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A reckoning long overdue: Dana Canedy and Lisa Lucas on their new positions in publishing

Dana Canedy, left, and Lisa Lucas
Dana Canedy, left, former Pulitzer Prize administrator, and Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, will take top positions at industry giants Simon & Schuster and Knopf, respectively.
(Eileen Barroso / Columbia University; Carolyn Cole / L.A. Times)

Depending upon where you’re seated at the table, one could argue that this “racial reckoning” everyone keeps talking about is happening pretty fast. Certainly in the publishing industry, which was excoriated last month in the public courtyard of our time — Twitter — for its ongoing and woeful lack of diversity in its senior ranks. Amistad Press’ editorial director, Tracy Sherrod, one of the few Black senior executives in publishing, launched the hashtag #BlackoutBestsellerList
to bolster the work of Black authors and to prove that Black readers and consumers are no small force.

Within less than a month of that hashtag going viral, it was announced that two Black women — Dana Canedy, former Pulitzer Prize administrator and veteran journalist at the New York Times, and Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation — would take top positions at industry giants Simon & Schuster and Knopf, respectively. (Disclosure: My forthcoming memoir, “Surviving the White Gaze,” will be published by S&S.) Canedy starts immediately as publisher of S&S’ flagship imprint, while Lucas will become publisher of the Pantheon and Schocken imprints in January. I recently sat down with both over Zoom to find out what it feels like to be the faces of a reckoning long overdue.

So let’s talk about this “racial reckoning” — what does that mean to you, not just as professionals but as Black women who get up every day and live in this world?

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Dana Canedy: We’ve been racially reckoning since all of my adult life. I don’t know about you, Lisa.

Lisa Lucas: It’s a reckoning every day in some form or fashion. But then you have this moment of collectivity, right? Where you’re a part of a moment, a crystallization. And I think it’s been really extraordinary to see the hard daily, hourly, per-minute work of so many people actually catch a fire and start to have real results.

DC: I think that’s exactly right. But I also think there’s a segment of people, and this is what gives me hope, that isn’t being forced to listen but that is choosing to, and that’s a larger group of people than I would have thought.

You are both about to step into these huge positions, but you’re also Black women just living in America.

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DC: We’re going to be able to call on that in our professional lives. As a Black mother, my biggest fear is my son walking out of the door without me every day.

LL: We are constantly in a moment of reckoning as Black women, as Black people in America. That’s something that we’ve been forced into because of the extraordinary repression, cultural discrimination, physical discrimination — all the different ways in which we are artificially stopped from living the lives that we were promised as Americans.

What do you mean artificially?

LL: Well, I mean, we are smart. We are talented. We are useful. We are citizens, right? And when you do not allow us to perform to scale as those things, our brilliance is restricted artificially.

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To that point, you have both made sure to specifically thank the people who offered you these jobs: Jonathan Karp, who hired Dana, and Reagan Arthur, who brought Lisa on. How much credit should we be giving white gatekeepers for hiring smart, brilliant and talented people?

LL: I think we should be giving credit to people who are agents of change. It is important to honor and respect the people you’re working with for seeing talent where other people weren’t willing to see it. But I also think that you’ve got the year 2020, right? It’s really interesting that publishing is finally empowering those who wanted to make those choices and are building beyond the hiring practices. The hire itself was never the thing. [It’s] can I go in and do my work? Can I go in and be me and be Black and actually make change and be heard?

Because people were hired over the years, obviously — I mean, you cannot forget Chris [Jackson], you cannot forget Dawn [Davis]. Tracy [Sherrod], Errol [McDonald], Toni [Morrison]. Those people have been in there, but they’ve had to fight. And I think what this moment promises is hopefully less battling and more working.

DC: Well, I think there is going to be a lot more battling. And I think that’s true of any industry. So much of what you’re saying is why I’m glad that John and I started the conversation [two years] ago. I think it is a real compliment when someone hires you to do the job they did so successfully. And so to me, that is real progress. It would have been easier for him to hire someone in the old mold, who came up through the ranks, who looked like him, who might’ve been considered a “safe bet.”

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I don’t want to assume that any hardships I have there are going to be necessarily because of race. There is the extra element of that when you’re a person of color and a woman, but these top jobs come with a lot of pressure. It’s going to take a collective effort, and Black women have always been on the forefront of leading, whether it’s in the voting booth, in the classroom or in positions like ours. And so speaking of the names Lisa just mentioned, I’m happy to stand on those mighty shoulders and hopefully help folks to stand on mine someday.

LL: I guess my point was not so much about is Jon good, is Reagan good. I actually do not think it would have been easier for these big hires, in this moment, to have been the same [as before]. I think that would have actually been a difficult challenge, because of the pressure that all of the publishers are under to take one of the least equitable communities and make it more equitable.

That leads to my next question, about this parlance of diversity and inclusion that is thrown around so regularly that it feels meaningless. I wonder if you’re thinking about new language to talk about different kinds of voices and writers.

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LL: I wish I knew what that language sounded like. Nobody’s Athena, sprung forth fully formed from the brain of Zeus into the brilliant ideas that they’ll do for 10 and 20 and 30 years. But I think that openness to developing a new language, in collaboration with the old folks and the new — I think that’s the work.

DC: I’m not worried about the language. I feel like that’s semantics. I’m worried about who I hire, who I promote, the books I commission, the books I promote and how I promote them. Coming up with buzz words is the easy part. It’s the actual mechanics and logistics of making change that I’m more focused on.

LL: Part of the cultural shift that I think needs to happen is, one, working with our colleagues to demonstrate value in languages other than that which they speak. We ultimately have to reimagine not just who’s doing it, not just how people are allowed to do it but also the ways that we talk to each other about the work that we are championing.

DC: I guess what I’m getting hung up on, the language piece of it, is that there may be times when the sheer force of me being the publisher and standing behind a book with conviction is what’s needed rather than language. We have an opportunity to really set the agenda.

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There is something about the books themselves that is foundational, right?

LL: I think that the exciting part is that people are starting to see how important books are to us culturally, and we can capture not just the energy of change, of post-pandemic — should we ever get there — but also just the energy of people remembering how vital books are to us in a moment of great duress. I think that’s a nice runway into a bright future.

Moderator Rebecca Carroll
Moderator and author Rebecca Carroll.
(Laura Fuchs)

DC: To your question about what’s foundational about books, here I am, a middle-aged Black woman from Kentucky who wrote this book [“A Journal for Jordan”] that people of all kinds have found resonance and value in, and I think the reason is that if you deliver something that has universal themes, that is authentic, the market will come.

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You don’t feel any concern about who decides what universal themes are?

DC: I decided them, in my book, and I will be deciding them as publisher. I really think that the service of this conversation, and I’m so glad you’re pushing on this, is that we have to keep asking those questions, and those of us in leadership make sure we’re answering them appropriately — not just with our words but with our actions.

LL: What I’d like to not see happen is somebody like Terry McMillan coming out of the gate with a huge, enormous hit, “Waiting to Exhale,” in the early ’90s — which says to you immediately there’s African American women who want to read about their love lives and aging and work and divorce. Then you just don’t see that happen [again].

Memoirs by Kiese Laymon and John Edgar Wideman; essays by Darryl Pinckney and Mikki Kendall; masterpieces from Michelle Alexander and Claudia Rankine.

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My first book is a collection of narrative interviews with Black women writers. I sold it the year that Terry, Toni and Alice [Walker] were on the New York Times bestseller list. It was a good year to be a Black woman writer, and then it disappeared. I bring it up because of an anecdote in that book: Tina McElroy Ansa talks about being introduced to books by her mom when she was a child and how special they were. I just wanted to ask you both if you have a memory of books and their specialness when you were younger?

LL: Absolutely. My grandmother was a schoolteacher, and she taught first-graders how to read. But the thing that my parents did that was really cool was that we had Black books proudly, proudly displayed. If there was a new Toni Morrison book, it was a whole situation. I never grew up even recognizing that these authors were fighting to exist. I just believed there was room at the table, which was obviously incorrect. Well, it was correct and incorrect. It was both.

DC: We didn’t have a lot of books in my house. My mother was a high school dropout who later went back to school and ended up getting an associate’s degree. My father worked three jobs to keep food on the table. He was a drill sergeant in the military. Then he would drive a taxicab at night, and then on the weekends he worked at the movie theater and would bring these huge bags of popcorn home for us. They didn’t spend a lot of time reading, but what they did do was take us to the library. I used to love story time at the library.

Lisa, you’re very active on Twitter. In fact, your new job sort of came out of it. How do you feel social media will play a role in the apparatus of books moving forward?

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LL: The reason I like Twitter is because I’m in direct dialogue with the sellers and with publicists, readers, everybody. You can get an actual bead on some of what’s happening. It has been not just an opportunity for me to be in dialogue with my community but also to demonstrate to a lot of young people what this work is, what it looks like, what’s hard, what’s awesome. Because the thing is, it’s useless if I get this job and I do a bunch of good things for the culture — and Dana has been saying the exact same thing. The job is to bring a million people behind you.

Carroll is a writer, cultural critic and host of the podcast Come Through with Rebecca Carroll. Her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, is forthcoming.


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