The Marketeers Club: Feeling My Blackness at #AWP17

Tayler Lord is a publicist. Her wintertime Starbucks order is a grande cappuccino with two raw sugars and a sprinkle of cinnamon. 

Earlier this month, I went to the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington D.C. I’ve been feeling especially distraught about the Trump presidency, so I really needed this trip. I knew that going to Washington during this politically charged time would be important for me. I anticipated the protests and rallies that popped up throughout the conference (and knew those events certainly wouldn’t have happened if the election had a different outcome). I could have guessed that I would pick up some “resist” buttons, or that there would be a station to write postcards to my senators. I wanted this community of creatives to fuel me; I couldn’t have known that I would walk away feeling so moved by this experience.

First of all, this AWP was held during Black History Month. This is unusual because the conference is normally held in March. I don’t know if that was by coincidence or more deliberate, given the stunning amount of black presenters on the program this year including Rita Dove, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and our own Safiya Sinclair. Second, Beyoncé is pregnant with twins. This may seem incongruous, but hear me out. I know that some people don’t concern themselves with celebrity pregnancies, and I’ve heard rumor that others don’t worship at the feet of Queen Bey the way I do. But the news was energizing for me in an unexpected way. We’ve felt a lot of loss as a nation in the last few months, and it was just so good to see a Twitter hashtag that signified new life and offered excitement rather than fear or shock. What’s more, Beyoncé’s pregnancy celebrates black motherhood, which I’m always here for.

Black History Month and Beyonce’s pregnancy provided the perfect backdrop for my AWP experience. At the conference, I saw more black people actually working in this writing/editing/publishing field than I had in my eleven months at UNP. It was incredible. I didn’t feel so unknown or wonder if some people had questions about my hair or where I or my parents came from. I saw people who looked like me. Not only were there people who looked like me, they also knew what a publicist does and what a galley is. I hadn’t yet experienced that in my publishing life.

Publishers Weekly published an article last year called “Why Publishing Is So White” and the numbers are damning: seventy-nine percent of the overall industry identify as white. Just four percent are black, and three percent are biracial or multiracial. I remember reading those numbers and looking around at UNP and feeling very aware of my blackness. Not that that was the first time I realized that I was the only black person at the Press—that was apparent since day one. But there have been times when I’ve tried to rationalize being the only black person on a staff of nearly fifty people. We publish the African Poetry Book Series, so that counts for something. I wrote a thing about Lemonade, so I can use my unique voice. I think that when we work for a university and in the humanities, there’s an idea that we’re more committed to diversity than most other places. It’s jarring when we see ourselves reflected in those numbers.

I don’t mean this to be an indictment of the Press. I believe in the diversity of our list and our commitment to publishing diverse peoples. We do good work at UNP, and I think as a whole we’re aware that we can always be doing more. But that doesn’t change the fact that our staff is largely white. Diversity is important in every department. A team of acquiring editors with different backgrounds means a more interesting and well-rounded list. A diverse marketing department means reaching untapped media and reviewing outlets. These ideas aren’t revelatory, but we often need to be reminded of them. Thank you to AWP for reminding me.