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Judged by the Cover

The following guest column is a reprint from the rereleased May 1 issue of Booklist.

Last week, it came to the attention of the editors at Booklist that there were issues around the magazine’s May 1 cover. After discussing the matter internally and with me, they decided to change the cover to the one you now see. The initial cover, which is also the cover of my book, Blacktop Wasteland, shows a Black man in the reflection of the side mirror of a car. Some people felt that the image, paired with the title “Spotlight on Crime Fiction,” reinforced negative stereotypes.

This is an opportunity to have substantive conversations about our perceptions, as well as the changing face of the publishing world and the paucity of diverse crime writers.

In their desire to be socially conscious, many may have missed that the cover is from a work of fiction about a Black protagonist, written by a Black author.

It was very important to me that an African American be on the cover of Blacktop Wasteland. Growing up, I never saw Black people on the covers of books. Even our family’s copy of Roots, by Alex Haley, had only the word Roots in red letters against a black background. It was important to me that people of color see that we can be the leads in stories we create.

As an African-American man who was born and raised and still lives in the South, I live with the weight of other people’s assumptions every day of my life. If I’m driving my new car on the interstate, some people might assume it’s not my vehicle. If I go jogging through my neighborhood, some people might assume I’m running to or from some type of nefarious activity.

Some people saw the Booklist cover and perceived it as a continuation of the harmful images that are all too common in our country’s history.

The unique challenges facing crime writers of color grow out of that tumultuous history. Crime fiction has long been a genre dominated by nonminority authors.

In recent years that has changed in tiny incremental ways, but the negative stereotypes that exist, specifically about Black men, still haunt us. As writers of color, we want to be treated with same respect and dignity as anyone else who puts pen to paper. At the same time, we bear the weight of preconceived notions and mischaracterizations that few other authors face.

That’s why I was so honored that Booklist chose Blacktop Wasteland for the May 1 cover. It’s a step in the right direction on the path toward complete agency and equality for all writers. In my book I address many issues that I faced growing up in poverty in the South. And while I never resorted to a life of crime to try to grab my piece of the American dream, I know people who did. I did my best to examine those people and deconstruct the choices they made while acknowledging the systemic barriers that give so many of us so few options.

I am proud of Blacktop Wasteland, and I am proud that Flatiron Books has published it, but I’m fully aware it is a bit of an anomaly. It’s a crime novel set in the rural South, written by a Black man. There is a Black lead character who is fully realized and complicated, not a magical amalgamation of virtues and vague platitudes. That’s the other reason conversations like this are so incredibly important. Not just for me, but for the next boy or girl of color, or LGBTQ teenager, who dreams of being a writer—even a crime-fiction writer—and has a story to tell and the desire and drive to see it come to fruition.

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