon Press issued “One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York,” my own biography of an African-American — the city’s first black cop, who was hired in 1911. The book relied on a never-published, 80,000-word biography that Langston Hughes, genius poet of the Harlem Renaissance, had written for Samuel Battle — only to have publishers reject the manuscript.
Why? Questioned at speaking events, I have broached two explanations: First, that Hughes had failed to make a compelling narrative out of Battle’s rise from son of former slaves to friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and, second, that racism among publishers and the white reading public had destroyed the commercial value of the project.
Seeking a more definitive answer, I set out to determine how many biographies and autobiographies of African-Americans had been published. I focused on the 70 years from 1900 through 1969 to encompass the 20th century up to the era when racial upheaval brought profound change.
No reference work comprehensively covers the topic. So I drew from five resources: the electronic catalogue of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; periodic Schomburg listings of significant books about African-Americans; the WorldCat database of American library holdings; Russell C. Brignano’s “Black Americans in Autobiography”; and the Harvard Guide to African-American History’s roster of biographies and autobiographies.
Finally, I presented the findings to the still existing publishers named here so they could correct the record where warranted. None offered additional titles. Representatives generally said the passage of time barred definitively reconstructing their records. HarperCollins did not respond to information requests.
All of that said, given the fractured nature of publishing over the decades, the study’s numerical findings are best taken as providing a sense of scale rather than as precise to the last volume.
Among the thousands of titles produced by major houses across the seven decades, just 263 books focused on individual black lives, as opposed to collections of life stories. They ranged from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up from Slavery,” published by Doubleday in 1901, to “Malcolm X: The Man and His Times,” published by Macmillan in 1969.
This pace of publishing averages to fewer than four African-American biographies a year — a figure at once paltry and yet still deceptively high, because it is skewed upward by a rush of books during the civil rights movement.
In the 1960s, the industry pumped out 112 African-American biographies and autobiographies, more than double the number of titles released during the entire first half of the century. From 1900 to 1950, publishers offered readers a total of just 48 black life stories, an average of less than one a year, with no new books at all in 22 of the 50 years.
Doubleday’s library was the largest at 25 titles, yet it still included not a single new book from 1922 through 1942.
Harper companies logged 15 titles, including Richard Wright’s classic “Black Boy” in 1945 and “A Choice of Weapons” by photographer Gordon Parks in 1966.
Alfred A. Knopf waited 25 years after starting business to publish the first of the firm’s five titles, Langston Hughes’ “The Big Sea: An Autobiography,” in 1940.
Farrar, Straus’ three titles included 1965’s “Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis Jr.”
Founded in 1846, Scribner published two biographies, both in the 1960s, one about black physician Charles Drew, the other about Jack Johnson.
Worsening the erasure of black lives, publishers focused on roughly 120 characters over the seven decades, often retelling the stories of a few achievers most palatable to the white audience.
Seven general-interest subjects accounted for 51 books: George Washington Carver, renowned botanist, 17; Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., epoch-changing giant, 8; Booker T. Washington, accommodationist leader, 6; Harriet Tubman, savior of slaves, 6; Frederick Douglass, leader of 19th century black America, 5; Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and civil rights activist, 5; and Paul Dunbar, novelist and poet, 4. In the sports world, publishers devoted some 50 titles to 16 athletes, led by Jackie Robinson with seven books and Jack Johnson and Willie Mays, each with five books.
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SOURCE: New York Daily News