Dear Mr. Book Editor:
Thanks for your note that you were going to give my book, Pryor Lives! “ a look.”
As you know, it was last February during Black History Month that I wrote you. Each year it is the same. We, African Americans, have Black History Month. While this is a good thing, it is also a sore point for many Black Americans across the country. The Black History months puts us in the position of being between a rock and a hard place.
The rock is hard enough, but the “hard place” is not much better.
What this comes down to is: all the articles in the San Francisco Chronicle on black culture for that month are written by whites. For a black writers, this is a little bit insulting. No attempt is made to include the hundreds of black writers living in the Bay Area. After all, it is Black History Month and not Whites Writing About Blacks Month.
In order to remedy this exclusion of black writers from the Chronicle, I suggested to one of your fellow journalists, a Ms. M.W, if she would be interested in my writing an article on Richard Pryor during the late 60s in Berkeley. This is the subject of my new book, Pryor Lives! How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor (2013), and I know something about the subject as well.
Ms M.W. wrote back:
Our book editor J M was suppose to get in touch with you about your forthcoming book on Richard Pryor.
We are not interested in your article on Pryor, but in reviewing your book on Pryor.
Okay, I thought. Let’s see if they will review my book. Then I got an email from you, the editor:
I’d be glad to take a look a your book about Richard Pryor. My address is below, many thanks
Then, I sent the book to you, and, having heard nothing from you for a while, I wrote asking if you had received the book.
Did you get my book?
Then, you wrote me back:
I got your book. I took a look at it. I was surprise that your book was self-published. I can’t review your book…
What? After all of that, you finally decided that you can’t publish my book because I self published it!
Dear Editor, I waited for a few weeks hoping for the duration of time that you would review my book. What about reading the book and deciding if it’s any good or now?
When I have published books before, they were reviewed by your publication. My novels always were reviewed favorably by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. When I published Stagolee Shot Billy with Harvard University Press, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post—even the Times Literary Supplement–gave it excellent reviews. What did I do wrong? But now that I have published a book myself, I don’t get even considered for a review in your funky newspaper when I got reviews before?
The San Francisco Book Review can no longer hold onto the old system of exclusion.
As you realize publishing has changed in the last few years. Marshal McLuhan, the media guru, had predicted that this day would come. Now that digitalization has swallowed up print,
newspapers are not selling copies. Over the past years, we have witnessed the decimating of the newspaper staffs all over the country. A few years ago, the Chronicle hired some of the best editors I ever worked with.
But who are the ones who suffer? Not the white editors, not the white film reviewers (who like Betsy Starkey of the Los Angeles Times write about black films directed by blacks starring in by Blacks and written by blacks yet reviewed by whites).
Who suffers the most? Not the white women who adorn the covers of ever book review through out the country.
Who suffers most? Dave Eggers?
A recent study has revealed that white journalists write 90% of all the headlines in America. Jack Mirkinson reported in the Huffington Post, in an article titled “White Journalists Writing An Overwhelming Number of Newspaper Political Features.” The study he referred to looked at 38 different newspaper front pages across the country, and found that white journalists dominated when it came to writing feature stories about foreign policy, social issues, and the economy, and immigration. Not just these subjects, but all other subjects as well. Like Black Culture. Like Black literature. Black films. Black psychology. Black people.
Here is Betsey Starkey of the Los Angeles Times at the Toronto Film Festival praising the 12 Years A Slavery for having a black scriptwriter, director, and black actors. Yet the review of the film is still written by a white person.
Part of the problem is that newspapers refuse to hire black journalists. The New York Times, had about 3% Blacks, the Miami Herald, 4.4 percent, but the San Francisco Chronicle had no percent of Blacks working as journalist.
You don’t realize that Black writers suffer more from the change than any white writers, and the writers who stand to gain more in the change are white women writers. If you looks at the San Francisco Book Review, it is 99.99% white.
Every Sunday, we have to read about the concerns of white people. Your book reviews reflect an exclusively white audience, as if we were living in a segregated San Francisco.
In every issue, every category (fiction or non fiction, real or fable) by white writers and or white reviewers.
If there is any exception to this rule, it is a book by a Black celebrity. If Alice Walker doesn’t have a book out, then what about her daughter? As was the last week’s leading book review.
Your fictionalized reader is a middle aged white —it doesn’t matter if he or she is Republican, Democrat, Progressive, or Tea Party affiliate — who apparently cannot imagine there is anything to be learned from Black people who are in their midst every day.
As a book editor, you might remember that while Whites have enjoyed literacy and writing technology since the beginning of his country, if a Black man or woman picked up a quill, as it were, his fingers were cut off.
Why this drastic remedy? So that the whites like yourself can enjoy the privilege of writing, which, by the way, is a useful tool in keeping Blacks in slavery. Although we have progressed some from four hundred years of enforced illiteracy, we have not been able or have not been encouraged to tell our stories in your newspapers.
The telling of our stories is given to white writers. We are not even allowed to describe a film we have seen. It is a reality which White reviewers cannot afford to address.
My favorite in his category is the white journalist who takes the point of view of the Black Author. The new trend in white racism is that the progressives and liberals want to not only praise black culture — they also want to present it as their own. Joan Walsh, the author of What’s Wrong with White People, is a good example. She writes for Salon, where she takes the point of view of a Black Person Who Is Critical of White People. Instead of hiring actual black people, they bowdlerize the black point of view.
Must we continue to live like this? Everything is segregated in our city as it is. Must we now pick up the book review and read only about white privilege? Forever?
If New York and Los Angeles are anything like San Francisco, we are living in a period of “white-only” American History.
In many areas of culture life in San Francisco–like the Book Reviews—black people have disappeared.
In the San Francisco area, we live in a culturally anemic world. From the University of California at Berkeley to Stanford, where the student bodies and faculty are nearly lily white to the music festivals and the book festivals.
White students who take classes in African American literature taught by white men and women are lead to believe that they know something about black literature. The same trend is seen in the Jazz Festival in San Francisco. The night I attended the Jazz Festival it was in a brand new building, there were not more than six or seven blacks in the entire place. Even the singer and the entire band were white. The only thing black about the affair was the music they were murdering on stage.
I no longer view it is a distinction to be reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle because of they treat their readers as if they were all white bigots who need not know that here is a book written about Richard Pryor by someone who thought he was more than a self-loathing misogynist.
I demand that the San Francisco Book Review open up to authors who are self published, who have escaped the plantation of print technology and who are now running freely in open space.
As Richard Pryor would say, you can Kiss My Rich, Happy Black Ass!
Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.