Ohioana So White?

Suzanne Goldsmith
Hanif Abdurraqib at Gramercy Books

Editor's note: This article appears in the May issue of Columbus Monthly. On the day of the festival, April 27, the Ohioana Library issued the following statement via tweet: "We are committed to fostering the discussion we need to make the #OhioanaBookFestival an event where everyone feels welcome, included, and appreciated. Change is afoot, and we will be working hard. Thank you all."

Columbus writer Hanif Abdurraqib, whose latest book, “Go Ahead in the Rain,” hit The New York Times’ best-seller list earlier this year, won’t attend the Ohioana Library’s 2019 book festival (April 27 at Columbus’ Main Library). He’s protesting that of 30 finalists for the prestigious Ohioana Book Awards last year, none was by a black author. “It was just mind-blowing,” Abdurraqib says.

A year ago, he was a featured speaker, but when invited to return in an email that arrived late the night before last November’s deadline, he tweeted out a screenshot of the message. “Feels like an afterthought,” he commented.

Ohioana director David Weaver is apologetic, saying Abdurraqib was one of 10 well-known authors who received last-minute invites. Weaver was behind schedule because he’d been undergoing treatment for bladder cancer.

He does not apologize for the absence of black finalists. He points out that the 2017 poetry winner, Terry Ellen Cross Davis, is black, and that past honorees include Wil Haygood, Jacqueline Woodson, Toni Morrison and Sharon Draper (all authors who live or have lived in Ohio, as the guidelines stipulate).

But of this year’s 22 judges, only two were black, and the state-funded library’s 20 trustees include just one black person. The roster of authors participating in the 2019 festival is overwhelmingly white. “We’re looking to expand our diversity,” Weaver acknowledges.

Abdurraqib and other black authors aren’t inclined to wait. He points out that local artists like Scott Woods and Will Evans are building their audiences by performing, blogging and sharing their work through other channels. “Black artists are becoming less concerned with institutional recognition and taking the decision to recognize their own into their own hands.”

*Goldsmith’s middle-grade novel, Washashore, was an Ohioana Book Award finalist in 2014.


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