Becoming Your Own Gatekeeper

Well-Read Black Girl’s Founder on Black literature’s place in American History

Graphic by Darrel Frost.

In 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that the most likely person to read a book in America was a college-educated Black woman. The success of writers such as Chimamanda Adichie, Brit Bennett, Angela Flournoy, and Akwaeke Emezi has sparked what might be called a renaissance of Black literature. Still, the publishing industry has yet to fully respect a Black readership. The conversation around diversity is often limited to authorship, ignoring how it might be applied to those who consume the written word. 

But Black readership has always been present. As writers, Black and African women in particular have long been able to tell our own stories; as readers, we support other women who put pen to page.

The year after the Pew report, Glory Edim, a woman in her early thirties who was working at Kickstarter, launched Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG), an Instagram account highlighting works by Black authors. The account took off—it now has more than 230,000 followers—and Edim quickly expanded her enterprise to include a book club hosted out of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where she lived. Soon, the club’s success allowed her to quit her day job. Since then, Edim has grown a literary empire: she’s published Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (2018), an anthology of original essays by Black women, and she has created an annual literary festival featuring renowned writers such as Jacqueline Woodson, Tayari Jones, Rebecca Carroll, and Renée Watson. Edim is currently working on a second anthology of short stories by Black women, as well as a memoir. The third annual WRBG literary festival will be held in Brooklyn in November. 

Recently, I spoke with Edim on the phone about WRBG’s creation, its purpose, and Edim’s plans for the future. Over the course of the conversation, we compared notes on our mutual love and respect for the written word. As Black women who work in publishing, we spoke about the necessity for Black and African-American literature to be brought out from the margins and be seen as what it  always has been: American literature. WRBG tasks readers to never forget that Black writing is not only integral to American history, but that it is also its most precise and rigorous critic. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Check out other articles in our new series examining the world of criticism.

 

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Hafizah Geter: How do you choose which books to highlight with Well-Read Black Girl?

Glory Edim: I often follow the trajectory of new writers that I discover in literary magazines. Specifically, Killens Review of Arts & Letters, A Public Space, Ploughshares, and Zyzzyva. I also discover new authors through The Hurston/Wright Foundation. Publicists send me books and I exchange copies with fellow writer friends as well. As the name Well-Read Black Girl suggests, we center the writing, readership, and experiences of Black women.

Hafizah: How do you find out about new books yourself?

Glory: I use Instagram fairly often. People tag me in things. I get sent a lot of things. But I still do it the old-fashioned way—I ask my friends what they are reading. I take workshops and I try to put myself in places where I can learn something new. There’s such a wave, especially on Instagram, of everyone branding themselves as experts of—fill-in-the-blank—and I’m the complete opposite. I’m, like, “I know nothing!” I’m always asking questions. Listening has become my expertise.

Hafizah: What book criticism do you read? Are you reading the Times? The New Yorker? Is there anyone who you think does it well?

Glory: Right now, I’m reading Doreen St. Felix at The New Yorker. I read Harper’s a lot, too. I think, ‘What is of value to take back to my community?’ And trust me, not everything is of value.

 

There are so many white gatekeepers for writers of color to get through. So we can use new technology like social media to shift what is ‘normal’ or create our own systems to support the work that is valuable to us and not have to sit around and wait to be ‘chosen.’

 

Hafizah: What’s the difference for you between book coverage—publicity and news—and criticism, and does that difference matter?

Glory: There is a difference. The majority of what I’ve been doing most recently is book coverage. So I select books that I know I will give favorable reviews to and will help amplify their voices. I have to like it or I cannot promote it. But there definitely have been books that I’ve read that I haven’t had that reaction to, and I decided not to cover. I haven’t positioned myself as a literary critic per se, and I don’t want to see Black women fail. I’ve been intentional about hand-picking the things that I know I can support without question and be really excited about and get other people excited about. 

Hafizah: I hear what you’re saying—that at this point in literature, when there’s so few voices of color, what’s the point of trashing someone?

Glory: Well, we need that, too. We need to be honest. We want to add our voices to the dialogue, to the debate. I would like there to be more spaces for us—not only social-media forums, because those things can disappear. We deserve to have our work published in literary journals and in academic journals and the New York Times and The Atlantic and more places beyond Twitter. We deserve a larger space for expression so we can examine our interior lives without the gaze of others. That’s the biggest thing that I’m always yearning for.

Hafizah: How does the way books are publicized affect what people read?

Glory: It’s like any kind of public media. We often consume in arenas of public perception. The gatekeepers unfortunately still have so much power—between mastheads, agents, editors, and publishers, there are so many white gatekeepers for writers of color to get through. So we can use new technology like social media to shift what is “normal” or create our own systems to support the work that is valuable to us and not have to sit around and wait to be “chosen.” I think the numbers often prove it. Right now, Good Talk by Mira Jacob—a graphic novel about a biracial family—is on the Times Bestseller List. We know that when those stories and voices are supported and nurtured they will be financially lucrative in the marketplace. It’s about deciding to help cultivate it and supporting the emerging author to have a second and third book.

So much about building the marketplace is about upward mobility and economic development. To be sustainable, people need to buy books. It’s not just a mantra, it is a reality to build lifelong critics and writers and essayists. Being a writer is a long and vigorous and tedious process. So many people just found Tayari Jones because of An American Marriage, you know? But Black women have been supporting her from the beginning. I’ve been reading her books since Leaving Atlanta, since Silver Sparrow

Hafizah: You launched the WRBG book club in 2015. I’m really excited about the comeback and resurgence of book clubs. Can you tell me more about yours?

Glory: It’s an iteration of the traditional literary salon, for today. I draw inspiration from historical literary figures like Jessie Redmon Fauset, literary editor of The Crisis, and Rosa Guy, the co-founder of the Harlem Writers Guild. Both developed communal experiences with writers and explored themes of racial discrimination, classism, and feminism through their own writing. 

The hope is that my book selections allow for debate and add nuance to traditional ideas around Black identity and, particularly, the Black female experience. I guide each book club meeting. I want people to set aside all other responsibilities, read a book, and talk to one another. Focus. Listen deeply to the person next to you.

Hafizah: How do you aim to influence what people choose to read?

Glory: I definitely want Black culture and cultural production to be at the forefront, whether we’re discussing immigrant success stories or Black American history. I want there to be an understanding of the diaspora and duality. That comes from my own lived experience, because I was born in the United States but both of my parents are immigrants. I would identify as Nigerian-American. But I also know when I walk into a room no one is going to look at me and say, “Oh, that Nigerian girl.” I’m a Black woman. So when it comes to the book process, and how I programmed the festival, I want people to understand the sentiment of Black literature and what it is to be called “African-American.” What that dissonance from “negro” to “Black” is, right? How we talk to each other intergenerationally. How we are modeling each other from a history that leads to now. It’s all part of this larger continuum. The book we’re reading right now is called The Bold World, by Jodie Patterson. It’s a memoir about her life growing up in Atlanta and then moving to New York and having a daughter who came out as trans at a very young age, and how that affected the whole dynamic of her family. She talks not only about her daughter’s transition but about her family and her grandmother. I am doing my best to show every facet of Black life.

 

Black writers have the ability to recreate the world with a level of truth that is often missing from the narratives told by the dominant culture. While I want people to love and enjoy the work of Black women, more than that I want them to respect it and to be humble enough to learn from it.

 

Hafizah: How does WRBG function as its own kind of literary criticism?

Glory: When the organization first started, we were motivated by the goal of increasing the visibility of Black women’s voices in literature. Now, five years in, I’m extremely intentional about the work that I’m reading. It’s not simply about entertainment value or affirmation. I look at structure and craft. I look for stories that have a sharpness to them, and that feel unconventional and unpredictable, and that show the breadth of work that Black women are bringing to literature.

Hafizah: I’m interested in unpacking criticism as a field that’s not neutral. It’s far too easy to pretend that criticism doesn’t originate from a gaze.

Glory: The beautiful thing about reading is that it provides people of color a reprieve from the white gaze. I’m hoping that the spaces I create will be socially engaged spaces for Black women and Black men and non-binary folks that come for the fullness of the work and not simply for the word “diversity.” It’s about acting as our own agents of change and supporting one another and being our own critics. We have the capacity and knowledge to critique our own work without white gatekeepers doing it for us. That’s the next phase that WRBG is moving into. After the anthology, much of the response, online and off, was about emotional resonance, which is fantastic. But I’m asking people to go beyond that. I want to push against the historical tendency to only see Black art and cultural products through emotional or entertainment value. The work produced by Black people is complex and nuanced. Because of our history with America, Black writers have the ability to recreate the world with a level of truth that is often missing from the narratives told by the dominant culture. While I want people to love and enjoy the work of Black women, more than that I want them to respect it and to be humble enough to learn from it.

Hafizah: This idea that people of color can critique our own work really resonates with me because, for example, there’s a big difference between a panel that’s moderated by a white person and a panel that’s moderated by a person of color in terms of how deeply the moderator is able to engage with the work. Can you talk about the responsibility of the critic?

Glory: There are so many connotations to the words “well-read.” For many, well-read means being familiar with Western literature and Western culture. The status quo is not necessarily thinking about the Black perspective when they are considering Western literature. We have Morrison, we have Baldwin, we have Henry Louis Gates, but everything else falls into a void. When we are able to speak about books and storylines that are about our community, through the lens of our community, we’re able to communicate our own value.

One writer who has served as a model for me is Toni Cade Bambara. I often reference her anthology, The Black Woman, and her essay “On the Issue of Roles.” There is a moment where she talks about how not all speed is movement. If we’re trying to be sharper critics, we have to think of our revolutionary selves and our revolutionary lives as being interconnected. Any body of work has to live in history. Criticism, for me, and as it relates to Well-Read Black Girl, is about maintaining a practice of being rigorous with the text and asking questions that push the reader and the writer to be clear with their intentions. Given the current political administration, more and more writers are self-identifying as activists, and you can see it very plainly in their work. As Black writers, and actually any marginalized writer, your political ideology, to me, must be present in your work. People might disagree with me, but I don’t think you can compartmentalize your marginalization. 

Hafizah: One of the responsibilities of the critic is to know enough about the world to understand what the critique is commenting on. Most white people, critics included, don’t know enough about the Black experience. And because what they don’t know about the Black experience is directly related to what they don’t know about this country, there’s so much left out of how white criticism can engage with the critiques Black writers make of America.

Glory: Exactly. Having the word Black with a capital B in my organizational name will conjure a certain energy and disposition. I’m very prideful, and I love being Black. I’m a Black woman and I’m doing my work from a Black feminist lens, and if you’ve missed that in going to my website or going to the festival, then you have a huge problem. I think what I’m learning is that people of color have to be very clear about our operating values and our actions, or it will be misinterpreted. It will be abused, manipulated, used against us. I even get weary of saying “Blackness” too often, because it’s not a material object, it’s not a metaphor, it’s who we are. I don’t want it to be transferable, like the way people use the word “diversity” as this kind of buzzword. 

At the Whitney Biennial this year, many critics were making outlandish, inaccurate statements. They didn’t do the work to learn about certain artists beyond, “This person is Black.” Simone Leigh, for example. The reviews didn’t take the time to critique her work with intention. And she responded to the effect of, “It’s very clear that you don’t know who my audience is. My audience is Black women. And by the way, this wasn’t for you. It wasn’t for you to critique.” 

I see that in publishing a lot, that this story isn’t for you. You see it especially with the way publishing handles African and Latinx literature: this asterisk, this italicized word, telling the reader, who publishing almost always assumes is white, that they—that we—are the “other.” 

Hafizah: Yes! It’s still too easy to slip into the context of whiteness and think of writers such as Morrison, Baldwin, and Gates as African-American Literature. It strikes me that part of what WRBG is doing is trying to merge the idea of African-American literature into Western literature—as perhaps it is the essential part of Western literature’s definition because, without Black literature, there’s no one truthfully engaging with the active fact of American slavery and racism. And without that, “traditional” Western literature has never been written properly.

Glory: Exactly! And so part of WRBG is attempting to create a bridge.

Hafizah: Yes, and also to help decolonize one’s own mind. We are having a kind of renaissance for Black literature, whereas in the past, the world only interpreted Black literature through the white gaze, so you only really saw Black thought acknowledged in response to whiteness’s critique.

Glory: WRBG is building these bridges and these spaces of love and trust. I can’t point to too many spaces that are only Black, that are only focused on us. So many things become really convoluted when you start institution-building. I point to examples and models often because that’s the only way I can learn and grow, so I look at Cave Canem. I look at Third World Press. I look at Broadside. I’m looking back for blueprints of how they did it, because the oppression at work, that they were writing against, is still with us now.

Because the work of WRBG is centered on Black women, there’s no need to over-explain our identities. For the most part, we’re coming from a lived experience of how the world chooses to engage with us based on color, sharing the understanding that community is vital and necessary to our personal safety—that binds us together. There’s something that’s happening within the Black diaspora where we are looking at Blackness in a more global way, in a more affirming way. I can call out to my trans sister and know that the worlds we’re trying to build are similar, like-minded, and supportive. Those are the things that I want to point out and I want to be in solidarity with. I don’t want to spend time trying to figure out what white critics are doing.

Hafizah: Yes, I think that’s key. Because removing the structure or consideration of whiteness completely alters the framework and measure of value. Which makes me wonder: What, for you, makes a good book?

Glory: What I enjoy in a book is vulnerability. I like essays and stories that are socially and politically responsive in a way that encourages nuance and complexity. A good book will enhance who you are and your understanding of the world. It’s connecting with the times. And then, after you read the book, you are compelled to have a dialogue and share what you think with others. Any time I read something, my inclination is to share it and to talk about it, whether with a close friend or a colleague or a family member. I want to bring literature into a communal experience.

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Hafizah Geter was born in Zaria, Nigeria. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s Indelibile in the Hippcampus, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Roxane Gay's GAY Magazine, and Longreads, among others. She is an editor for Little A and TOPPLE Books, and serves on the poetry committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival. You can find her on Twitter @RhetoricAndThis.