How far behind we are.
I serve on the board of a statewide organization celebrating writers and writing. At our past couple meetings, we’ve been talking about renaming some of the annual awards we give in honor of recently published work. The awards were named after donors who provided the prize money a years ago, but the money’s used up and several of the donors are long gone from the state or the planet.
Because we want to celebrate the work of writers in our state, we hit upon the idea of naming each of the awards after famous dead authors. Going forward, the awards would be named like this:
The Famous Dead Wisconsin Author Prize, sponsored by Generous Living Wisconsin Donor
That way the names of the awards wouldn’t change from year to year and donors could still get recognition for their much-needed support. The proposal was clear and the plan would reduce the clerical burden for our all-volunteer board, while also helping us fulfill our mission to celebrate Wisconsin writing. The possible names flew around: Edna Ferber, Aldo Leopold, Hamlin Garland, Zona Gale! It was a thoughtful mix of men and women, but this being Wisconsin, totally white. A board member asked this morning:
“Does Wisconsin have no people of color who were writers of note?”
Keeping in mind that under our new naming criteria the famous writer also has be dead, the easy answer seems to be “no.” My hunch is that some African American or Latino writer from Milwaukee achieved some note before dying a too-early death, but nobody’s name leaps to mind, and certainly nobody as prominent as Leopold or some of the other names we’ve come up with. (If you have any tips, let me know.)
I guess this gap makes sense given three factors in Wisconsin’s history: 1. The indigenous communities who were here when the Europeans got here had a pretty exclusively oral tradition; 2. The published authors have been almost exclusively white; 3. The arrival of the majority of the Latino, African American, and other communities of color to Wisconsin has been too recent and most of us haven’t gotten famous and died yet.
This struggle to reflect Wisconsin’s current diversity with old names reminds me of this blog post I read from the Chamoru poet Craig Santos Perez.
The literary world can do so much more to reflect the diversity of writers. As Santos Perez points out, that world just has to choose to catch up.