Publishing: Silencing Marginalized Voices

Sanora Babb & Migrant Farmer & Young Girl

Babb with a migrant farmer and a young girl after a walnut strike win in 1938.

Sanora Babb was employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, mainly in California. She worked under Tom Collins, documenting and writing notes on the conditions of migrant farmers in the tent camps. During this time, she worked on her own novel based on her experiences working alongside people trapped in abject poverty. Whose Names Are Unknown is the result of her work and observations during her time at the FSA. However, it was not published until 2004 as a result of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath being published. The argument for her rejection was that the market could not sustain two novels on the same subject at the same time. While this is valid at the surface, when investigated further, a sexist reality is revealed.

Babb's perspective was not viewed as important as Steinbeck's due to her gender. The unfortunate irony is that her commentary was the backbone of the notes that were passed from Tom Collins to Steinbeck. Steinbeck credits Collins' knowledge as the basis for many of the spectacular anecdotes found in his epic. Credit for Babb has been long overdue and is now possible due to the personal nature of the photographs in this exhibit. Depicting her alongside the people she wrote about reinforces the authenticity of her words that the publishing world denied the world from hearing for so long. 

James Baldwin’s 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, was rejected by Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, Inc. due to the publishing company’s fears that the novel would “alienate [Baldwin’s] audience.” Knopf’s efforts to restrict Baldwin’s vision for the novel, and their eventual rejection of Baldwin’s novel, speak to a larger pattern of white publishers setting a standard which black writers must conform to or go unpublished. Giovanni’s Room, a novel with an exclusively white and predominantly European cast, broke this standard previously set on black writers, causing editors at Knopf Publishing to worry whether the book would damage the author’s reputation as a “brilliant” young black writer in America.

24-year-old James Baldwin in Paris

Soon after James Baldwin moved to Paris in 1948.

In her essay, "What White Publishers Won’t Print," author Zora Neale Hurston outlines the standards that African-American writers must conform to, arguing that majority-operated white publishing companies call only for books from black writers that involved "so-called lower types of Negroes and lower phases of Negro life." According to Hurston, a novel such as Giovanni’s Room, featuring a white, queer American in Paris, would be denied by the white publishing world. It was ─ by Knopf and by other companies ─ until finally being published by Dial Press. Reflecting on his troubles in publishing the novel, Baldwin remarked that “whites want Black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the Black experience,” an expectation that was seemingly not met in the eyes of book reviewers at Knopf.

Publishing: Silencing Marginalized Voices