ST PETERSBURG, Fla. — Little free libraries in St. Peterburg hope to help highlight Black voices in the community this Black History Month. It comes during a movement in the publishing industry to get more Black authors published.
"Brightness is not in your skin my love, brightness is just who you are. As for beauty,’ mama said, rubbing Sulwe’s stomach, the way she always did to comfort her. ‘You are beautiful,’” Kristine Dowhan read from the children's picture book "Sulwe" by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o.
“This book is so amazing because it teaches how to love yourself. And it walks us through Sulwe’s journey as she learns to love herself,” Dowhan explained.
Dowhan founded St Pete Shush free little libraries during the pandemic. Starting with a china hutch in front of her house to now almost 250 newsstands from St. Pete to Palm Harbor.
“With our 300 little free libraries, we have been able to share over 200,000 books entirely for free over the last two years,” she said.
This Black History Month, she wants to make sure every child in the city has access to Sulwe’s message and many more.
“This book belongs in every single library,” Dowhan said. “And it's a shame that I didn't have it as a kid because I, growing up white, in a white neighborhood, I never understood anything related to how Black people see themselves.”
Books are one of the most powerful tools when it comes to education. Research out of NYU found access to books is one of the greatest contributors to educational inequality in the United States, but inequality isn’t found just in access to books, it’s also a problem in the publishing industry.
“I wrote my first novel back in 99, right? And when I went to submit it to different publishers, it was always like, ‘Who is this for?’ or they wanted me to change certain things, you know, even though there's nothing in the book that that states what race people are,” explained author and USF Professor Geveryl Robinson, “When I published it myself on Amazon, it went to number one… the comments…were from people of every race.”
Robinson said when people read they can’t see the author’s skin tone.
“You don't go up to people and say as a white writer, you know what I'm saying? You're just a writer,” she said.
A New York Times analysis of more than 7,000 books from 1950 to 2018 found 95% of published writers were white. While stats show more diversity over the years, in 2018 only 11% of authors were people of color.
“As a publisher, if your business is words and languages, and books, then every voice is important,” Robinson said.
In addition, a 2019 survey by Lee and Low Books found 76% of people who work in the publishing industry self-report as white.
“If you really want to be diverse in every aspect, you also have to have these diverse voices in your everyday work environment,” Robinson said.
Dowhan hopes to help make a difference one neighborhood, one little library, and one book at a time.
“‘You are beautiful to me, but you can't rely on what you look like to make you feel beautiful,'" Dowhan read from Sulwe, “‘Real beauty comes from your mind and your heart. It begins with how you see yourself not how others see you.’”
She’s asking the community to help her fill St Pete Shush libraries with books from and about Black voices to educate, encourage, and promote change in inequality.
“One of the things you can do is donate to the Shush,” Dowhan said, “And 100% of donations between now and the end of February are going to go to purchasing books by Black authors.”
In 2020, many authors started a movement for equality with the hashtag #PublishingPaidMe and people in the industry held a day of action to support the Black community. As a result, several publishers released statements in support of racial injustice announcing anti-racism training and promising to support writers of color.
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