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Celebrating Black literary authors

This Black History Month we are proud to be part of the change, celebrating Black novelists, poets and playwrights whose works capture a rich heritage of real and imagined lives.

Book covers of Black and Asian British Writing, Becoming Free Becoming Black, The Hidden Rules of Race, Shakespeare and Race, and Twenty First Century American Fiction

The Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing (2020) opens with a quote from Moses Ascending by the  Caribbean author Sam Selvon:

Man Moses, you are still living in the Dark Ages!

You don’t even know that we have created a Black Literature, that it have writers who write some powerful books what making the whole world realize our existence and our struggle.

Co-editor of the Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing, Susheila Nasta, notes Selvon is heralded as the “father of black writing” and has influenced contemporary Black British authors such as David Dabydeen, Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy (British Library blog).

Yet few school students in England get the chance to study these “writers who write some powerful books”, a ground-breaking report by Lit in Colour has found. The campaign by Penguin Random House UK and The Runnymede Trust aims to make GCSE English Literature more inclusive.

Some twenty years prior to the publication of Moses Ascending in 1975, Selvon wrote The Lonely Londoners (1956) in Creolised English, showing life in 1950s London through the eyes and experiences of Caribbean immigrants. It was a literary first as it isn’t written in ‘standard’ English, and is one of five novels that have been added to the reading list for our OCR English literature A Level that students will study from September 2022, along with three other notable books by Black female writers.

“The quality of these diverse works will not only support students to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding of English Literature, but provide an opportunity to engage with work that is more relevant to their lives and to the lives of fellow students,” OCR Chief Executive, Jill Duffy said.

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929) is set in 1920s New York and explores identity and belonging; a film based on the book is due to be released in November; while Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower is set in the 2020s and explores climate change and society.

Bernardine Evaristo’s prize-winning novel, Girl, Woman, Other is also on the list – making OCR the first exam board to offer it as a text for A Level students. Evaristo became the first Black female author to win the Booker prize in 2019, with the prize stating her book “presents a gloriously new kind of history.”

For GCSE English Literature, students will now have the chance to study Leave Taking by award winning playwright Winsome Pinnock as a modern drama text, as well as a refreshed selection of poems.

Higher Education students studying other literary works can take a new look at race with the help of recent additions to our Cambridge Companion to literature and classics series. These are authoritative guides for students written by leading experts, offering lively, accessible introductions to major writers, genres, and periods.

The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race has chapters focusing on how race intersects with sexuality, lineage, nationality, and globalisation. We asked some of the contributors what they hope students and teachers would gain from their chapter and you can read their responses on our Fifteen Eighty-four blog.

Our latest additions to our Cambridge Companions series are dedicated to twenty-first-century American fictionpoetry and theatre, give voice to the authors, poets and playwrights who have been largely neglected. In a blog The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry editor Timothy Yu, says we “…should place writers of color at the center of poetic discourse, rather than at the margins of a historically white canon.”  

The introduction to the Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing notes it isn’t simple to map out this rich, cultural heritage. Published at the start of 2020, the foreword describes it as a “cultural compass” navigating through four centuries of Black and Asian writing. Co-editors Susheila Nasta and Mark U Stein comment:

One can tell a lot about a nation by the stories it invents, by what books it chooses to treasure, which paintings it displays at its galleries, and the nature of the histories it constructs…. one can learn even more about a nation by what it chooses to forget.

The book, which is aimed at learners in higher education, features in our specially curated Race and Power Collection. More than 50 book chapters and journal articles are highlighted in the collection, and across the wider collection many are free to read and explore the intertwining concepts of race and power, on a global scale, from different disciplines and perspectives. These include White Identity Politics by Ashley Jardina, joint winner in 2020 of the best book in political psychology, American Political Science Association.

As an academic publisher, it is not only our mission, but also our moral duty, to dissect and engage with our work; to inform our audience of literature that challenges widely and deeply held beliefs; to speak truth to power.

These five titles from Cambridge University Press underline the impressive range of Black voices the OCR team could choose from for our refreshed A Level and GCSE reading lists. “We’re committed to increasing the breadth of writing that young people can engage with,” continues Jill, “and we’ve carefully selected some exciting works to strengthen our English Literature A Level and GCSE.”

The OCR team consulted with English teachers, a panel of teaching and academic experts (including Susheila Nasta), our own experienced examiners, as well as feedback from partners such as Lit in Colour. From September 2022 there will be 19 texts by writers of colour, the majority of whom are women, which is 28 per cent (up from 13 per cent) of the texts available across both A Level and GCSE.

As an organisation devoted to education, learning, and research, we believe that we can and should be a strong global voice against racism and for diversity and inclusion. But we also recognise that we need to change ourselves. Our goal is to create an anti-racist culture that champions racial equity, encourages discussions about racism, and empowers our colleagues to condemn racism in all its forms.

To complement our people strategy on equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging, we are taking steps towards diversifying our author and editor community in our publishing. We are beginning by collecting demographic data, which is to be held anonymously, and we will start reporting shortly. In the US we are one sponsor of the Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) Book Workshop Fund, which aims to support authors from diverse backgrounds. We are supporting the fund for three years.

“Since joining Cambridge in June this year I have observed the passion with which colleagues are developing products and services that reflect the customers we serve and are relevant to today’s world,” said our equality, diversity, inclusion and belonging director, Serita Bonsignore. “Advocating for diverse voices and reflecting experiences are important and will be key to informing our strategy, policies, product development and marketing in a way that is inclusive and promotes belonging.”