Publication delayed of epic history book amended after being called ‘too white’


Billed as an “epic exploration of who writes about the past”, The History Makers was due out this Friday before being serialised on Radio 4 in the UK. But publication has been postponed at the last minute amid bitter rows over race and appropriation.

The Observer reported last month that author Richard Cohen was asked by his US publishers to rewrite part of his 800-page book, which covers 2,500 years, after failing to take into account enough black historians, academics and writers. Cohen added an 18,000-word chapter, plus extra material in existing chapters, to include individuals such as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the sociologist WEB Du Bois and the author Toni Morrison.

This report was spotted in the US by Julieanna Richardson, the founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers, a non-profit educational institution set up two decades ago to collate oral and video records 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 prompted to write more, and incensed by the book’s title.

She sent “cease and desist” letters to Random House, the American publisher which had commissioned the book, to Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the British publisher which was set to publish this Friday, and to Cohen and his agent Kathy Robbins, who is also his wife.

“It’s taking the name of my organisation,” said Robinson, speaking from Chicago, where The HistoryMakers is based. “It would have been so easy just to Google it.”

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The HistoryMakers has recorded thousands of stories and testimonies of African Americans, including Barack Obama when he was an Illinois state senator; Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state; the actors James Earl Jones and Whoopi Goldberg; the poet Maya Angelou; and the founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy.

There has since been a flurry of email correspondence between all the parties, with lawyers at Hachette, which owns Weidenfeld, pointing out that there is no copyright in a name.

And yet Weidenfeld, privately at least, does not want to be accused of appropriating a name. Insiders say some are apparently “bruised” by the row and “don’t want any more hassle”.

Richardson is most annoyed with Cohen, even though he has now written to her to say “when you read the book you will be deeply satisfied by my coverage of African American writers”. She counters: “He has enriched himself without properly addressing black history and the African diaspora. Also he seems tone deaf to the points I’ve been making.”

Cohen, who last week switched his American publishers to Simon & Schuster after Random House cancelled his contract following what he calls editorial differences, now accepts that he needed the extra material on black and African American historians. “It has improved the book,” he says.

However, he maintains he would not have been asked for the additional information “if it had not been for the death a year ago of George Floyd and the prominence of Black Lives Matter”.

Cohen, who was previously a senior publishing executive in London whose responsibilities included editing Jeffrey Archer novels, is now suggesting that his book could have the new title of Making History. “I actually think it’s better than The History Makers.”

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Neither Weidenfeld or Simon & Schuster in the US seem entirely convinced. They are going for a cooling-off period before finally publishing the book in March 2022 – whatever its name. The Radio 4 serialisation, which has already been recorded by the Olivier award-winning actor Alex Jennings, will be broadcast in the prestigious Book of the Week slot then too.

Cohen himself also wants to take the heat out of his professional life. His next book will be his first attempt at writing a novel, to be set in the 1940s. “I think fiction might now be safer than fact for me,” he half-joked.



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