There’s a game I like to play when I walk into a bookstore. Based on the the title, cover and store placement I can always interpret the marketing intention for a book meant for a black American audience. The best part of this game is that the books will, typically, fit into the following categories (they are, in no particular order):
1. Black Pathology or “What’s wrong with Black people?”
2. The literature of “sistah gurl”
3. Christian-oriented fiction/inspirational
4. Street-Lit or Hip-Hop fiction
5. The Slave Novel
6. The Civil Rights Book (This also includes Black Nationalism)
7. The extraordinary rise from street life/poverty/welfare into the middle class.
8. Poorly styled celebrity memoir, or well researched and documented hagiography
9. Black Queens and Kings
10. Hip-Hop analysis
12. The “Black” version of some mainstream topic (For example: “Black Girl’s Guide to Fashion; “Black Families’ Guide to Wealth;”) Guides will include slang, bright colors, and inevitably the phrase “the legacy of slavery.”
13. The Classics: Harlem Renaissance 101 and/or The Black Arts Movement. Toni Morrison.
14. Contemporary Classics or Literary Fiction (Mostly woman, mostly diaspora authors)
15. Non-black author writes really compelling story about black person(s); story gets awards accolades, lots of press and movie deal.
These topics produce wonderful books and poorly written books. They often represent a compendium of the black American experience, and just as often, they are simply a reflection of what publishing thinks black people read.
In a recent Washington Post op ed, author, Bernice L. McFadden wonders about the nature of books that would fit into number 15 on my list.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, published by a Penguin Books imprint, sold 1 million books within a year of publication. Her novel has gained accolades and awards, including the prestigious South African Boeke Prize. The Help is being adapted for the screen; at the helm of production is the Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg. Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel The Secret Life of Bees, also published by Penguin Books, is another story set in the South with African American characters. Kidd’s novel garnered similar fame, fortune and recognition. Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd are living the dream of thousands of authors, myself included. But they are not the first white women to pen stories of the black American South and be lauded for their efforts.
We can add to her examples last year’s Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and this year’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Both of these books are well-crafted stories written by talented writers. But that doesn’t obviate the question: who gets to tell these stories and why? Cleave’s and Skloot’s (admittedly compelling) stories get pushed by publishers and popular radio shows, and while it’s difficult to think of a black author who gets similar treatment.
McFadden argues that many black authors, aside from the few who have crossed over into the mainstream, get relegated to the “seg-book-gation.” She does acknowledge that black writers have an easier time getting published than they used to, although the op-ed slips in and out of preachy academic theory (she mentions colonialism). But her initial argument, about authorial authenticity and which authors get the better marketing support for the same types of stories, takes a quick dive into condescension:
Mainstream publishing houses contort themselves to acquire books that glorify wanton sex, drugs and crime. This fiction, known as street-lit or hip-hop fiction, most often reinforces the stereotypical trademarks African Americans have fought hard to overcome. And while we are all the descendants of those great literary pioneers who first gave a voice to the African American experience, and one certainly could not exist without the other, somewhere down the line the balance was thrown off and the scales tipped in favor of a genre that glorifies street life and denigrates a cultural institution that took hundreds of years to construct.
Not really. For all the problems of race and mainstream publishing, the industry likes to acquire books with hopes that those books will sell. McFadden unfairly singles out street-lit, with a belittling ‘holding back the race’ tone. Authors of this genre have the right to be published and have their stories read. Sure, we can talk about the way they’re published: there can be a complete disregard for plot structure, grammar and style. And yes, we can talk about the reason why these books are published in such large numbers (and why they sell well), but it’s unfair to hold a select segment of people, or art form, in contempt because of the “message” it sends out, or the “narratives” it may perpetuate.
By arguing against street-lit, McFadden is relieving the gatekeepers of their responsibility to help disseminate a wide-range of experiences and stories for all people. Also, she’s making black writers responsible for telling one kind of story: a story she deems appropriate. That’s a responsibility that no individual should have to bear and one that will unnecessarily silence too many black voices.
If the problem is already that varied black voices are denied agency through limited marketing resources, it’s counterproductive to police the authors. To do so will keep the experience and the work limited to categories 1 through 15.