Juneteenth Book Fest Celebrates Black Authors

Organizers put new festival together in three weeks

June 1 rolled around and author LL McKinney’s thoughts turned to Juneteenth.

And then those thoughts started snowballing. Is there a book festival that happens on Juneteenth? No? Might be able to pull that off, since everything is online.

“So I started texting people in my circle: ‘Hey, do y’all want to do this thing?’” McKinney recalled in a phone interview with Book and Film Globe. “It just grew from there.”

Less than three weeks later, the result is the inaugural Juneteenth Book Fest. Its lineup of panels arrived on YouTube June 19, encompassing an all-black roster of more than 30 authors, including Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Kwame Mbalia, Bethany C. Morrow and Beverly Jenkins.

McKinney, the young-adult author of the A Blade So Black trilogy, teamed with Saraciea Fennell, head of The Bronx is Reading book festival, to transform their collective network of contacts into a wide range of author discussions.

Themes range from black superheroes to reclaiming black mythology to writing for a middle-grade audience. Also on tap: a Black Jeopardy game-show panel, with topics like General Black Knowledge and Black Pioneers, and players that included Stamped author Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Live sessions via YouTube and Instagram rounded out the launch day, as well as a dedicated Bookshop platform for fest authors.

Authors Dhonielle Clayton, LL McKinney, and Kwame Mbalia at the Juneteenth Book Fest.

One live session featuring McKinney and The Weight of the Stars author Kayla Ancrum, originally slated for 60 minutes, kept going for an extra half-hour, with chat participants demanding at one point: “YES KEEP GOING.”

By late afternoon, the videos centering on craft, such as Writing Black Romance and It’s a Different World: Black Secondary Worlds in Fantasy, had gained the most views. That was in keeping with the vision for the day, McKinney said.

“We’re always having conversations about inequities in publishing,” said McKinney, who created the #PublishingPaidMe Twitter campaign with fellow author Tochi Onyebuchi and noted that despite the relative ease of creating a digital festival without travel or hotel costs, other events were still booking panels of all white authors.

McKinney said she and other Black authors will continue to talk about inequities until the publishing industry takes action.  “But today is not about that,” she said. “Today is a celebration. Today is about celebrating these people and these books and this journey.

“When we go to these festivals, we’re usually put on the diversity panels. Do you ask J.K. Rowling how being white influenced her? I don’t think so. No one is asking Stephen King how whiteness has impacted his writing. …I’m a writer. I want to talk about craft, I want to talk about worldbuilding, I want to talk about characterization.”

Panel conversations also had a notably more convivial air than at many festivals, with authors trading good-natured jabs and jokes throughout. That naturally grew out of the festival’s all-black roster, McKinney says.

“A lot of it has to do with the moderators,” she says. “I’m just going to be blunt about it. As a black person, whenever you go into a predominantly white space, you’re ‘on’.” Having trusted black moderators helped panelists feel relaxed and secure in their conversations, she says, citing the recent YALLWEST panel that erupted in controversy after comments made by a white moderator.

Looking forward, McKinney hopes the festival will become an annual event, whether digital or in-person, perhaps rotating through cities with significant black populations.

“It could start in Galveston, and maybe the next year it’s in Chicago,” she said. “I would love to see it bounce around to a bigger black city potentially. Maybe we go to Oakland or Detroit. That’s my blue sky – that we have an in-person event every year.”

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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