In the space of five days, at least 13 members of the National Book Critics Circle’s 24-member board of directors have resigned following one of its few black directors alleging racism within the organization on Twitter. The nearly 50-year-old non-profit organization—one of the most prominent literary associations in America—is in chaos following a messy and swift exodus sparked by its inability to successfully navigate a simple statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
The conflict, in its first week, involved legal threats, unauthorized emails, and scores of individual statements. It also followed a predictable, if disheartening, rubric, as some resigned in solidarity with Ugandan writer Hope Wabuke; some exited in solidarity with the code of silence; and some said they stepped down to protect the very nature of “civil discourse” itself.
The conflict began on Thursday, following a working group’s attempts to workshop and then publish a statement in solidarity with Black Lives Matter—a process that, according to now-former board member Carolyn Kellogg’s resignation letter, was fraught with “microaggressions and delays.”
That day, Wabuke posted a series of redacted emails to Twitter, writing that she was resigning from the NBCC “because racism. Because it is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain.”
In the emails, a board member since identified as Carlin Romano—a recurring member of the NBCC for decades—asserted that suggesting the book publishing industry is “composed of institutions that operate with the full benefits of white supremacy and institutional racism” was “nonsense.”
Romano, who was named a “free speech fellow” at the University of California in 2018, continued to say that “many of the writers cited in the letter’s own list would never have been published if not for the ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.”
“I do not admit any culpability. I do not see any erasure. And I don’t think our prize lists are too white ... I resent the idea that whites in the book publishing and literary world are an oppositional force that needs to be assigned to re-education camps,” he wrote.
Wabuke also included an email from the NBCC’s now-former president, Laurie Hertzel, agreeing with Romano, as well as a short anecdote about deliberations over the organization’s yearly poetry prize in which a judge allegedly said “that Black poetry isn’t as crafted/valuable as [a] white poet’s poetry.”
Wabuke’s disclosures, according to a comprehensive and somewhat baffling play-by-play in Publisher’s Weekly, sparked the immediate resignations of five board members, including Hertzel—four of whom, according to current board members who spoke with the publication, did so not in solidarity with Wabuke but in protest of her speaking out about confidential NBCC communications, a practice prohibited by its bylaws.
Another eight would follow, some in protest of Romano’s statements about racism and the board’s inability to address it, through the weekend.
Still, the influential organization attempted to regain control of its messaging. On Sunday, Hertzel, despite having already tendered her resignation, sent an email centering the airing of grievances on Twitter as her reason for exiting and invoking the dangers of repeating to the public what other people say:
“As members of the NBCC board were trying to work out the wording of a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and against racism, especially in our own realm of publishing, private exchanges were made public on Twitter, which made it impossible to continue with this discussion in good faith .. I can only speak for myself when I say that such a breach of confidence precludes the sort of deliberations that are essential to the NBCC’s mission as a critical organization.”
An official statement “from the NBCC Board of Directors” the same day made reference, one would assume, to Romano and included a copy of the organization’s bylaws:
Since then many troubling events, Twitter posts, and a series of resignations have occurred. We have received many messages from current members asking about the available next steps. The NBCC is a 501c3 bound by our bylaws, which are attached here. In response to specific questions about how to remove a sitting Board Member, please consult Article IV, Section 10. You will see that Regular Members are authorized to call a special meeting and an election to remove a Board Member.
Publisher’s Weekly, doing God’s work, has requested comment from nearly everyone involved and gotten a wide array of lengthy statements with little ideological cohesion. Some, according to the publication, resigned in support of Wabuke, while others did so in protest against Romano, who has threatened by his own admission to sue the board if it tries to remove him and violate its “commitment to free discussion.” Others resigned out of disgust, apparently, with the former president’s use of official channels after she’d stepped down. In former board member Jessica Loudis’s statement, she wrote she wasn’t stepping down “because of Carlin’s letter,” which she disagreed with, “but because it is abundantly clear that the NBCC lacks the institutional culture or capability to facilitate civil discourse within respectful boundaries.”
“I do not believe free speech extends to the right to bully and dismiss one’s colleagues,” she continued, “nor do I think this kind of behavior should be tolerated.”
All of which has taken the focus squarely away from the NBCC’s actual statement, which was published on Thursday night as it read before Romano’s comments and leads: “As critics who help shape our contemporary cultural and intellectual conversation, we have a responsibility to stand publicly against racism and white supremacy.”
Romano, for his part, denied that he was racist or anti-black and instead offered a statement invoking the horrors of cultural Marxism and young, political types in all but name: “A few Board members in recent years have sought to turn the Board, for decades committed to fair-minded judging of books from every political stripe, into a ‘No Free Thought’ zone, an ideologically biased tool for their own politics. In my opinion, they oppose true critical discussion. Good riddance to any of them who resign—the NBCC will be healthier without them.”
He remains, for the time being, on the National Book Critics Circle’s extremely small board, where Romano will be free to use whatever speech he damn wants.