Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist says Knarrative is “committed to helping Black people, across the diaspora, know our history, create our own stories, and understand ourselves”
If you know Karen Hunter— former Head of Karen Hunter Publishing at Simon & Schuster, eight-time New York Times bestselling author, the XM radio host, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and the five-time bestselling author— you know that she prides herself on her fearlessly authentic approach to every endeavor and her mission to inspire others to create the world they want to see.
It may come as no surprise that Hunter’s bold style has been her trademark since childhood.
theGrio caught up with Hunter to talk about Blackness in the current state of publishing, what people in the industry can do to support Black talent, and how she went from an awkwardly tall middle schooler in New Jersey, standing up to mean nuns, to a confident titan of her industry, unafraid to stand up to corporate bullies at the top.
In March, Hunter was the founder behind the launch of Knarrative, a history education and activism project that described itself as “committed to helping Black people, across the diaspora, know our history, create our own stories, and understand ourselves through explorations of the past so that we can grow brighter futures.”
In just a short time, Knarrative has been named “the largest African studies project in the world.”
(Credit: Karen Hunter)
TG: How do you feel about the accomplishment of Knarrative?
Karen Hunter: Yeah, I’m proud. It’s like giving birth every time I do something like that. I’m super proud of that, and it already is groundbreaking and doing all the things that I envisioned. It’s one thing to have a thought about something; it’s another thing to see it to fruition. It’s another thing yet again to see it exceed what you could see because the people that you brought in, brought their own ingredients to the table, which is really the magic, right? Nothing is good on its own. You need all those spices and seasonings. That can only come with people bringing their own special flavor.
It’s interesting to me that people don’t encourage others to be creative in their spaces. I’ve always had that mentality. ‘Come in, find your space and make it your own. Like, you’re not doing what I tell you to do. Yes, I have a distinct way that I want to want things done. But if you have an idea, pursue it, and let’s see.’ I just had a conversation yesterday, I was like, ‘Failure is not the problem. That’s where the lessons are learned. Being scared is the problem. Being overly cautious is the problem.’
TG: You strike me as a confident person who is comfortable in her own skin. Have you always been that way? If not, what was the time when you weren’t?
Karen Hunter: Second grade. I was a big kid. I was 5-foot,10-inches in sixth grade. Thank God, I stopped growing then. Size 12 shoe! So, you’re not confident when your school 5th-grade picture comes out and everybody thinks you’re the teacher, or you’re always sitting at the back of the class. Early on, I didn’t realize that people were physically intimidated by me. Because you’re a kid, you don’t realize. So, I didn’t get picked on.
Then, I had a mouth. My parents talked to me like an adult, and I was smart. So I’m like 6 or 7 having adult conversations. I was not a bully, but I was very headstrong and willful, and big. I devised a plan to skip the 7th grade. And it worked!
I had to convince this really tough nun who had beaten up a couple of kids—this was when you put your hands on kids back in the day. One kid got caught smoking, and she put the whole pack of cigarettes in her mouth and made her smoke them. So, it was a lot for me to go and have a meeting with her. I’m looking back at it… in her mind, it was like, ‘What the hell? This kid is ballsy. I can’t not do it.’ If it’s your destiny, you ask for it, you get it. If I can get this mean-ass nun, who’s punching kids in the face and making them smoke cigarettes, to listen to me and then validate my request, man, there was nothing I can’t get done.
TG: Were your dreams in the publishing industry fulfilled? How did those dreams change once you saw the way it’s really run?
Karen Hunter: I didn’t go in with any expectations. I always kind of make the water bend around me. I’m not somebody that can come in and fit in and blend in. I’m 5-foot, 10-inches, a big woman. I’m Black, I’m outspoken, and I’m not somebody that is going to just blend in. It worked for me. Being my authentic self worked for me. I think the more wins you get, the more you find yourself being more yourself and making people see something that they didn’t see before, the more it emboldens you to continue.
TG: Can you speak about not getting support for Black authors?
So, publishing is racist, period, full stop. I might have been the only person at Simon & Schuster who knew Richard Simon was married to a civil rights activist, and that Carly Simon‘s mother was a civil rights activist. I might have been the only one, and that inspired me, right? I came to that publishing house because I had a lot of choices at the time to have an input at different houses. I picked that one because of that foundation. But that wasn’t what I found when I got there.
I found a group of people who exploited Black culture, who also only published things for commerce unless it was something that they personally liked. But it was really, ‘Let’s throw a bunch of stuff up against the wall, and… and I’m going to tell you what the deal is.’
When you look at the editors, even the editors that are Black in skin, they’ve gone to these different schools where they identify not as being Black. So they’re coming with a white ideology in Black skin. They’re not immersed in Blackness. That’s not their experience. That’s not how they live their life. And so, what does that even mean?
What does it mean to be Black? Why is there a Black section? Why do we even segregate Black art, Black literature, and Black poetry into sections that make no sense?
TG: If you could say one thing to every white person in the world, but specifically this country, and they would listen, what would it be?
Karen Hunter: What makes you white? If you can define that, then we’re good. But if you cannot define what makes you white, then you have to examine all that you put into it. I posit that white people can’t define what it means to be white. So you are resting on your laurels in your existence on a fantasy, on a myth that then is solely rooted in oppressing other people. Whiteness only exists to oppress people who are not.
So, then you’re participating in a system that was designed specifically to oppress people who are not white. So, if you can’t define for yourself what that means, then you have to divorce yourself from it. That means examining your whole life through this lens that you’ve created that you’ve allowed yourself to buy into, which was created to oppress other people.
Toni Morrison would say, ‘What are you without your color? What are you without your race? Are you any good?’ I love that. It’s one of my favorite lines from Toni Morrison.
TG: When people say, ‘I don’t see color,’ what does that mean to you? Is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Is it along the lines of what you’re saying?
Karen Hunter: Stupid. It means you don’t think very deeply. Because you first have to acknowledge that we live in a society where race was made up to justify a system of enslavement, to justify the decimation of a people that were here, people’s vast number of tribes and humanity, to justify taking their land and then killing them. I
It was designed to destroy whole groups, justifying dropping nuclear weapons. This system was designed to stay here for a certain group of people. It’s ironic to me that… not ironic, it’s interesting that Italians were considered the N-word, and then, ‘Oh, we ran out of White people. All right, come on in, Italians.’ First, the Irish, Jewish people—depends on who’s in power. It’s confusing. But that’s the whole thing; it’s insane.
So the insanity of that, ‘I don’t see color,’ says, ‘I’m not living in this world.’ You have to acknowledge what’s happening, which is why the question has to be asked. I just think even asking the question starts the process. People who don’t see color are blind, deaf, dumb, and they’re liars.
TG: What has changed positively and/or negatively for people of color who work in the industry since you began?
Karen Hunter: When we think of the most successful Black TV shows, they’re the Atlanta Housewives, Love & Hip Hop, Black Ink, right? Those are the most successful on television. It’s the same in the book world. So, unfortunately, I did the first book, Confessions of a Video Vixen, it was a wild success, and then they greenlit Carmen Bryan’s It’s No Secret, and that became a bestseller. There would never be It’s No Secret without the success of Confessions of a Video Vixen.
So, unfortunately, if you are a wild success with something ratchet, then the ratchet train is out, and they ride it. For me, that’s the downside. The deleterious effect on the community is that — that is the image that has been exploited everywhere into white homes. Because 70% of white people do not live with us, they don’t know us, and they don’t have relationships with us. The only way they digest Blackness is through media, through movies, through television, and through books.
So then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? So, I think that’s been the biggest problem. The biggest problem in publishing is the success of certain kinds of books.
Because in the Black world, our boundaries are not so clearly defined. We roll in between classes. We code-switch. We have a fullness. We can break out into song and dance, and at the same time, sit and eruditely break down and dissect Letter from a Birmingham Jail, right? We are versatile like that and nimble. They don’t see the interlocking material that makes it so powerful.
TG: What did non-people of color in the industry do specifically to champion your projects or support you specifically?
Karen Hunter: No, none, nothing. I remember having this discussion with E. Lynn Harris, God rest his soul, before he died. A man that had nine straight New York Times bestsellers, sold more than 100,000 each time out, which is un-freaking-heard of, and was struggling for money because he cut a deal that was not good for him.
Even worse than that, as I’m thinking about it, there were so many impotent Black folk. As in, with no real power. There was one Black woman that I never got to work with, and I think she was at Random House. She had retired or they had put her out the pasture, and she was a powerhouse.
But outside of agents, very few had the power to move anything in there. I might have been the most powerful Black person at Simon & Schuster, who wasn’t actually employed by Simon & Schuster. I might have been the most powerful Black person that Simon & Schuster ever had in-house, and I didn’t work with them. I had an outside imprint.
TG: Were you taken seriously by your colleagues when you began?
Karen Hunter: Oh, I was taken seriously because I’m me; they didn’t have a choice.
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