Author Austin Channing Brown on Lessons 'I Am Still Here' Memoir Teaches Amid Current Racial Justice Movement

Austin Channing Brown - I'm Still Here-Book Cover - Publicity -split - H 2020
Courtesy of Austin Channing Brown; Book cover: Courtesy of Convergent Books

'I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness' has newfound recognition amid the Black Lives Matter movement, becoming a New York Times best-seller and Reese Witherspoon Book Club Pick.

Austin Channing Brown remembers having a conversation with an editor at a publishing house when she presented her idea for a book.

"I had a conversation with an editor at a publishing house and said, 'I really want to write a book about navigating whiteness from a Black woman's perspective that isn't rooted in the 'hood, it's not sensational. I didn't dodge a bullet. I didn't suddenly meet white people. I've just been around white people my whole life and I want to write a book about that,'" Channing Brown tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The author now recalls how her editor essentially nixed the concept: "She said to me, 'Austin, I understand, but because you're not famous, no one will read it. No one will read that memoir.'"

That editor was later proved wrong as Channing Brown, who began her professional career working in the nonprofit sector, continued to write on her personal blog, and soon caught the attention of editors hoping to publish her work. At the time, poignant tales and perspectives from Black authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay were "hugely successful."

"I think there was a new era of proving to the publishing world that people do want our stories. So I started working on my proposal all over again and, at that time, 10 publishing companies offered for the book," Channing Brown recalls.

Channing Brown's book, I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (Convergent Books) would eventually be published in May 2018, but, to her surprise, two years later the book saw a whole new wave of success.

As of July 2020, Channing Brown's book is now a New York Times best-seller and was selected by Reese Witherspoon as a June Hello Sunshine book club pick. Channing Brown's book has skyrocketed to Amazon's top 20 best-sellers list. The book has been sold out both online and in stores, doing so prior to being announced by Witherspoon, who later shared I'm Still Here was "worth the wait." That finding a copy of the book has been equated to a Willy Wonka golden ticket is something that still amazes the author. "I keep expecting to wake up from this dream that I'm having," Channing Brown tells THR. "I would go to Barnes & Noble just so I could see my book on the displaySo to go from that and now nobody can even keep it in stock? It's just overwhelming."

Despite the celebratory moment, Channing Brown somberly says her book's sudden second life is bittersweet: "I realized that the reason that book is doing so well is in large part because of the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all these stories that we've had to contend with as a nation. So, it's been a little bit of an emotional roller coaster trying to enjoy this amazing thing that I didn't even think was possible, but also recognizing the pain of my own community right now."

Following the death of Floyd, a Black man, by white Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, the country has seen protests against police brutality and over a month later, the Black Lives Matter movement remains strong and ever-present.

Now Channing Brown is embracing the fact that her personal words published years ago are resonating with the current climate. Feeling guilt over the timing of her book's success, Channing Brown posed the question to Brené Brown after speaking on her podcast: "Am I allowed to feel joy during such a difficult time in America's history?" Channing Brown recalls, "She said to me, 'Austin, the first thing you need to know is that you didn't create this crisis and you're not unjustly profiting from it. People have decided that your book is important right now, and that is something to rejoice in.' That was really helpful for me."

Her memoir dissects growing up in a radicalized America and how white, middle-class Evangelicalism has contributed to the era of rising racial hostility. Throughout the 182-page memoir, she chronicles moments that helped shape her as a woman, her journey to self-worth and learning "what it means to love Blackness."

Channing Brown says in order to write, she "pulled from a scar, as opposed to from an open wound." Channing Brown may candidly write about the existence of systemic racism she has witnessed all her life, but don't expect pages filled with just sadness. Instead, she offers insightful commentary and pulls no punches in just the opening line, which simply reads: "White people are exhausting."

She notes, "I'm not having arguments anymore about whether injustice is a thing. I'm just not going to do it because I would never have to make that argument for women of color. Part of the reason I start with that sentence is to be clear about who my audience is."

She explains, laughing, "If you open that book and you read that first line and you laugh, this book is for you. If you open the book and you read that line and you're curious, this book is for you. If you open it and you read it and all you want to do is put it back on the shelf, you might need to pick up a different book."

Something that Channing Brown feels proud of is the fact that readers, in particular women of color, are not only listening to her voice as they read but also finding their own voice. "Every single line I read through the lens of a Black woman or a woman of color picking up this book deciding that she's going to read a book about race and deciding how every single line would make her feel."

"I needed to affirm women of color because that's what I struggled with," she says. "I remember struggling to name what I felt like was happening, to name the dynamic, the language, struggling to talk about not belonging … It was really important to me to try to wrap the language around our experience, honestly, so you don't have to again. So that the next time you have a white person who is like, 'Can you help me?' all you have to do is whip out this book and slide it across the table and be like, 'Yup, read that.'"

As for what response her book's received from white readers? Channing Brown says it's been surprisingly receptive. "I get messages all day that say, 'I did not think I would find myself in this book and instead I find myself on every other page.'" She hopes white readers "can now look at their immediate world and say, 'Oh, that's a problem.'"

It's conspicuous that the current social climate has brought a diversity reckoning as more voices have spoken up, calling out racism and also gender inequalities existing within professional environments. Channing Brown is aware that a fear to break silence will always remain. In fact, in one moment of her book, she writes how she wore a mask to bury parts of herself from white acquaintances who wouldn't understand her daily struggles. For BIPOC women still holding fears to speak up even now, Channing Brown says "there are real reasons to be afraid."

"We have to be honest about what bravery and courage cost us," she reflects. "Part of me wants to give this inspiring speech that's like, 'You can do it! The organization needs you.' While I think that's true, if the organization doesn't think that's true and if you can't take your mask off, then I hope you would develop an exit strategy from that place, that institution, that area, so that you can go to a place where you don't have to wear your mask right from the beginning. That would be my hope."

But for those outspoken and publicly voicing their fight, Channing Brown asserts that once committed to the work of racial justice, it's important to remember "the work is never done." She recalls, "One of the things that I got in trouble for all the time at that job I got fired from was that I was constantly being asked the question: 'When will you be satisfied? When will it be enough?' And my answer is, 'Never.' (Laughs.) I'm always going to be pushing for more because that's what inequality demands. Like, I guess when we're perfect at equality, then I'll shut up!"

In her book, Channing Brown acknowledges that "diversity gets treated like a passing trend" because "in the mind of whiteness, half-baked efforts at diversity are enough because the status quo is fine." Despite a fight for equality getting stronger each day, will the fight remain or just be a "trend" of the moment? Channing Brown says it can, but only if "the pursuit of racial justice will stop feeling like a chore for people." She adds, "The dream is that we would find ourselves enjoying the pursuit of racial justice instead of being so comfortable where we are and asking people of color how much is enough."

The success of Channing Brown's memoir and other books by Black authors arrives as the book world has joined the Black Lives Matter movement. Both authors and readers have taken to Twitter to push for a #BlackoutBestseller List movement. Per NDP Bookscan data of the week ending with June 20, four of the top 10 overall best-sellers in the U.S. book market related to the current conversations about race, including Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. While the push adds momentum for supporting Black authors, Channing Brown notes it shouldn't be forgotten that "people of color have been telling their story for centuries."

As many proclaim the desire to be better allies by reading myriad books to educate themselves, Channing Brown is honest that a weight can be placed on people of color, who could now be expected to explain their experiences and struggles as a teaching moment. When asked whether that weight has lessened or swells during these movements, she admits she is fearful.

"That is actually my only fear when I thought about women of color handing this book to their colleagues, even before this current moment in history. What is the coffee date after this going to look like? Are you going to be asked a million questions about whether or not you have experienced this or been called that or been told this, and then what do you say?"

Though already a renowned speaker who tours events and leads workshops on racial justice, Channing Brown admits that she worries for the "women of color who care about racial justice" but "have in no way committed themselves to teaching other people about racial injustice." She explains, "That's a decision I made. I enjoy my work. I love this work. I can't imagine doing anything else. It does make me nervous for people of color who care, but are not interested in giving that therapy or being capped out because they feel a sense of obligation to do so. I worry about them a lot."

She encourages white people hoping to be allies to "take advantage of the resources that already exist" rather than rely on people of color to help. "Whenever I go give talks and workshops, I tell people of color before you entertain a conversation with a white person about race, I need you to send them an essay or a book or a YouTube clip or something that proves that they really want to have this conversation. Give them a resource, see if they consume the resource. If they do, now you can have a conversation about the resource, as opposed to having a conversation about internal thoughts and experiences that you might not be ready to share."

Channing Brown may be on a high of success with I'm Still Here, but putting her voice onto the page didn't stop there. She also serves as an executive producer of The Next Question: A Web Series Imagining How Expansive Racial Justice Can Be with guests including Brené Brown. She may not be able to travel around the country amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, but Channing Brown has kept busy as she continues to be a leading voice on racial justice.

Toward the end of her book, Channing Brown writes that she isn't sure whether her words will be enough. Yet, with a New York Times best-selling book that is on the radar of Witherspoon and other readers around the country — the book was also recently acquired by London publisher Virago in an eight-way auction — Channing Brown can't help but feel thankful for the journey thus far and for that day an editor turned down her vision for what would be her "little book that could."

"It was a blessing that she turned me down because the book probably wouldn't have done as well if she had accepted at right then. I just had to stay ready. I just couldn't completely let go of my dream of writing, and I'm glad I stuck with it."

I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is available now.