By Helene Atwan
When Beacon was founded, in the mid-1850s, two burning issues of the day were abolition and women’s suffrage. Here, as we transition from Black History into Women’s History Month, I’m feeling so proud of our lasting tradition of publishing biographies that celebrate Black lives and women’s stories, and often both.
Decades ago, about the time I came to Beacon, we published Marian Wright Edelman’s memoir of her mentors (and it was among the press’s best-selling books of the time), and more recently we have published biographies of Black women who have made an indelible contribution to our history, including, of course, the NAACP Image Award–winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis (also a best-selling book for Beacon, and just last month we published the YA adaptation of that book, coauthored by Jeanne and celebrated writer Brandy Colbert). These books put Mrs. Parks not just at the front of the bus but at the front of a movement that she very much helped to plan and lead. They correct the false image of an unwitting heroine who needed a rest and restore Parks to her actual role as an intentional and lifelong activist for civil rights.
The work of Black women as leaders in activism goes far deeper in our history, as recent films about Harriet Tubman and Madame C. J. Walker attest. But these women need no fictionalizing. In Keisha Blain’s powerful Until I Am Free, we will have a new book that tells the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, the youngest of twenty children, the granddaughter of enslaved people, a woman who worked as a sharecropper before dedicating herself to activism; and just out is a biography of Dorothy Pitman Hughes, With Her Fist Raised, Laura Lovett’s groundbreaking account of this pivotal figure in Black feminism and community organizing. The powerful work and witness of these women is baked into American culture and deserves to be better known. Like so many of the important books recently written by Black women activists, a good number of those published by Beacon, these stories correct the white supremacist version of history we’ve been fed for centuries.
We’ve also published in just the last half decade several important biographies of extremely influential Black women in the arts who are not as well-known as they deserve to be: Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout!, the story of the life and times of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, often acknowledged to be the first gospel superstar, a book that led me to discover Sister Rosetta’s unique music, much as Ian Zack’s Odetta, an intimate portrait of a woman who was known as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” led me to hours of riveting listening. Angela Jackson’s acclaimed biography of poet Gwendolyn Brooks, A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun, introduces us to one of the great American literary icons of the twentieth century, a protégé of Langston Hughes and a mentor to a generation of poets, including our own Sonia Sanchez. I hadn’t read enough of Brooks’s work or understood her role, her very real importance in our culture, until Jackson’s book. And until Imani Perry’s multiple award-winning biography of playwright and essayist Lorraine Hansberry, Looking for Lorraine, I mostly knew only A Raisin in the Sun and failed to appreciate the ways Hansberry used her prominence to challenge President Kennedy and his brother, the attorney general, to take bolder stances on civil rights, for example, or in supporting African anticolonial leaders and confronting the more subtle racism of the new generation of white writers. These books will help reshape our understanding of the lasting influence of Black women in the arts.
Just a few months ago, Beacon’s associate publisher and editorial director, Gayatri Patnaik, was awarded BIO’s prestigious 2020 Editorial Excellence Award. Most of the books I’ve mentioned above were acquired and edited by Gayatri; she deserves our gratitude.
Finally, on a personal note, I feel deeply honored, over the course of my career, to have had the opportunity to work with Black women whose influence on me has been profound. In the days before I came to Beacon, I was lucky enough to get to know Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, among other brilliant Black women. Since I became director here, now over twenty-five years ago, I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to meet and interact with some of the writers mentioned here, along with some whose work I personally edited and whose friendship I count as one of the great joys of my life. So thank you to Amy Alexander, Elaine Brown, Dominique Christina, Carol Fulp, Lani Guinier, Anita Hill, Gayl Jones, Deborah Plummer, and Sonia Sanchez.
About the Author
Helene Atwan has been the director of Beacon Press since 1995.