PW’s “Afro Picks” Controversy

PW‘s provocative cover image and title for its annual African American feature stirred up plenty of controversy on Twitter and blogs yesterday – and now the book blogs at the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are asking their readers to weigh in.


African American novelists Carleen Brice and Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant were among the first to criticize the cover for presenting the work of black authors in the context of a negative stereotype. PW editor Calvin Reid explained that he’d chosen the cover image from the book Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, edited by Deborah Willis. “While it never occurred to me that anyone would be offended by these images, I was very wrong and I have to acknowledge that,” he wrote. For a full summary of the debate, check out blogger and writer Nordette Adams’s post about it.

Many are arguing that the cover controversy distracts from the PW feature itself, which reviews the impact of the recession on the African American book market. It includes the disturbing news that there appears to be less serious fiction by black authors entering the marketplace, according to Jabari Asim, editor-in-chief of the Crisis and a former editor at the Washington Post Book World. In the article, book editors confirm that they are increasingly cautious about acquiring books by black authors at a time when chain bookstores are cutting back their orders, black bookstores have difficulty competing on price, consumers are extremely price-sensitive, and the popularity of street lit category is slowing.

Also included in the feature is a list of notable African-American titles slated for Fall 2009 and Winter 2010. Here are a few of the key fiction picks on the list:

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow is a “much-touted debut novel” about the biracial daughter of a black G.I and a Danish mother. In some libraries, there are already holds on this book, which is coming in February 2010.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Heidi W. Durrow
Retail Price: $22.95
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books – (2010-02-16)
ISBN / EAN: 1565126807 / 9781565126800

Audio also available from Highbridge on February 1, 2010

  • CD: $26.95; ISBN 9781598879230


Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is set before the Civil War at a free-territory resort in Ohio that attracts four white female friends, as well as slaveholding men and their enslaved mistresses. Most libraries we checked had 10 or fewer copies on order, and a few holds.

Dolen Perkins-valdez
Retail Price: $24.99
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Amistad – (2010-01-01)
ISBN / EAN: 006170654X / 9780061706547

Audio also available from Books on Tape in January 2010

  • Unabridged CD (7 discs): $70; ISBN 9780307713704


Best African American Fiction 2010, edited by Gerald Early is the second volume in an annual short fiction series. Libraries we checked have 10 or fewer copies.

Best African American Fiction 2010
Gerald Early
Retail Price: $25.00
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: One World/Ballantine – (2009-12-29)
ISBN / EAN: 0553806904 / 9780553806908


Gloryland by Shelton Johnson is the story of a black man born on emancipation day in 1863 who joins the U.S. Cavalry and is posted to the newly created Yosemite National Park in 1903 – and it’s written by a modern day Yosemite Park ranger. World Cat says 179 libraries have it. Those we checked had modest holds on modest numbers of copies.

Shelton Johnson
Retail Price: $25.00
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Sierra Club/Counterpoint – (2009-09-08)
ISBN / EAN: 1578051444 / 9781578051441


And here is the book that is the source of the controversial cover image:

Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present
Deborah Willis
Retail Price: $49.95
Hardcover: 244 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company – (2009-10-05)
ISBN / EAN: 0393066967 / 9780393066968

One Response to “PW’s “Afro Picks” Controversy”

  1. Alyss Dixson Says:

    Jacqueline Luckett’s debut fiction SEARCHING FOR TINA TURNER doesn’t get a mention above – I guess an empowerment story from the 40+ crowd isn’t high- brow enuff? – and I think it was I’ll- served by the tongue-in-cheek fumble by PW. I hope the next list they do for literary books takes an equally riotous turn. Who takes black womens writing seriously these days? Not the purveyors or pushers of the “street lit” moniker (and for its day wouldn’t Petry’s THE STREET or THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X have landed betwixt and between?), if editors don’t demand more of the storytellers don’t blame it on the genre blame it on the publishing houses. And PW’s lame-duck cover is surely a reflection of this lack of esteem.