Sunday, March 13, 2005

Kronikles of Rejection, pt. 2

Far worse than the garden variety publisher-agent shortsightedness and apathy that greeted my Hell of a Life project was the dagger in the back of my book, Hot from Harlem: Profiles in Classic African-American Entertainment.

In 1995 I saw this labor of love of mine, a history of African-American show business scheduled for publication by a major eastern university press, cancelled at the last minute. I first learned about the quashing in a phone call from the late Dr. Beverly Robinson of UCLA, who is black and who was the main academic reader on the book. According to Robinson, the press' overwhelmingly white editorial staff had assumed I was black; then, quite by accident, learned otherwise. But I had neither masqueraded as black, nor hid that I was white in numerous phone conversations with them. Now I knew exactly how Susan Kohner felt in Imitation of Life . . .kind of . . . sort of. . ..

In fact, the press was reneging on publication, Robinson told me, out of fear of reprisal from the university's black studies department. The head of the department was a firm believer in the fashionable, new quasi-scientific doctrine known as melaninism, which posits the notion that only African-Americans are bio-psycho-sociologically equipped to write about black culture. Not since the heyday of phrenology in the 19th century has such a large body of seemingly intelligent individuals fallen for hogwash like this. Thanks to the politics of thinly veiled black payback, I was the victim of white-on-white racism! Only in America!

Part of the black studies chairman's deal with the university for taking over the department was that the school would no longer publish books on black subject matter by whites. Difficult as it is to comprehend, all of this had been written about in several academic publications with no noticeable backlash as to the unmitigated wrongness of such an agreement. As for why Dr. Robinson, who I had never met before, chose to blow the whistle on the university press, she told me in a subsequent conversation that, because my book demonstrated that a person of one race could possess the capacity to be sensitive to the culture of another, she hated to see it die. Plus, she was upset because she knew that the press was going to lie to me about the real motive behind the deep-sixing of Hot from Harlem.

Dr. Robinson informed me that I was going to be informed that the (faux) reason for canceling the book was because it was substandard. Indeed, the very next day I received a phone call to that effect from my editor. Robinson did not want me to believe this. What a great and courageous woman. And I never mentioned her name in the subsequent protracted and painful flap that arose between the press and myself. I didn't want her to become involved---though she might have been willing to do so. Thus, I only countered their lie with, "I had it on good authority. . .", etc.

I contacted longtime First Amendment columnist, Nat Hentoff, about the possibility of his writing publicly about my situation. But, at the time, he was already in enough hot water with blacks in general (and gays) without taking on the Afrocentric set; he didn't even answer my letter. The Machiavellian Mr. Hentoff and the lovely Margo (Mrs. H) choose their civic crusades wisely and well. What a pair! Since then, they've taken up the causes of Kenneth Starr and and anti-abortion. How could I have been fool enough to think I could gain any assistance from someone (Hentoff, plus his wife) who once led a campaign to try and ban men from wearing djellabas on Fire Island?

The last I heard, by the way, the head of the black studies department at the university was being charged with plagiarising his doctorate and fighting his dismissal by the school. I'm not sure who he allegedly ripped off, but wouldn't it have been a hoot if the party turned out to be white? Just a thought.

I dug my heels in, kept the $5,000 advance, and ended up publishing the book myself. It eventually sold out, and now fetches usually in excess of $100.00 a copy on those rare occasions when one becomes available on,, etc. So I suppose I had the last laugh after all. . .kind of. . .sort of. . ..

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1 comment:

Helga Fremlin said...

Could not agree more with your take on Nat Hentoff, Bill! Didn't Mr Hentoff also agree with the Supreme Court's decision in Gore v. Bush in December 2000? That says it all ..