I don’t know anybody who believes we live in a post-racial society. Ariana Huffington’s got all the usual statistics to contradict that notion of post-discriminatory life, in the blog where she kicks off a new section of the Huff Post, BlackVoices.

Huffington Post is one of those sources that bugs me. I have gone back to reading it after a hiatus, when its sale to AOL for $315 million unmasked some of Huff’s distinctly anti-labor practices.

If you’ve just tuned me out—maybe you’re a novelist, and you think journalists working unpaid has nothing to do with you—I’m talking to you, too. Anytime a writer is asked to work unpaid, all writers are affected, and Huff runs massive content on her site that writers contribute for free.

This is my drumbeat in 2011: how writers are treated in one setting affects all of us. Take for example the aggressive union-busting efforts here in Ohio, and up in Wisconsin. If you think teachers getting the shaft in our public high schools and universities is not about writers, consider the fact that teaching is historically the material backbone of the writing life, the most reliable way for a writer to eke out a modestly middle-class living.

I’ll bet I could conjure the justification for Huff’s lack of pay. It probably goes something like this: Running your blog on our site will give you great exposure, so it’s a win/win even if we don’t pay. That defense is lifted almost verbatim from what various folks have told me when they offer a contract to sell Kattywompus Press books at a loss to me, through their purportedly desirable, high-profile venue. Don’t worry, they tell me, about not making any money off your product–the exposure is worth the loss.

Occasionally I agree to these gouged contracts, when the venue is also a literary small business that I want to, in effect, support with my charity. But a non-profit asking a percentage off the top plus a table fee, for a street fair unlikely to generate enough sales to even pay for a day of my time, should understand that booksellers are not like other artists and crafts people. I explained this last year when I turned down a local fair. We can’t just mark up our wares to cover fees. My price is stamped on my books, so whatever I pay the organizer comes straight out of my razor thin profits. People only look at the materials cost of paper, ink, bindings. Never mind the overhead—equipment purchase and repair, electric, travel costs—they never add a cent for labor.

If I tabulated the hours I put into the average book I publish, not counting materials cost, I am fairly certain my pay at this stage is less than the minimum wage of $1.13 an hour that I earned at my first waitressing job. (And no, most of my customers at that lunch counter did not tip). I’m not saying this to whine. I expect it will get better as the press gathers speed. I’m just making a point about the invisible labor of writers, not to mention small press editors and publishers.

For the record, that $315 mill from sale of Huff Post went mostly to venture capitalists and other investors who supported the site’s development. The huge pool of unpaid bloggers reaped little or no profit, despite calls for Huffington to assign some portion of her presumed personal profit to those upon whose backs her site was built.

But back to race. Ariana has created a new section on the site, specifically oriented to the Black point of view. She’s splitting off another population of readers, too, with a women’s section. Gee, I feel like I’m back in the early seventies. All this progressive separatism.

But seriously, do we need these dedicated pages of a national/international news site? Will they generate more coverage of a neglected perspective—in this case, that of Black folks? And will this additional content remain in the journalistic Jim Crow “Coloreds” section (okay, I should probably rein in that sarcastic streak), or will it spill back onto the front page, expanding coverage within the mainstream section of the news? If Blacks and women have their news covered in sections that have to be accessed separately from the front page—like the sports or entertainment sections—what’s the message to mainstream readers?

It may be worth running BlackVoice even if it stays segmented, if it fills a need for readers. But if it doesn’t spill back to the front page, it creates an advertising ghetto where sales can be more effectively targeted by demographic. Call me cynical, but I do wonder what’s driving this segmentation. Is it a sincere attempt to address a real need? If you read Huff’s blog that I linked above, you’ll probably say, yes. Or is it driven by the desire to milk the site for advertising revenue, which is mighty easy to generate when you neatly pre-sort your readers.

I had to get that off my chest, but now I’ll stop complaining. I’m glad she’s got the section. I hope there will be lots of spill-back to her front page. I’m happy that people interested in the Black community have a new, concentrated source of news and that Huffington herself is giving more airplay to concerns of this community. It’s past due.

Check out the Huff Post article on the counterintuitive lack of media attention to Black issues under the Obama regime. And for news of Martin King’s living legacy, read about what Cornel West and Tavis Smiley are up to with their Poverty Tour, kicking off in Chicago this past weekend.

Now I have to email a writer about his manuscript. Unlike Huff Post, the wompus won’t be creating any literary ghettos within the press. But we are very excited to welcome manuscripts that address issues of race and class. One of the biggest thrills of an editor is that chill, when the first read crystallizes a perfect image of how the book will look, feel in my hands, smell. I’ve had a big feeling about this particular book, which opens one window on incarceration, since I read the first draft. And I stumbled on another manuscript recently, in a workshop I keep promising to write about—a manuscript that treats one aspect of African-American experience so brilliantly and originally, and with that rare humor that slices us to the bone even as we clutch our ribs from laughing so hard. I’m courting that author too. I’m excited that she might soon have a book, here at the wompus.


With love,