In May, #YAwithSoul popped up on Twitter. Started by author Justina Ireland, the hashtag began as satire on the overwhelming whiteness of young adult novels. Participants took popular white characters and predicted what would change if the characters were black.
From there, the abominable lack of black voices in young adult literature was highlighted with imaginative gif usage and popular cultural references.
— KC Johnson (@kimcjohnson) May 11, 2016
When Tris found out choosing Dauntless meant jumping 66 feet off a building #YAWithSoul [gif of Will Smith pointing and yelling “No” and walking away]
— India Hill (@IndiaHillWrites) May 11, 2016
“Hi Ginny. This is Tom Riddle.”
Ginny: [gif of Viola Davis picking up her purse and walking out]#YAwithSoul
At the time Ireland posted the inciting tweet, she was reading a popular young adult book, realizing – as many YA books are – that it was profoundly white.
“I was almost finished with it when I realized ‘Damn, this all could’ve been settled with a single honest conversation.’ Like, 350 pages of events that could’ve all been avoided if either the boy or girl said ‘Hold up, I’ve got to say something.’ I was so frustrated, because it was so lazy, and there are so many books like that, and they all feature white characters. It just really brought home the fact that the quality of the YA being acquired has less to do with plot or world-building or romantic tension and more to do with reinforcing current ideas of acceptability and keeping centered groups centered,” said Ireland.
Other authors picked up the tag, including debut author A.C. Thomas. Thomas is the author of The Hate U Give, which releases in spring 2017. When sixteen-year old Starr sees her unarmed best friend shot by a police officer, she becomes the sole witness, and subsequently torn between the two worlds she inhabits.
“When I saw it and saw what people were doing with it, in the midst of laughing I also realized that this was what YA was missing when I was younger – black characters I could connect with. In YA, black characters were usually either the best friend/sidekick or a minor character who was just there to fill a minority quota. I started thinking about some of the YA books I loved and realized how different they would’ve been with a black lead, the nuances that would’ve been present. Tweeting memes with that same nuanced-approach was not only fun but eye-opening,” said Thomas.
When black kids can’t find themselves in young adult fiction, they search in other avenues: graphic novels, comics, music, art. When Thomas was child, one the best things that happened to her was the discovery of Black Panther and Storm, two black heroes who looked like her.
“As I got older and read YA, I still didn’t see enough [black heroes]. That’s not to say that the characters didn’t exist, but for every Walter Dean Myers, there were a hundred white authors [with]white main character books. This is honestly part of the reason I fell in love with Hip Hop. People who looked like me were telling stories, albeit in song, that I could relate to. Hip Hop doesn’t get enough credit, but it exposes a lot of kids to storytelling and gives them the relatable heroes they don’t always see in books.”
#YAwithSoul evolved from spur of the moment hashtag into a scheduled chat. During the discussion that surfaced during the chat on June 23, participants recommended YA novels with black characters. One recommendation made was author Constance Burris’s Coal, a light fantasy filled with dragons, elves, and fey with a black teen hero.
Before Burris wrote Coal, the closest thing she came to seeing a black character represented in fantasy was Drizzt in the Dark Elf Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. Burris’ suggestion in a fan forum for the Dark Elf trilogy that Wesley Snipes play Drizzt was met with racist disdain.
“Afterwards, I was bullied out of the forum with racist taunts for even thinking that an African American with such “negroid” features like big lips and a wide nose could ever play an elf. To get back at those racists, I created my own black hero running around with elves and dragons. I wrote the book I would have loved to read when I was a kid,” said Burris.
We know black writers are submitting to magazines, publishing houses, agencies, magazines, and journals to create the heroes they haven’t been allowed to see. Due to the predominance of white women in acquiring roles, there is a common and prevailing mindset throughout the industry that excludes black writers from the table.
“I definitely think in YA it’s because white women are the tastemakers for the industry. At all levels: agents, editors, librarians, teachers, etc. But I’d go a step further and say it’s because a single kind of white woman (well educated, from a background of economic comfort, heterosexual) drives most of the acquisitions in the industry. They see the default as suburban and financially comfortable, which is why we get about 500 YA books a year about friendships in the suburbs. Every once in awhile we’ll get that same story in New York City. (Seriously, the whitest version of New York I’ve ever seen exists in literature). You know the books, they usually have a lens flare and a handwritten title font with unhappy white girls smizing into the distance. And it’s not a dig at those books, but do we need 500 of them a year all featuring white girls, a blond and a brunette? Can we maybe get a black girl in the suburbs smizing into the camera? Because that? That definitely wasn’t my upbringing, and it doesn’t reflect the real lives of lots of teens, white and black and all the shades in between who are alive right now and have maybe two books a year with any kind of representation that isn’t shitty,” said Ireland.
This fundamental lack of inclusion has repercussions for young people, which is why realistic, inclusive young adult fiction is so incredibly important. Without characters that kids of color can relate to, “a narrative is created that tells kids of color that their stories don’t matter; or that their stories only matter as stock characters, stereotypes, or sidekicks. Kids of color need to know that they can be the heroes and heroines just as much as their white counterparts can be,” said Thomas.
I cackled out loud in my local cafe going through the hashtag. But behind the humor of the Tweets comes a more serious and obvious lack of black characters in the YA market.
#YAwithSoul makes me laugh, but it also makes me sad, bc I realize what I *could* have been reading. People like me.
— Debbie Oliveira (@debbiekolive) May 11, 2016
It’s easy for white people like me to look at the most popular images and references that make up our society and automatically assume they’re ubiquitous. Everyone knows Harry Potter. Everyone knows The Hunger Games. We can all relate to these things because they’re for all of us, right?
Fireside Fiction Company, a magazine and book publisher focused on finding and publishing great stories regardless of genre, released statistics on who was published in short speculative fiction. Spoiler: it’s mostly white people, and the numbers are bad. Abhorrently we-should-be-ashamed bad.
38 out of a published 2,039 original short stories were written by black authors. That’s a measly 1.86 percent.
In addition, the medium number of black authors published in the 63 magazines counted in this study was zero. This means that more than half of all speculative fiction publications did not publish a single story by a black author in 2015.
As one would expect, the reaction to these incredibly low numbers was swift. Some essays in response include “Opportunity Lost” by writer and diversity consultant Mikki Kendall, “Ones and Twos and Rarely Threes” by Everfair author Nisi Shawl, and “Speculative Antiblackness” by speculative fiction writer Troy Wiggins.
Ireland penned a response on the slippery metric of “quality” in response to the Fireside Fiction study, and how ‘quality’ contributes to antiblackness in publishing. Ireland illustrates the biggest detracting statement industry professionals make: they want ‘diverse’ stories, but what they get from diverse submissions isn’t of very good quality.
“An editor’s idea of quality tends to be tied very closely to their tastes and beliefs. If your tastes are heavily influenced by the European fantasy tradition, then it’s pretty unlikely you’d find something to love in an Afrocentric high fantasy, especially if you tend to believe that only black people are interested in reading about black people. Meaning: editors need to look critically at what they’re acquiring and interrogate their biases if they want a more representative list … Because the problem might not be the short story in front of you, it might be you. And if you aren’t considering how your biases are informing your choices, how can you change things?” wrote Ireland in “Two Percent.”
It’s not the first time publishing has seen abhorrently low inclusivity statistics. Lee & Low Books conducted a Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015 in order to determine the state of diversity within publishing staff. To do so, responses from 8 review journals and 34 publishers across North America were collected on the industry of staff. Just as with the conclusion of Fireside Fiction Company’s short speculative fiction study, the results were overwhelmingly white-leaning.
Just under 80 percent of publishing houses and review journal staff are white, and about 78 percent are cis-women. The executive level – the highest rung of specialization within both houses and journals – has the greatest percentage of cis-men at 40 percent, thereby dropping cis-women to 59 percent. Among editorial, sales, marketing & publicity, and book reviewers, cis-women demonstrate a consistently strong foothold, ranging from the upper 70s to mid 80s.
The hashtag #YAwithSoul shows the differences in perception. For the black writers, readers, and makers who participated in the hashtag, the expectation of what would realistically happen in any number of situations in popular fiction were staggeringly different than white expectation.
#YAwithSoul still receives activity outside of its scheduled chats, including but not limited to recommendations on young adult fiction with black characters and the odd on-point meme. Regardless of whether the tag is active, it’s clear there is work to be done. Not only do black authors of all genders undergo exclusion in the form of restricted ability to be published, but exclusion in seeing themselves in published works. What black characters do crop up on the market, they tend not to have been penned by authors of color, and are often stereotypical and harmful in their depiction.
“Diversity is not a trend,” said Thomas. “Period. If we approach someone’s identity as being ‘trendy,’ it dehumanizes them. Therefore, if writers or even publishing only views diversity as the latest trend, it sends the message that just for the time being someone’s identity is worth capitalizing on. But then what? Trends come and go. Diversity has to become a necessity in publishing.”
The next #YAwithSoul chat, hosted by Justina Ireland, will occur on Twitter on August 25.