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Historically, Black people and other people of color have struggled to get their pieces published. Just Us Books, a publishing company founded by Wade and Cheryl Hudson, provided a solution. The pair founded the company in October 1988, a time when taking on this feat was unheard of. Their organization is truly inspirational. The Hudsons were entrepreneurs long before the term was coined. I was given the privilege to interview and share the founders’ story.
Interview with Wade and Cheryl Hudson
Tell me about Just Us Books. What does it mean to you?
Wade: In the beginning it was just the two of us and that’s how we got the name, Just Us Books. For others that has been interpreted as “Justice Books”. Although that wasn’t the intent, justice is applicable in what has been done. Just Us Books is about making a place in the Black community for Black stories. As the company became that place, it grew beyond being a publishing company. [Just Us Books] was becoming an institution in the Black community because we were doing what a lot of people had not done.
The company gives us the chance to continue the work Black people have been doing for hundreds of years. Telling their stories. Just Us Books is a platform to give those stories a wider reach.
What inspired you to start the publishing company?
Cheryl: We tried to publish with established publishing houses in New York City and were told there was no place for our work. Essentially, we were told that Black people don’t read or buy books. Inspired by the history of folks like Carter G. Woodson, we realized we had the capabilities to publish on our own. It felt like it was our livelihood to do this and share our stories.
We started by selling children’s books at daycares and that grew exponentially. Seeing how well it did for our own books, it was an epiphany to start the company for other books. Just Us Books wanted to highlight the Black experience for children and young adults from different viewpoints. It was more than just our stories that needed to be heard.
It’s a buzz word now but, would either of you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
Cheryl: When I hear the word entrepreneur, I see someone that is a self-starter and does something innovative in the market. In that sense, though that wasn’t the word then, we would be that. To a certain extent we were and are entrepreneurs. We were book creators that started a company out of necessity.
Wade: For us, we are mission driven and continue to keep pushing towards that mission with our company. This drive is similar to what an entrepreneur would need to continue to innovate and be successful. Though most entrepreneurs measure success by profit, we measure that by how well we’ve achieved our mission.
What have been your biggest challenges over the years with Just Us Books?
Wade: I think for most Black businesses and a lot of other businesses, having adequate capital is a challenge. We started the company with $7,000, the remainder of our growth came through sales. Despite starting with a small amount of capital, we’re still in the business over 30 years later. People recognize us for our contribution to literacy and to the world of children’s book publishing.
Cheryl: As individual creators, it was challenging to have to balance your own creative desires—deciding between creating and publishing your own work or publishing another person’s work. I had to remind myself the reason we started the company was for more than our work to be published.
If there is one thing you’d like readers to take from this interview, what would that be?
Cheryl: Establishing your own business is always a lot of work. This can be especially hard for people who don’t have a business background. You must be clear on what you want to do. As a business owner, you must balance the mission and the economic benefits of your operations. And assessing whether the things you want to do are realistic.
Wade: No matter what it is that you want to do, believe in yourself, but don’t depend solely on yourself. Also be sure you can answer the question of why you’re starting this business. If you don’t know the answer to this question, then you may want to consider whether this is the path for you. Having the passion for your work will be crucial, particularly when you face downturns.
In what ways have you noticed the world of literature change for Black authors over the past 30 years?
Cheryl: Having been in the writing business for 50 years, and publishing for 30 years, we’ve seen so much change. For one, there are more of us. Our work and stories are readily available. When I started working for a textbook publishing company prior to founding Just Us Books, I knew one Black illustrator. At that time, I was the one Black person in the art department. You didn’t see any Black people at conferences and you would only see books during Black history month. Now there are so many Black stories and even visual art.
Wade: I’m encouraged that today, Black writers and illustrators are empowered. They know that they and their stories belong, companies aren’t just doing favors by publishing their work. When you look at the 1960s and 1970s, that’s what a lot of writers felt with so few being published. Now Black work has value in the arts. Some of the best-selling books have been written by Black people. We’ve proven ourselves in the marketplace and no longer ask, but insist we are included.
Can you think of a moment where someone approached you and said one of your books changed their life?
Cheryl: The company has received so many letters from people. There was a letter from a young girl in North Carolina. She shared that the book Bright Eyes, Brown Skin allowed her to see herself. This continues to inspire me. Not only do our stories impact the Black community, but they help teach other communities about our lives and culture.
Wade: The greatest encouragement happens when we see young kids run up and grab a book because they identify themselves. Seeing these kids yell that the characters look like them and smile brings tears to our eyes. Making stories that these children can relate to changes the world for them and us.
“Books written by Just Us Books aren’t only for us.” Just Us Books is a continuously growing institution in the Black community and the community at large.
Learn more about Wade and Cheryl Hudson’s publishing company by visiting the Just Us Books website.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.