On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with Tracy Sherrod, the editorial director of Amistad, the oldest U.S. publisher dedicated to multicultural voices, about her work there. Sherrod shared how she got into publishing, how she came to work at Amistad, who reads books by and about Black people, and the economics of the publishing industry. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: How did you begin your career?
Tracy Sherrod: It was time to graduate from college, and my college roommate, who is a judge now, said: “What kind of job are you going to have? What are you going to do with your life?” I hadn’t even thought about that. She said: “You always have a book in your hand. Call them up and ask them for a job.” I called the Feminist Press, and they said yes. So I moved from Michigan to New York.
When I was on the phone with the Feminist Press, I didn’t want to ask how much I would be paid. I didn’t want to ask all of these questions that one should ask, because I wanted to make sure I had the job. When I got there, I found out that it was a $50 a week internship, but I would not be deterred. I got a job at Doubleday bookstore at night and worked with the Feminist Press during the day. After six weeks, I was hired permanent, full-time, which was really wonderful. Marie Brown was on the board there, and she helped me to get a job in more mainstream publishing.
I ended up at Henry Holt & Co., which was a wonderful experience, but I left Henry Holt when I went to my publisher, and I asked her to read Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, which was on submission. She told me no, she wouldn’t read it, because someone in the house had said that Sister Souljah was racist. I said, “In the past 10 years, the only people who have been called racist are people of color. I’m really concerned about that, and I’m going to resign today.” And so I did. Emily Bestler at Simon & Schuster had also been talking to me, so I called her up after my discussion with my publisher to see if the job was still available. She said yes, so I went over to Simon & Schuster and worked there for four years before moving to Amistad.
Working for Amistad had always been a dream of mine, so I feel very grateful to people like Jonathan Burnham, who hired me at Amistad to be the editorial director. It had been a dream of mine, and it’s materialized, and I love it beyond belief. Before I even started working there, years and years before, I envisioned the kind of books that I would publish. We are interested in a variety of things—we don’t only want to talk about race, that’s not all that’s going on in our lives. Although unfortunately, it definitely nags at us all day long, keeps chasing us and running us down.
Your publisher at Holt declining to read a submission that an editor had brought in seems extraordinary to me. We often talk about microaggressions when we talk about race inside the workplace, but that seems like a regular aggression to me.
In the early days, there were all kinds of things that would be said, in the ’80s and ’90s. One being when Barack Obama’s book came in: “We don’t really publish people with nontraditional names.”
You’re talking about Dreams From My Father.
Yes. It came in before he was well known the first time it was published.
The sad part about all that are the books that never got through. We don’t even know what we’re missing. I know a few very important books that were missing that would contribute to the dialogue, but those are books that no one wanted to buy at the time. And that’s the real loss to publishing.
Lauren Michele Jackson recently wrote a piece for Vulture, looking at lists of Black texts that pop up whenever there’s a galvanizing incident of racial violence. A lot of the magazines and websites will publish a list like, here’s what to read to think about race. Jackson wrote. “Aside from the contemporary teaching texts, genre appears indiscriminately: essays slide against memoir and folklore, poetry squeezed on either side by sociological tomes. This, maybe ironically but maybe not, reinforces an already pernicious literary divide that books written by or about minorities are for educational purposes, racism and homophobia and stuff, wholly segregated from matters of form and grammar, lyric and scene.” I’d really like to hear your perspective on this, because you publish books about race, but you publish books about everything. Do you think readers should be looking at books as curative or as medicine for toxicity and racism in this culture?
In the 1970s, the first period in which Black books and Black authors were really making entryways into the business, boards of education realized that American history textbooks were not right. They didn’t want to correct it, because that would have been a big job, I guess. So what they decided to do was have supplemental materials about African American history, about Indian history, etc., etc. That’s how Toni Morrison got into the business, working on those kinds of texts. So initially, people of color literature was for the purpose of educating others, and ourselves too, about history. That has continued. The purpose of all books should be to educate someone about something. I also think books should be for escape; books should be for pleasure. If all Black books were about racism, where would we be able to escape it and get away from it? We need those kinds of books as well. A beautiful world would be where everybody read everything—and I do believe that Black people read everything. So it should be educational, but that is not where it should stop. That is not all it should be.