The Juneteenth Book Festival, organised by author L.L. McKinney and book publicist Saraciea Fennell, happened this past June 19, 2020. Its aim was to shine a light on the width and breadth of Black American literature and honour the legacy of Black American storytelling.
It was not the first Juneteenth Book Festival in living memory as there was another event with the same name that happened in 2015. That one was celebrating the 150th anniversary of June 16, 1865, when the last <slaves> prisoners of war in the United States finally got knowledge of their freedom. The 2020 version came off the back of the inferno that started with the murder of George Floyd and led to the Black Lives Matter uprising that took several forms in the United States and around the world. The publishing industry was no safe haven from the tsunami against white supremacy as #PublishingPaidMe, a twitter trend coined by US author L.L. McKinney, exposed how unfair book advances and other payments were for minorities and women. The energy raised by this furore logically led to a book festival (writers and book festivals eh?) for African Americans on a sacred day for them.
The festival ran on two platforms all running on the one day which was quite a bit for any one individual to consume at one sitting. There were some sessions on Instagram Live where one could interact with book bloggers/bookstagrammers like @melaninatedreader and @beingabookwym and the writer Janae Marks. The bulk of the program was fourteen sessions recorded in advance on Zoom and uploaded on YouTube.
Watching the sessions from Nairobi, it was evident that our brethren, sistren, and transren from the United States work in a bigger market than here on the continent. While we are still trying to mainstream non-literary fiction, African Americans are writing so many exciting things. The panels introduce you to writers you have never heard of writing children’s fiction, young adult fiction, literary fiction, comics, journals, anthologies, as well as genres like romance between all genders, and even vampires and the like. It is clearly one of the markets with the most diverse writing in the Black Literary world available today.
The festival showed the pain of working in a very white industry at all levels from writers to those who work in the publishing firms and everyone in between. To mitigate this pain, many appealed to their industry overlords to give them better salaries and opportunities like their paler colleagues. This was unlike many on the African continent that build their own systems however limited; some like the Abantu Book Festival explicitly exclude white people from participating.
Another interesting thing to note was the format was quite different from what we are accustomed to on the continent. In many festivals here, a good panel moderator tends to conduct sessions in the background allowing the panellists to shine. In the Juneteenth Book Festival, everyone tended to jump in as and when a thought came to a panellist and/or moderator in many of the sessions. This might have been a function of the Zoom format or this was how festivals typically run in that part of the world. There is no way to know yet as this was the first book festival this blogger has covered from Black America.
Some of the sessions at the festival were;
- All of Me: Black Memoir: Mikki Kendall, Nicole Perkins moderated by L.L. McKinney
- Black Stories Are Not Niche: Lamar Giles, Leah Johnson, Justin A. Reynolds. Kim Johnson moderated Tiffany D Jackson.
- My Mythology: Reclaiming Stories of Old: Tracy Deonn, L.L. McKinney, Bethany C. Morrow, Kaylynn moderated by Patrice Caldwell.
- Capturing The Moment: What It Means To Write Black Stories Right Now: Tiffany D. Jackson, Angie Thomas, Bethany C. Morrow, L.L. McKinney, moderated by Julian Winters.
- The Kids Are All Right: Writing For Black Kids With MG: Kwame Mbalia, Karen Strong, Alicia D. Williams moderation by Nic Stone.
- One Cause Many Voices: Editing and Contribution to Black Anthologies: Bethany C. Morrow, Patrice Caldwell moderated by L.L. McKinney.
- We Need A Hero: Black Superheroes in Comics:L. McKinney, Mikki Kendall moderated by Karama Horne, The Blerd Gurl.
- Queer and Black On and Off the Page: Julian Winters, Claire Kann, Roya Marsh, Candice Iloh, and Ashely Woodfolk moderated by Leah Johnson.
- Light it up! FIYAH Magazine and Black Short Stories: The FIYAH Magazine Team.
- Our Truth Being Black In Publishing: Zakiya Jamal, Ashley Woodfolk, Nivia Evans moderated by Saraciea Fennell.
You can watch the session below