Communication

Celebrating 20 Years of an Afrocentric Small Scholarly Press

May 7, 2024 398

Ayo Sekai founded Universal Write Publications in 2004, with the first products being her own novels, written while she was an undergrad at Florida International University. Later she revived her imprint with some math workbooks produced for a Florida school district during her master’s studies at the University of South Florida. But a meeting with Molefi Kete Asante, the chair of the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University and a highly prolific author, opened a new door – and even a new name – for Sekai and UWP.

In 2021, SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space, was looking to sponsor a small, Black-owned publishing company that, like SAGE, was focused on the social sciences. Asante, who had founded the SAGE-published Journal of Black Studies 50 years earlier and has written numerous books for SAGE in the years since, suggested UWP. And so SAGE signed an agreement to sponsor several titles for UWP.

To mark the Black- and female-owned UWP’s 20th anniversary, Sage’s Geane De Lima asked Sekai some questions about UWP’s past, present and future.

What inspired the creation of UWP and its evolution over the past two decades?

Initially, UWP was to publish fiction and children’s work. However, by 2007, there was a deep need to focus on academic work. As my expertise at that time was K-12, being a certified secondary language arts teacher of both high school and middle school, it made sense to focus there and build the lives of students in the classroom. That was a big splash with GOT MATH, and I Remember. I was so rewarding to have received such a powerful results and impact in the Polk County Florida School Board, that I knew I was going to stay and adopt the education model.

But the education bug got me while I was doing my master’s at the University of South Florida, and in line with my initial dream to break generational curses by being the first in my family to get a college degree, the master’s program reignited that desire to be a scholar. Beginning my PhD at Howard University changed my life. From the people, my classmates, my professors and the OG’s in research and scholarship solidified my passion for making a difference. Attending an historically black college or university, or HBCU, is a unique experience — especially at Howard University. Who you are, truly shine when you get fed spiritually and academically, allowed to find your voice and claim your agency.

That’s when the full transition to academic publishing evolved. I met the great and prolific scholar, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante. Even as the giant that he is, he welcomed me in my hunger to learn and grow. Dr. Asante understood the pain points of the academy and learning about UWP, mentored me through the publication of his own books — 10 to date — and helped me carve out a space for Black doctoral scholars who are in the race for tenure, but who, without publications, would be pigeonholed. Everyone one in the academy understands the “publish or perish” dilemma, and the stress of submitting multiple journal articles, hoping to be provided space and being met with rejection after rejection is as common as leaves falling from trees in the fall. Being anything while Black creates multiple layers of adversity.

Portrait of Ayo Sekai

Throughout my coursework, I was encouraged by his other mentee, who I am lucky to call a big brother now. But at that time, Dr. Daryl Taiwo Harris, chair of the Political Science Department, was my dissertation advisor and instrumental in solidifying my passion for Black politics as a political scientist. Not only did he see my vision as a linguistic, Glottopolitics and raciolinguistic scholar, he followed Dr. Asante’s lead, and supported UWP with the publication of NEWSCHASER, a powerful political compilation of work from both doctoral students and candidates and accomplished scholars, by lending their research and academic weight to the project. He did this with a first-year doc student in 2016 — that was me. I don’t think I fully understood the power of what they were both doing then, but it is dawning on me now.

Howard University is where the BIG change began, snowballed by some huge political events and social movements. While I was in candidacy concerned about completing graduation requirements in 2019, the Black Lives Matter movement took hold. Multiple corporations and allies chose to stand with Black businesses, and that include my now partner and major co-conspirator, Sage. When I met Sage’s CEO, Blaise Simqu, I thought it was a dream. This major academic press, in a full circle moment, decided that it would mentor a Black press into the 21 century. I say full circle, because Sage Publishing’s founder Sara Miller McCune – who as a 24- years-old began a new press — took a chance on another 20-plus-year-old, Dr. Asante, to publish the Journal of Black Studies, which has thrived under his leadership since. And then, as a mentee of Dr. Asante, I, a Black woman, attending an HBCU, running a Black press, living through a social movement like BLM, experienced UWP taking root with the mentorship of Sage and today, doing unimaginable and groundbreaking work with some of the most current, early career and emerging Black scholars, of whom I count myself among. The rest is history, and there is no turning back.

How does your publishing house ensure the quality and authenticity of the stories it publishes, particularly when amplifying underrepresented voices?

What is missing for Black scholars in the academy is an opportunity to be published in their authentic voice, by a publisher who values their research, positionality and epistemology. When scholars are able to go through strong copyediting, review and marketing experience through their press, it makes a difference in the quality of work and the sense of pride that is exhibited. A press that is as invested in their work knowing that the person behind the curtain, understand at a core level, what it is like to go through the doctoral process, the publishing process, and feel the pain points through her lived experiences.

I didn’t realize how much of my lived experiences would guide this press, reaffirming the belief of scholars like Chek Anit Drop, Franz Fanon, Carter G. Woodson, Charles, Mills, Amos Wilson, Marcus Garvey and so many others. Who you are will manifest itself in what you do. If you are a spiritual person that’s how you lead, if you love life and your culture, that’s how you live, if you see injustice and choose to make a difference, you will be moved, and if you believe in humanity, and I do to my core, then I believe that everyone has a choice, and my choice is to live authentically.

How do you select the books and authors that align with your mission, and what criteria do you use to ensure diverse representation within your catalog?

I understand, as I continue to learn and grow in this space, that there are many voices, all deserving of full representation and to be heard. But it is my mission that UWP be press where Africa is, as opposed to Eurocentricity. Attending all predominantly White institutions prior to attending Howard University, I understand that this is harder than it sounds. A UWP scholar stands for something outside of themselves, something that is and will impact our community in a positive way. The philosophy statement, to me, simply states, that UWP believes in doing no harm, is Afrocentric, exhibiting the SKU and Ubuntu principles, understanding that we are our brother’s keeper.

Throughout history, Black scholars have been marginalized from the academy, unable to cite references or be in discourse with scholarly topics that impact the Black community—providing them an opportunity to publish pivotal in reshaping narratives and challenging existing norms within the literary world, primarily historical underrepresentation, to disrupt the hegemony of Eurocentric perspectives that challenge the privilege and over situation of information of certain voices over others, that tend to perpetuate the invisibility of Black scholarship and significance.

What initiatives or programs does UWP have in place to engage with readers and foster a sense of community around diverse literature?

As an early career scholar, one of the things that resonates most with me was the “publish or perish” phenomenon. The rush to submit proposals to journals and the incredible devastating rejections were early detectors of who would be able to transition from doctoral students to career scholars. UWP now has a community page that allow early career scholars to use their professors, colleagues, advisors and mentors as their first peer reviewers, and publish rigorous works that are referenced and cited on our website. This gives them a credible CV publication.

We also encourage senior established scholars to co-author with new scholars, which is one of the original ideas around dissertation committees and graduate advisors.

Have you encountered resistance or pushback from the mainstream publishing industry regarding your emphasis on Black voices, and how have you responded to such challenges while maintaining your commitment to social justice in literature?

As a Black woman in a predominantly White industry, the attacks I have experienced are more overt exclusion than I have experienced before. For Black people, it is either misogynistic behaviors of being told what to do by men, the demands from those who think they are entitled to have access to you, or the powerful sounds of silence among those who are expected to be supporters. The experience of being targeted by racism while simultaneously feeling alienated from those I strive to support is sometimes frustrating, isolating with a sense of betrayal. But there is so much more strength in our community than is lacking. I would draw strength from my resilience and determination to continue advocating for social justice and equity in the face of adversity and with the support and friendships of those with the same mission. It is expected that the journey may be complicated and fraught with obstacles because the topics I need and want to discuss are not sexy, nor are they ready to be heard by those who have perpetuated and benefited from the marginalization of Black scholars. I remain resolute in my belief that change is possible and that my small efforts can contribute to a brighter and more inclusive future for all. I have found allies among a strong community and formed alliances with like-minded individuals, organizations, and advocacy groups to strengthen the position of those advocating for social justice in literature.

What advice would you offer to aspiring authors from underrepresented backgrounds who seek to navigate and succeed in the publishing industry?

Right now is a great time to pull a seat up to the table and take your place as scholars ready to jump on opportunities that will build your CV. Become readers, reviewers, and editors and fill out the publishing ecosystem in the academy. Familiarize yourself with the publishing industry’s processes, trends, and challenges. Research different publishing options, from traditional publishing houses to self-publishing platforms, and understand the pros and cons of each. Stay informed about industry developments and opportunities. Unlike me, recognize the value of your voice, experiences, and perspective early, and work with your scholar mentors to help remove and silence imposter syndrome. Your unique background and perspective bring richness and diversity to the literary landscape. Believe in the importance of your story and the impact it can have on readers.

Connect with fellow authors, industry professionals, and organizations that support underrepresented voices. Join writing groups, attend literary events and conferences, and engage with online communities. Building a supportive network can provide valuable advice, feedback, and opportunities for collaboration. Dedicate time to honing your writing skills and developing your craft. Take writing workshops, attend writing conferences, and seek feedback from peers and mentors. Continuously strive to improve and refine your storytelling abilities. The publishing journey can be challenging, with rejection and setbacks. Stay resilient and persistent in pursuing your goals. Don’t be discouraged by rejection—use it as an opportunity to learn and grow. Keep submitting your work and exploring new avenues for publication.

Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself and your work. Be proactive in seeking opportunities, pitching your ideas, and negotiating contracts. Know your rights as an author and advocate for fair compensation, representation, and recognition. Embrace your identity and the unique perspective it brings to your writing. Your background, culture, and experiences shape your storytelling in powerful ways. Don’t shy away from exploring themes of identity, diversity, and representation in your work. Ultimately, stay true to yourself and your vision as an author. Write authentically and passionately about the stories that matter to you. Trust your instincts, and don’t compromise your artistic integrity for commercial success. Your authentic voice is your greatest strength.

Sage, the parent of Social Science Space, is a global academic publisher of books, journals, and library resources with a growing range of technologies to enable discovery, access, and engagement. Believing that research and education are critical in shaping society, 24-year-old Sara Miller McCune founded Sage in 1965. Today, we are controlled by a group of trustees charged with maintaining our independence and mission indefinitely. 

View all posts by Sage

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