“Playing It Forward”
Guest Writer: W.D. Foster-Graham
As an African American gay man of a certain age, I find that my definition of success has changed over the years. The dream I had so long ago of being a published author, writing the books I wanted to read, having readers who love my books, has come true. With that dream realized, another definition of success goes hand in hand with it: paying it forward.
For me, it all starts in my backyard: my hometown. I was attending a book launch of a local Black author here in Minneapolis. I bought her book, and her words were inspiring. With that event, the seed had been planted for me. What, may you ask? It was my desire to see not only my work but the works of other local Black authors and poets on the shelves of the public library systems here in Minnesota.
Growing up, one of my favorite places to go was the public library. I could check out books and read to my heart’s content; that was my candy store. As much as I love it, as an adult, finding the vast disparity and underrepresentation of Black authors here, eye-opening but not surprising. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the status quo was no longer acceptable.
Starting with my own body of work, I contacted the directors of the library systems, addressing the disparity in their collections, and asking the question: what are you doing to support and increase your representation of Black authors, especially local Black authors? Some library systems were already proactive in this area, partnering with organizations to further support. Others wanted to increase their support but didn’t know where to find more Black authors and poets, largely because their selection process has excluded independent authors, which presently make up the majority of published Black authors. Others “passed the buck.” And some were resistant to the feedback.
In addressing this issue, it’s not enough to just bring it to their attention. It’s important to 1) have the data to back it up and 2) provide an alternative. In my case, in addition to the data, I provided a resource list of local Black organizations and authors/poets, plus their works. While I was doing that, I also contacted the Minnesota Library Association and expressed my concerns as a representative of the very group being underrepresented. The home page on their website specifically stated their commitment to addressing the issue of systemic racism, and they have been receptive to my input.
A year ago, the Hennepin County Library became the first public library system to include my Christopher Family Novel series. At present, my works are now part of 61% of the public library systems in Minnesota, plus the Des Moines Public Library. I was pleased to see the works of other authors I recommended, including the sistah I supported at her book launch, on more of those shelves. I have also had the honor of connecting and partnering with Black literary organizations here, realizing that I’m not alone in this initiative.
Through this experience, I am reminded that systemic racism takes many forms. I have learned, once again, the necessity of “speaking truth to power.” The Black community has always had a voice. And with that voice, we must demand representation. I remember all too well that in this country’s history, there was a time when it was dangerous for African Americans to read and write. There are so many stories out here that deserve a place on the shelves of the libraries; hence the selection process must change. I am deeply appreciative of the support that I have received and thankful for my Higher Power.
To my brothas and sistahs out there who have a passion for writing: while your works bear fruit, I encourage you to find ways to support other writers of color, and in the process make our library collections as diverse as our population. Like all things, this is a process, but in the long run, we can make substantive changes.
Dream big. Believe in dreams and never give up.
© 2020 by W.D. Foster-Graham. All rights reserved.
W.D. Foster-Graham is an independent novelist from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He received a B.A. in psychology from Luther College, and he was an original member of the multi-Grammy Award-winning ensemble, Sounds of Blackness. He has also been recognized by the International Society of Poets as one of its “Best Poets of 2003.”
His tastes in writing run to family sagas and M/M romance, seasoned with his own brand of African-American flavor—at the end of the day, it’s all about the love. He shamelessly admits to a love of romance novels, whodunits and classic movies of old Hollywood. He was also inspired by the late novelist E. Lynn Harris, who believed that an author should write the books he/she wants to read.
Current works in development are a continuation of his Christopher Family Novel series: Never Give Up, a blend of historical novel/family saga /whodunit, and two M/M romance novels, The Right to Be and To Thine Own Self.