Presented as an “epic exploration of who writes about the past”, History makers was due out this Friday before being serialized on Radio 4 in the UK. But the post was postponed at the last minute amid bitter disputes over race and ownership.
The Observer reported last month that author Richard Cohen was invited by his American publishers to rewrite part of his 800-page book, which spans 2,500 years, after failing to take into account enough historians, academics and black writers. Cohen added an 18,000 word chapter, as well as additional material in existing chapters, to include individuals such as abolitionist Frederick Douglass, WEB sociologist Du Bois, and author Toni Morrison.
This report was spotted in the United States by Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers, a nonprofit educational institution established two decades ago to collect oral and video recordings of the experiences of African Americans, as well as their family histories. , including slavery.
Richardson, a Harvard law graduate, was furious that Cohen had largely omitted black history until he was asked to write more and exasperated by the book’s title.
She sent “cease and desist” letters to Random House, the US publisher who commissioned the book, to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the UK publisher due to publish this Friday, and to Cohen and his agent Kathy Robbins , who is also his wife.
âIt takes the name of my organization,â said Robinson, of Chicago, where The HistoryMakers is based. âIt would have been so easy to just google it. “
The HistoryMakers have recorded thousands of stories and testimonies from African Americans, including Barack Obama when he was an Illinois state senator; Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State; actors James Earl Jones and Whoopi Goldberg; the poet Maya Angelou; and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.
There has since been a wave of email correspondence between all parties, with attorneys for Hachette, owner of Weidenfeld, pointing out that there is no copyright in a name.
And yet Weidenfeld, privately at least, doesn’t want to be accused of appropriating a name. Insiders say some are apparently “bruised” by the row and “don’t want the hassle anymore.”
Richardson is very annoyed with Cohen, although he has now written to him to say “when you read the book, you will be deeply satisfied with my coverage of African American writers”. She retorts: âHe grew rich without properly approaching the history of blacks and the African diaspora. Moreover, he seems deaf to the points I have raised.
Cohen, who transferred his US editors to Simon & Schuster last week after Random House canceled his contract over what he calls editorial differences, now agrees he needed additional material on black historians and African Americans. âIt made the book better,â he says.
However, he maintains that he would not have been asked for the additional information “if it had not been for the death of George Floyd a year ago and the importance of Black Lives Matter”.
Cohen, who was previously a senior publishing executive in London whose responsibilities included editing Jeffrey Archer’s novels, now suggests his book could have the new title of Make history. “In fact, I think it’s better than History makers. “
Neither Weidenfeld nor Simon & Schuster in the United States seem entirely convinced. They are leaving for a period of reflection before finally releasing the book in March 2022 – whatever the name is. The serialization of Radio 4, already recorded by award-winning actor Olivier Alex Jennings, will be broadcast in the prestigious Book of the week slot then too.
Cohen himself also wants to set his professional life on fire. His next book will be his first attempt at writing a novel, set in the 1940s. “I think fiction might be safer than reality for me now,” he half-joked.