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How one book influencer championing Black authors is changing publishing

Milwaukee-based book influencer Cree Myles curates Penguin Random House's All Ways Black Instagram account.
Isaiah Joseph
Milwaukee-based book influencer Cree Myles curates Penguin Random House's All Ways Black Instagram account.

Many years ago, Milwaukee-based book influencer Cree Myles first picked up Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and found the validation she didn't know she needed. The book affirmed many of her experiences moving through the world as a Black woman.

"I'm reading it and I was like, yes! And yes! And yes! And I was like, I'm not crazy," she remembers. "That was a seminal moment in my life for sure."

Myles immersed herself in other pioneering works by Black authors: James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. She read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. "I emerged from the ashes a new person, and I just needed to tell the whole world about it," she says. "And that's how it kind of all started."

Now, Myles curates the Instagram account @allwaysblack, on behalf of publishing giant Penguin Random House. Myles says the goal of the account is "to celebrate Black writers and the readers who love them," and Myles is voracious in her ability to come up with fun and innovative ways to do that.

I'm all about glamorizing Black literature and the writers. They give us such important stories. They should be treated accordingly.

Myles first partnered with Penguin Random House last year, when she organized a read-a-thon called Black Like We Never Left featuring works by Toni Morrison. The late, heralded, Pulitzer and Nobel-prize winning author was published by Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House.

A few months later Penguin Random House offered Myles a job curating an Instagram platform centered on Black books.

Myles calls the platform All Ways Black thanks to her husband — who came up with the name about 20 seconds after she was offered the job. "He was like, 'How about just All Ways Black, like, all the ways,'" she recounts. "It was that quick, and, for me, it's an aural check to make sure that I'm not just doing Cree's Black. Because as universal as some Black experiences are, I'm not from the African continent, I'm not from the Caribbean. I am not in the diaspora in Europe, and those are all also very Black and very nuanced experiences."

In a promo for All Ways Black, Myles, flanked by dancers and bookshelves full of literature, speaks over drumline music.

"There are infinite ways to be Black," she relays. "To be Black and joyful or awestruck. To be Black and to amplify, or to agitate, or to celebrate. They're all important. They're all glorious," she continues. "And nothing quite captures this truth like literature — to see us on a page all of us in all our ways — is one of the most magnificent experiences anyone can have."

Now, Myles has cultivated a space that includes chats with authors, interactive read-a-thons, and sold-out awards galas for Black Bookstagrammers, with categories like best interview, best reel and best review.

She hosts regular D.E.A.R. sessions, in which she asks people to "drop everything and read." She also posts photos and lists of new releases, Black poets you should know, sentences from Black classics and other creative content about Black lit.

Like this "word-of-the-week" video about the word "ephemeral" that she gleaned from Brandon Taylor's book Filthy Animals. It's set to rapper Saweetie's 2020 song "Tap In."

"If it's short like a skort, it's ephemeral," raps Myles. "Ephemeral. Like an inch or a flinch, it's ephemeral. Ephemeral. Kim K's marriage, babies in the carriage, being mad at yo' moms after she embarrassed."

Myles' work was recently nominated for a Webby, which honors excellence on the internet. It's also been nominated for a Shorty, which recognizes the best work in social and digital media.

On a mission to glamorize Black writers

A big component of Myles' work is individual chats and panel discussions with authors on Instagram live. From her home in Milwaukee, framed by plants and colorfully arranged bookshelves, Myles creates an easy rapport with authors, whether they are established and renowned or just releasing their first works.

During an interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me and The Water Dancer, Myles half-jests that on "the Bookstagram streets" an interview with him is "the biggest flex of all time."

"You know what, you know what? You need to tell them streets they need to dream a little bigger," Coates chuckles.

Myles has a breezy interview style, connecting with authors personally and asking sharp questions about their works. It's a mixture of natural talent, preparation and an earnest respect for writers – who she believes deserve the celebrity of singers or actors.

"I'm all about glamorizing Black literature and the writers," Myles notes. "They give us such important stories. They should be treated accordingly. That's how I feel."

Myles says there's a lot to be gleaned from the wisdom of these authors, the living and the ancestors. "Because [written] stories aside... their lived stories are also things to be revered, because they weren't just writing these revolutionary pieces, essays and shorts and novels and then like going on and living non-revolutionary lives," notes Myles. "They were embodying everything that they were writing about. And so, looking to them has always been really powerful for me."

All Ways Black centers the joy of being Black. Myles ends her interviews by asking authors about their favorite thing about being Black, and she poses a laughter-inducing "speed round" to writers, asking them to make impossible choices between two options central to Black culture, like "Afro or dreads?" or "Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King?"

Myles says it's all in good fun. "So, even if I'm dealing with the best wordsmiths on the planet," says Myles, "they are also just Black like me, and we will laugh about the same things, and we will throw the same shade, and we will crack the same jokes. And they're just masters at their craft, but they're still very much human."

Changing the publishing industry

Myles also has the respect of fellow book influencers, like Traci Thomas, who runs The Stacks podcast.

"On [other] publishing platforms, they might have a Black intern and then they post something that uses Black vernacular but feels very hollow," says Thomas. "All Ways Black feels super authentic. And I know that that is because Cree is in control and is empowered to do what feels right to her, and her judgment is spot-on."

All Ways Black feels super authentic. And I know that that is because Cree is in control and is empowered to do what feels right to her, and her judgment is spot-on.

Myles is functioning in a publishing world that's still three quarters white, according to a 2019 survey by Lee and Low.

After pledging to audit the diversity of its creators in June 2020, Penguin Random House determined that 76% of its books released from 2019 to 2021 were by white creators.

All Ways Black has proven to be an important way for the company to promote its Black works and branch out to new audiences. In championing Black books, Myles has developed an engaged community. Penguin Random House reported in August 2021 that "the community that's formed on @allwaysblack has the highest average engagement rate in the Penguin Random House ecosystem."

"I'm always just thinking of the liberation I experienced in my 20s upon reading the stuff that I read, and how to make that accessible to other folks who don't have the background that I have," she says. "Because [these books] are not just for the Black girls who went to college and had middle class backgrounds."

The stories, she says, are for all of us.

"Like you wouldn't say, 'Oh, I can't listen to Whitney Houston. Her voice is too good. I don't get it,'" notes Myles. "And it's the same way when you're reading James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison."

Or, says Myles, many of the authors writing the Black canon today.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.