Culture industries increasingly use our data to sell us their products. It’s time to use their data to study them. To that end, we created the Post45 Data Collective, an open access site that peer reviews and publishes literary and cultural data. This is a partnership between the Data Collective and Public Books, a series called Hacking the Culture Industries, brings you data-driven essays that change how we understand audiobooks, bestselling books, streaming music, video games, influential literary institutions such as the New York Times and the New Yorker, and more. Together, they show a new way of understanding how culture is made, and how we can make it better.
—Laura McGrath and Dan Sinykin
Somehow, there was “only” one Black writer praised in 1963; at least, so argued novelist John A. Williams. This solitary writer was James Baldwin, who had replaced Richard Wright, who had, in turn, replaced Langston Hughes. That succession, according to Williams, was because Black writers are only compared to each other. And this narrowness, warned Williams, “confine[s] them to a literary ghetto from which only one Negro name at a time may emerge.”
Many African American writers and commentators have followed Williams, critiquing the practice in the US whereby “only one” or a few Black writers are elevated by white publishing outlets, while many other authors are ignored. For example, Geneva Smitherman, Ron Milner, Rita Dove, Ishmael Reed, and others have made this claim.1 During Richard Wright’s time, explained biographer Faith Berry in 1968, “only one black writer at a time … could be eminent in American letters.” In his 1972 autobiography, Chester Himes noted that “the powers that be have never admitted but one black at a time into the area of fame.” In 1974, June Jordan noted that “we have lost many jewels to the glare of white, mass-media manipulation,” which celebrates only individual Black writers.2
But has this critique—of elevating only the minimum number of Black writers at a time, at the expense of all others—ever been proven? We are unaware of any efforts to quantify the complaint. That is, until now.
Our findings reveal that many Black writers received at least minimal attention in a prestigious media outlet (in our research, that was the New York Times). Even so, the vast divide between those who received extensive coverage and those who did not explains why some Black people express concern about the persistence of the “One Black Writer” idea. Only select Black writers—all born before 1950—appeared in more than 1,000 articles. Fewer than 20 writers from our list of 500 appeared in more than 500 articles. That means that a relatively small number of writers (like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Colson Whitehead) appeared in far more articles than hundreds of others.
Perhaps the most egregious and blatant examples of this phenomenon that we identified are Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Look at how the two were discussed just in the 1980s.
Among Morrison’s Black women contemporaries, Walker comes the closest to appearing in as many articles in the Times. Even so, her closeness is only momentary, as our line graph indicates. During the 1980s, the publication of The Color Purple (1982) and the 1985 film adaptation of the novel ensured that Walker was cited in more articles than Morrison for a few years. But in retrospect, those years were anomalies. In every decade since the 1970s, the Times has cited Morrison in more total articles than Walker and every other Black writer except Baldwin.3 In fact, in the last 50 years, nearly three times as many articles cited Morrison as cited Walker. We wondered whether reception patterns would shift with subsequent generations of writers.
Some skeptics might argue that the Times simply prefers one or two writers above the rest, no matter their race. But what happens when we consider Black and white generational cohorts of writers? While the coverage of Morrison far outpaces that of her Black writer peers, that is not the case in comparison with white writers, especially in the Books section of the Times. John Updike, Philip Roth, and Norman Mailer have been cited in more articles than Morrison since 1970, though she has been referenced in more articles overall than her generational cohort of women, such as Joyce Carol Oates, Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, and Susan Sontag. Still, those white women writers are much closer to Morrison in terms of citations than are Morrison’s Black women peers. That confirms that among major women writers, Morrison is the only Black one.
Because Morrison was living and actively publishing in the first two decades of the 21st century, white publishers and media outlets felt no strong need to identify “the next Toni Morrison” among Black American women writers. Attempting to counter criticism of that lack of urgency, Robin Desser—who is white, and, moreover, was a vice president and editorial director at Knopf—said that publishers would take notice of Black American women “when the next Toni Morrison comes around.”4
That response is hardly comforting, for it implies that no extraordinarily talented Black American women writers have emerged since the 1970s, when Morrison began publishing. More egregiously, it echoes Williams’s concern shared at the outset: there is room for only one Black writer at a time, and only to replace the previous one. And, worst of all, it demonstrates how the seemingly ephemeral idea of “media coverage” has real-world consequences for who can write, speak, and create in today’s literary landscape.
Only select Black writers—all born before 1950—appeared in more than 1,000 articles.
Over the course of many years, we developed initial lists of Black poets, novelists, playwrights, short story writers, scholars, comic book writers, and cartoonists containing more than 1,000 people. Given our interests in African American literary histories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we decided to exclude Black writers (including Frederick Douglass, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and hundreds of others) who died prior to 1970. We also excluded authors (such as Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and Stacey Abrams) who became famous as political or cultural figures first, before becoming writers. Thus we settled on a list of 500 writers. This list prioritized, in some respects, the kinds of authors—such as novelists, poets, and essayists—that we and other scholars regularly cover in African American literature courses.
We used the New York Times search function to pinpoint the number of articles where writers were mentioned at least once—in reviews, news items, profiles, interviews, transcripts of podcasts, obituaries, and so forth—over the last 50 years. We removed bylines (that is, instances when articles were written by authors) from the overall tally. The search results provided a total number of articles for each writer on our list.
Our scatterplot above arranges writers by their birth years on the horizontal axis. The vertical axis shows the number of articles that mention a writer at least once in the Times.
We privileged birth years, not publication dates, because we wanted to highlight generational cohorts and common historical periods, which are prevalent approaches for grouping authors in the field of African American literary studies. Examinations of writers belonging to the same generational cohort are important, because these authors often experience related historical periods that shape their outlooks. They participate with and against each other in overlapping competitive markets. We also noticed that writers are frequently discussed, at least early in their careers, in relation to their generational peers.
A similar result occurs with Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead’s multiracial generational cohort. In the Books section of The Times, Smith and Whitehead are the only Black novelists in league with white contemporaries such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, Hilary Mantel, George Saunders, and Jennifer Egan. In discussions of contemporary fiction, Smith and Whitehead are apparently the only two Black ones.
Such data provided a way to compare the numbers of articles that included these 500 individual writers, enabling us to measure just how much a powerful media outlet favored only a few Black writers over so many others.
In 2021, for example, those of us who admire Whitehead were pleased that his new novel Harlem Shuffle was cited in more than 20 articles in the Times in a single year. But what about the various other Black authors who published novels over the last few years and received little notice? What difference does it make that the Times and other outlets repeatedly cited select Black writers and scholars while rarely acknowledging hundreds of others?
Consider the differences between Toni Morrison and several members of her generational cohort who began publishing novels in the 1960s and 1970s. None of them—Toni Cade Bambara, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Ernest Gaines, Charles Johnson, Gayl Jones, Paule Marshall, James Alan McPherson, Louise Meriwether, Gloria Naylor, Ishmael Reed, Fran Ross, John Edgar Wideman, and John A. Williams—comes close to appearing in as many articles as Morrison in the Times over the last five decades.
As we show, Morrison’s productivity was not the sole reason that she received so much more coverage than her peers.5 Butler, Reed, Delany, and Williams published more books than Morrison. Perhaps the growing interest in Black women writers since the 1970s explains why Morrison appeared in far more articles than Black men novelists. But what about her Black women peers?
Considerations of the One Black Writer idea often highlight intraracial tension along gender lines. For example, one recurring observation in African American literary studies is that Richard Wright was celebrated while Zora Neale Hurston was overlooked. (During the 1980s, especially amid lively debates about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ishmael Reed began regularly noting that only a few Black women novelists were elevated in the public sphere, in large part because of white media’s unquenchable appetite for negative depictions of Black men.)6 Yet Morrison’s appearances in articles don’t just greatly outpace those of men. She is cited much more frequently than Butler, Gayl Jones, Paule Marshall, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, and many other Black women.
We know that Morrison was the one among her generation, so what about Black women writers who began publishing in the 1990s and 2000s? Some observers worry that Black British, African, and Caribbean women writers, most notably Zadie Smith, who is British; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is Nigerian; and Edwidge Danticat, who is Haitian, displaced Black women writers born in the US.
Based on media coverage on Black women novelists, it appears that the one will no longer be African American. The one might be Haitian, Nigerian, or British. Notice that Danticat, Smith, and Adichie appear in articles much more frequently than their Black women peers from the US.
What Counts as a Bestseller?
Given the gendered focus on Black writers, how does the One Black Writer idea manifest among Black men novelists? Since Baldwin died in 1987 and Ralph Ellison died in 1994, people have been inclined to look for their heirs.7 Morrison famously noted that she had “been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.” But of course, Coates is not widely cited as a fiction writer, even though he has published a novel.
There’s no question that Whitehead has been more productive than many of his peers, releasing eight novels and two creative nonfiction works since 1999. In other words, he has published one new book every two years or so over the last 20 years. But productivity alone does not explain why he is cited so much more than other Black men novelists. Whitehead is an extraordinarily talented writer, a New York City-based author, a graduate of Harvard University, a recipient of several notable awards, an apparent heir to Ellison, an author of a neo-slave narrative, and someone who is well-liked by influential white and Black people. All those factors contribute to extended coverage in the Times.
In 2018, the New York Times magazine published an article, “Black Male Writers for Our Time,” with an accompanying photo gallery featuring 32 authors.8 The presentation of so many writers in a single article and related images constituted a remarkable moment in Black writer coverage in a major white publication. Journalists and reviewers rarely, if ever, prompt readers to consider the presence of nearly three dozen Black writers of any gender (or both male and female) in one article. Such a production could represent a counterpoint to the One Black Writer idea, but “Black Male Writers for Our Time” was an exception, certainly not the rule.
Interestingly, Coates and Whitehead, two of the most referenced Black men writers in the Times over the last decade, did not appear in the photos, though Whitehead was mentioned in the article. As the above graph demonstrates, Coates and Whitehead are outliers among their generational cohort of Black men writers. The bulk of coverage on Coates concentrates on his nonfiction, but he is very much an artistic writer who has produced comic books and a novel. There are other Black men nonfiction writers, but few, if any are acknowledged as much as Coates for artistic work. Among Black men who primarily write fiction, Whitehead stands apart.
One of the most enduring assessments of Whitehead’s work appeared in 1999. Walter Kirn, writing for TIME magazine, observed that Whitehead’s debut, The Intuitionist, was “the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” References to Morrison and especially Ellison have persisted throughout Whitehead’s career.
The New York Times published reviews, sometimes more than one, of all Whitehead’s works, and in August 2016 took the unusual step of producing a 12-page, print-only section showcasing a 16,000-word excerpt from Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. The Times has been tremendously supportive of Whitehead’s career; meanwhile, since 2014, the company produced hundreds of articles on Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Based largely on the popularity of “The Case for Reparations” (2014) and Between the World and Me (2015), Coates quickly became one of the most well-known Black writers of his generation. Many Black women writers expressed misgivings about Coates’s popular reception. If his book’s premise—a letter from a father to a son—was viewed as the most representative and powerful version of the Black experience, where would that leave African American mothers and daughters?
“Why do you think that so many white people love what you write?” Nikole Hannah-Jones asked Coates during a public discussion at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.9 Her question was an extension of commentary about the exceptional reception of one Black writer at a time. In other words, Hannah-Jones’s question suggests that Coates assuages white liberals’ guilt about racism, making him a token and favorite among gatekeepers and a larger white reading audience. Her question also points to an implicit gender bias among white gatekeepers and their tendency to elevate Black men more regularly than their female peers.
And worries about the popularity of Coates were hardly limited to Black women. Several Black men writers voiced concerns about the pervasive appeal of Between the World and Me. Although Cornel West’s critiques of Coates’s rapid ascent were the most widely reported, many others expressed discontent and frustration. The distressed Black reactions to the many positive white responses to a Black book and author prompted a reply from Coates, who noted that in many cases the criticism directed at him by some Black men “replicates the very tokenism” they disdained.10
That observation underscores the difficulty Black writers encounter when critiquing white people for promoting one Black writer over many others. To spend time calling out and covering that one Black writer everyone is focusing on contributes to the total number of citations for that writer, while all the rest remain ignored.
When John A. Williams mentioned Black writers, he was primarily thinking of people who publish novels. But now when we say “Black writers,” what may come to mind are creators producing works in a wide range of genres and writing modes such as poetry, memoir, theater, journalism, history, cultural criticism, comic books, screenplays, and social media. The upside is that today there are more paths for Black writers to take, but the downside is that those routes are infinitely more crowded and competitive.
For this study, we extended and quantified considerations of a problem—identified by Williams and many other Black people—discussed in private, in interviews, and in essays for nearly seven decades now. We will leave it to other scholars, interested in issues beyond the purview of African American literary studies, to determine how universal really is the idea of the One Black Writer.
But, given the disparity in coverage, there’s no small wonder that some observers criticize white media outlets for apparently celebrating one Black writer at a time. And, as we have shown, such elevating of solitary voices has real-world effects that extend for generations.
Indeed, when media outlets choose favored Black writers, abundant references to those figures persist for extended periods. Baldwin and Morrison have been two of the most cited Black writers for the last 50 years. For the last decade, Coates, Smith, and Whitehead have consistently been the most frequently referenced contemporary Black writers.11 We predict that those three will remain among the most cited in the Times for at least the next decade. Put another way: it will be some time before white media outlets select a “new” Coates, Smith, or Whitehead.
Is there another way? In 2018, the obituary section for the Times introduced a new series, “Overlooked” (also known as “Overlooked No More”) to acknowledge the lives of “remarkable people” beyond primarily white men, who had been the most frequent subjects of obituaries since 1851. The “Overlooked” series is designed to serve as a historical corrective. Perhaps a similar approach could be taken to address present-day oversights concerning novelists.
But even that would not go far enough. What if, instead, the Books section of the New York Times integrated more Black authors consistently into its discussions of contemporary fiction? More than providing coverage of new releases or the token writers of color in roundups of books, the section editors might seek to regularly include a larger number of Black writers in general coverage. Perhaps then we might see a whole ecosystem of Black writers—acknowledging their generational, regional, national, stylistic, and genre differences—within the pages of the Times, just as we do for white writers.
This article was commissioned by Laura McGrath, Dan Sinykin, and Richard Jean So.
- Geneva Smitherman, “We Are the Music: Ron Milner, People’s Playwright.” Black World (April 1976): 16; Rita Dove, “The Laureate of Black America.” The New York Times (October 9, 1988); Ishmael Reed, “The Writer Who Rejected the Black Literary Bourgeoisie.” Literary Hub (September 6, 2019). ↩
- Faith Berry, “On Richard Wright In Exile: Portrait of a Man as Outsider.” Negro Digest (December 1968): 28; Chester B. Himes, The Quality of Hurt; The Autobiography of Chester Himes. New York: Doubleday, 1972. 201; June Jordan, “On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes Toward A Balancing of Love and Hatred.” Black World (August 1974): 4. ↩
- During the last fifty years, the 1970s and 2010s were the two decades with more articles citing Baldwin than Morrison in the Times. ↩
- Felica R. Lee, “New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent.” New York Times, June 30, 2014. ↩
- We found that the numbers of books that authors publish do not necessarily signal the amount of coverage the writers receive. Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and Frank Yerby belonged to the same generational cohort, and the latter two were quite prolific. Ellison published only one novel during his lifetime, while Himes published approximately 20 books and Yerby published 33 novels. Yet, Ellison is one of the relatively few Black writers who appears in more than 1,000 articles. Himes and Yerby are rarely cited in the Times. ↩
- Mel Watkins, “Sexism, Racism, and Black Women Writers.” The New York Times. June 15, 1986. ↩
- When it comes to Ellison’s successors, commentators typically promoted contemporary Black men artistic writers—beginning with Charles Johnson. The New York Times, Washington Post, and other media outlets noted the presence of Ellison in the audience after Johnson won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, and pointed out that Johnson was the first Black male writer since Ellison to win the award. In the 21st century, reviewers and scholars linked Ellison to Mat Johnson, Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, and most consistently Colson Whitehead. ↩
- Ayana Mathis, “Black Male Writers for Our Time.” The New York Times. November 30, 2018. ↩
- Felice León, “Ta-Nehisi Coates on Why Whites Like His Writing.” The Daily Beast. October 25, 2015. ↩
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Black Journalist and the Racial Mountain.” The Atlantic. June 2, 2016. ↩
- Adichie, Coates, Morrison, Zadie Smith, and Whitehead do not possess a set of shared qualities that all others lack. In fact, the variety of their experiences and credentials indicate how difficult it can be to predict which writer will become highly favored among their generational cohort and within an overwhelmingly white publishing industry. Put another way, there is no unified theory to simply forecast which Black writer will become the next chosen one. ↩