How One Instagram Account Defends Black Literature: NPR

Milwaukee-based book influencer Cree Myles runs Penguin Random House’s All Ways Black Instagram account.

Isaiah Joseph


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Isaiah Joseph


Milwaukee-based book influencer Cree Myles runs Penguin Random House’s All Ways Black Instagram account.

Isaiah Joseph

Many years ago, Milwaukee-based book influencer Cree Myles first picked up Toni Morrison’s The bluest eye and found the confirmation she didn’t know she needed. The book confirmed many of her experiences moving through the world as a black woman.

“I read it and I was like, yes! And yes! And yes! And I was like, I’m not crazy,” she recalls. “That was definitely a groundbreaking moment in my life.”

Myles delved into other seminal 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 came out of the ashes as a new person, and I just had to tell the whole world,” she says. “And that’s really how it all started.”

Now Myles manages the Instagram account @allwaysblackon behalf of publishing giant Penguin Random House. Myles says the purpose 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 just that.

Myles first teamed up with Penguin Random House last year when they hosted a read-a-thon called Black like we never left with 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 focused 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 ways,'” she says. “It went so fast, and for me it’s an auditory check to make sure 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’m not in the diaspora in Europe, and those are all very black and very nuanced experiences too.”

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

“There are endless ways to be black,” she says. “Being black and merry or awestruck. Being black and empowering, or agitating, or celebrating. They’re all important. They’re all glorious,” she continues. “And nothing captures this truth quite like literature — seeing us all on a page in all our ways — is one of the most magnificent experiences anyone can have.”

Now Myles has cultivated a space that includes author chats, interactive read-a-thons, and sold-out award galas for Black Bookstagrammers, with categories such as Best Interview, Best Reel, and Best Review.

She regularly hosts DEAR sessions, where she asks people to “drop everything and read”. She also posts photos and lists of new releases, must-know Black poets, phrases from Black classics, and other creative content about Black lit.

Like this “word-of-the-week” video about the word “ephemeral” she pulled from Brandon Taylor’s book Dirty animals. It’s set to rapper Saweetie’s 2020 song “Tap In.”

“If it’s short like a skort, it’s short-lived,” Myles raps. “Ephemeral. Like an inch or a shrink, it’s ephemeral. Ephemeral. Kim K’s marriage, babies in the carriage, being mad at your mothers after she was embarrassed.”

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

On a mission to enchant black writers

A big part of Myles’ work are individual chats and panel discussions with authors on Instagram live. From her Milwaukee home, framed by plants and colorfully arranged bookshelves, Myles creates an easy rapport with authors, whether they are established and well-known 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-jokes that an interview with him on “the Bookstagram streets” is “the greatest flex of all time.”

“You know what, you know what? You have to tell them streets to dream a little bigger,” Coates chuckles.

Myles has a light-hearted interview style, makes personal contact with authors and asks sharp questions about their works. It’s a mix of natural talent, preparation, and genuine respect for writers – who she believes deserve the fame of singers or actors.

“It’s all about glorifying black literature and its writers,” notes Myles. “They tell us such important stories. They should be treated accordingly. That’s how I feel.”

Myles says there is much to be gained from the wisdom of these authors, the living and the ancestors. “Because [written] stories aside… their lived stories are also things to cherish, because they not only wrote these revolutionary pieces, essays and short films and novels and then loved to go on and live a non-revolutionary life,” notes Myles op. embody everything they wrote about. And so watching them has always been very powerful for me.”

In All Ways Black, the joy of being black is central. Myles ends her interviews by asking authors about their favorite thing about being black, and she presents writers with a laughable “speed run” where she asks them to make impossible choices between two options central to the black culture, such as “Afro or dreads?” or “Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King?”

Myles says it’s all fun. “So, even if I’m dealing with the best wordsmiths in the world,” Myles says, “they’re also just black like me, and we’ll laugh at the same things, and we’ll cast the same shadow, and we’ll make the same jokes.” And they’re just masters of their craft, but they’re still very human.”

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Changing the publishing world

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

“On [other] publishing platforms, they might have a black intern and then they’ll post something that uses the black language but feels very hollow,” says Thomas. “All Ways Black feels super authentic. And I know that’s because Cree is in control and has the power to do what feels right for her, and her judgment is perfect.”

Myles operates in a publishing world that is still three-quarters white, according to a 2019 study by Lee and Low.

After pledging to monitor the diversity of its creators in June 2020, Penguin Random House found that 76% of books released between 2019 and 2021 were by white creators.

All Ways Black has proven to be an important way for the company to promote its Black works and attract new audiences. By championing black books, Myles has developed an engaged community. Penguin Random House reported in August 2021 that “the community formed on @allwaysblack has the highest average engagement in the Penguin Random House ecosystem.”

“I always just think about the liberation I experienced in my twenties when I read the things I read, and how I can make that accessible to other people who don’t have the background that I have,” says they. “Because [these books] are not just for the black girls who went to college and had a middle-class background.”

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

“As if you weren’t saying, ‘Oh, I can’t listen to Whitney Houston. Her voice is too good. I don’t get it,'” Myles noted. “And it’s like reading James Baldwin or Toni Morrison.”

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

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