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Introducing the #BlackLitChallenge

February 5, 2020, 5:58 PM UTC

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

While Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House struggle with a Black History Month diversity initiative gone wrong, there’s one very savvy book-lover who is getting things right.

Seji Akinrogunde is a 23-year-old mathematics and econometrics student and an avid reader, who discovered the robust online literaturephile community about two years ago. “A couple of months later I started making my own content on YouTube and Instagram,” under the name The Artisan Geek, she tells raceAhead. It was an instant education in diversity and exclusion. “It was a fun little hobby at first, but then I got swept up rather quickly in the publishing world. I realised how hard it was to find diverse representation in basically all corners of publishing and so that got me really fired up to do as much as I could to make a change,” she says.

The idea for the #BlackLitChallenge was formed about a year ago, as she considered how she could highlight the rich diversity of work that exists within Black literature. She is nothing if not thorough. “It started with the creation of The Black Literature Compendium, in which I collected Black literature from across the world and genres.” It’s an astonishingly comprehensive list in a Google doc, cross-referenced by category and country. (I mean, it’s really astonishing.)

Then, she started issuing challenge prompts, common in the online bookish world, designed to help people find and enjoy the diversity within Black writing.

To complete this month’s challenge, you have to choose books that will address four prompts:

  • One written before the 21st century
  • One with a Black person on the cover
  • One book in a genre outside of your comfort zone
  • At least one author who was born outside of the U.S. or U.K.

What helped the movement really get going, she says, was her “choose your own adventure” video series, in which Seji plays an A.I. named Ina, who asks you questions about your tastes, and recommends a book. “Let Ina choose your book,” is a bonus prompt in the challenge, and a sweetly clever way to drive traffic. (Based on my love of magic, Ina recommended Kingdom of Souls, by Lena Barron, which satisfies two prompts for me.)

Seji has found plenty of readers who are keen to play along, a loose network of book lovers and reviewers who support each other and Black authors online.

Sadly, Black book YouTube never seems to get the same traction as white supremacy YouTube.

In a better world, Seji would be a publishing executive. Until then, she dreams of being a freelance mathematician and content creator, and mostly reads in Dutch and English, with occasional forays into German and Japanese. Her selections this month include The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle’s Destroyer, a comic book inspired by Frankenstein. (Here’s her review for The Nickel Boys, and her review for Destroyer.)

It’s still early, but she’s happy with the response to the challenge. “Especially on Instagram—it’s been impossible to keep up with all the responses and at the same time participate and continue making the content for the challenge.” All good problems to have.

But she’s determined to keep reading and creating. “I have lots of other things planned, so I’m very excited to see how the rest of the month will unfold,” she says.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

American Dirt publisher agrees to increase Latinx representation Members of #DignidadLiteraria, an online coalition which formed to highlight Latinx literary talent in the wake of the American Dirt controversy, announced the outcome of a meeting with MacMillan Publishers this week. The company agreed to create an action plan in the next 90 days designed to increase Latinx representation in both staff and authors.“This is a clear victory...We think this is a move in the right direction,” said David Bowles, a writer and #DignidadLiteraria co-founder. “We thank Macmillan for reaching out to us and asking us to come to New York and sit down with them.”
The Guardian

How to get a more diverse corporate board Recommend lower-level executives for outside board seats and encourage them to take them, says Jeff Green, writing in Forbes. It’s worked for Marriott International, whose CEO says it’s a smart way to give high potential stars valuable experience. Boards are feeling the pressure to diversify, and are looking beyond central CEO casting, which is helping the cause. “For the first time, a majority of new directors last year were either women or men of color,” he writes.

The U.K. media keep mistaking and misidentifying Black women MPs as each other It even happened as one media outlet—The Evening Standard—attempted to cover the mistake made by another, BBC Parliament. Bell Ribeiro-Addy, an MP who represents South London, says it happens all the time. “We are not given the same respect as our white counterparts and that's not right," she says. "It is hard enough for us to get elected here but when we do get here we are not treated as individuals.

Facebook is still a white supremacist “hate factory” Two months after a Guardian investigation revealed that Facebook was harboring a network of pages run by a company that had been harvesting anti-Muslim sentiment for profit, reporters find that many of the pages are still operational. “[T]wo months after Facebook was made aware of the scheme, an analysis by the Guardian has confirmed that a number of the pages are still feeding off anti-Islamic content to drive readers to the same for-profit, third-party websites.”
The Guardian

On Background

How the trans flag emoji came to be After years of advocacy, the trans flag will be added to the Unicode Standard later this year. It matters, explains Mary Emily O’Hara. Activists, including trans flag creator Monica Helm, sent detailed proposals and were denied.For one thing, inclusion symbols are not interchangeable. “But while the rainbow flag is a universal symbol of queerness, not all trans people identify with same-sex attraction. Besides, a trans flag emoji would help increase visibility and inclusion.” It took a village, including the signatures of employees from Google and Microsoft to get the emoji approved. Well done, all.

Stumbling toward thought leadership Maybe you, like me, have stood on a stage in front of a live audience of your peers, your deck of slides at the ready, and suddenly had that stupid hater voice pop into your head to set you back on your imposter heels: “Wow, you are about to be so full of shit.” Let the nightmare come to life! In a truly hilarious presentation (and commentary on the modern age), improv master Anthony Veneziale stepped on the TED stage, was given a lofty persona (he leads an imaginary team at MIT!!!), a Quixotic and compelling theme, and a set of slides he’d never seen before. Damn it, if that man didn’t deliver a near perfect talk, filled with quasi-scientific possibility speak and soaring rhetoric that sounded ridiculously plausible. By the end of it, I was ready to buy his book on the subject, if it had only existed. The whole thing is as delicious as guacamole, trust me.

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

—Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad