Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?)

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.

  • Darth Paul

    Serious! I’d love to see more scifi and political (not just civil rights struggle) black authors get published. I know the good material is out there.

  • socgrad

    I’m pretty “conflicted” about the street-lit phenomenon. I understand what you’re saying in this post about the need to ensure that all voices are heard in black literature, not just the pre-approved ones, and I would definitely like to see more black-written / oriented science fiction (for instance), but…considering how the mainstream music industry has turned gangster rap and the crassest hip hop into *the* public face of black music, I’m really wary of what may come of the publishing industry’s recent acknowledgement and *support* of street-lit.

  • Christian

    This is very interesting and it is quite serendipitous that you posted on this topic at this time. I am reading DuBois’ biography (vol.2) by David Levering Lewis, specifically the portion dealing with the Harlem Renaissance. During this time, DuBois and others were confronting the importance of how Black Americans depict themselves in literature. Of course, literature was the largest form of media in the 1920’s.

    Some Black authors believed that works showcasing the dark sides of Black American life should be published and performed (plays) without thought to stereotypes, denigration, or a need to uplift the race. Also, publishing these stories seemed to be more lucrative because it played into White America’s preconceived notions of Black life and fed the flames of White voyeurism as the Negro was in “vogue, just as they do now.

    DuBois and his allies disagreed, however. Countee Cullen summed it up best when he said that Black literature is simply not vital and fertile enough to support these stories, where vices and a seeming lack of morality saturate the Black community. In other words, a healthy image of Black Americans did not exist in this country and still does not. Therefore, “street-lit” often does promote the ignorance and racist ideology held by others outside of the Black community. The same could be said about BET. I tend to agree with DuBois’ mode of thinking.

    • belleisa

      “Therefore, “street-lit” often does promote the ignorance and racist ideology held by others outside of the Black community.”

      But who should we make responsible for that? If I watched an episode of “The Sopranos” and thought that ALL Italian people were in the Mafia; I’d be an idiot. If a person reads Street-Lit and thinks that ALL black people behave that way–guess what they are.

      • Christian

        Yes, but these idiots have the power to elect political leaders, who quietly agree with the idiocy of their constituents. I think we’ve all seen many examples of idiocy in Congress, especially with Obama’s election. Yelling out at an incredibly inappropriate time and spilling vitriolic opinions to a POP CULTURE magazine are practically unprecedented.

      • I am not disagreeing with your basic premise re: Street Lit. Just the opposite, I cosign your analysis of the original essay. But I don’t think name-checking Sopranos is the best way to make your point. Do you have any idea how many people make that Sopranos = all Italian Americans leap? Like, all of them (except maybe you and me). After it became a phenomenon many, many Italian Americans objected to the portrayal using the exact same arguments @Christian made above.

        Fast-forward a few years post-Sopranos and the “Guido” (an offensive ethnic slur)stereotype is EVERYWHERE. And I really think the popularity of these stereotypes is vicarious, dog whistle-y racism at work; A way to enjoy consuming images of grotesquely hyper-sexual, potentially criminal, explosively violent “dark” people in the light of day without getting accused of racism.

        I’m not saying Sopranos shouldn’t have been made. I’m an artist, I think everybody gets to do/write/paint/etc whatever they like… but these images have a long shelf life. And they have an effect on the culture. I don’t think its unreasonable to talk about what that might be.

        • Ah, the Sopranos…. I cannot tell you how many times people have looked at a picture of my father and told me “Oh, your dad looks like a gangster… the next Tony Soprano!”
          I do read some “street-lit”, and while a small percentage do seem to just glorify violence for the sake of violence, a well written “urban” novel often goes a lot deeper than just entertainment… there is almost always growth in the characters as the novel proceeds.
          What I would really like to see are more thrillers, or mystery novels written by Black authors. I KNOW they are out there, I just am having a hard time finding them!
          OH, and the final comment I want to make is that it seems like white people do not want to even consider buying a book with Black characters, unless it is either written by a white person (like James Patterson’s Alex Cross books), or is about the racism that they apparently believe is now “in the past”.

          • Christian

            Hey, Joanna, have you read “The Emperor of Ocean Park?” I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a mystery novel with a Black protagonist written by a Black person.

  • I’m always torn on this topic (whether it be regarding literature, movies, or music) because as a creative person I would hate to tell another creative person what they can(not) create. However, I have to agree with Christian, especially since “street-lit” is much more popular than some of the other genres. There should be a place for all of it, but with unequal representation, the books/movies/music that manage to reinforce negative stereotypes takeover the space for everything else.

    Individually, each work is not “holding back the race”, but I’m starting to wonder about the larger impact when websites like World Star Hip Hop basically beg the question “how low can you go?”

  • Also, to touch on White writers making money off of Black stories, I resent it.

  • There are many aspects of the Black experience here in the US that if it weren’t for White authors/historians showing some interest – might not have been documented.

    Some examples on my shelf are Josh Sides’ book on Blacks in LA, Robert Jakeman’s tome on Tuskegee flight training before WW2, and the ex Mr. Bullock’s film “History of the Chopper” that spotlighted the Black influence on Biker culture.

    I don’t know if it’s Black authors/scholars not having the same access to the opportunities to publish as their White counterparts – or just not being removed enough from the culture to appreciate some of the more obscure aspects of it. I’m grateful that someone is documenting it…

    • belleisa

      There are many aspects of the Black experience here in the US that if it weren’t for White authors/historians showing some interest – might not have been documented.

      I mentioned two white writers in my post. Rebecca Skloot did an incredible job in The Immortal Life... Chris Cleave made an attempt to capture the voice of a Nigerian immigrant in Little Bee. (I don’t think he succeeded completely, but that’s not because of privilege or insensitivity.) One of my favorite books in the world is Random Family, by Adrian LeBlanc. The book is a lesson for any writer in how to capture a culture completely unlike your own and without judgement.

      So what’s your beef here?

      • Christian

        I don’t think Michael has a beef (if I may be so bold to say so for him). He’s saying that Whites have illuminated many corners of Black history that would have otherwise remained in the shadows, which is very true.

        Another book I enjoyed, “Isle of Cane”, about a free Black, upwardly mobile family in antebellum Louisiana was authored by a White woman. I am happy someone is documenting these experiences. I just think it is a tragedy that many Black people do not write about or do not even know about many of these stories.

        That is an example of an astonishing lack of Black education among Black Americans. We are a relatively new people and have no set identity and have no mechanism for passing on our stories/history in a sophisticated and thorough fashion like many people of Jewish heritage in yeshivas.

        • belleisa

          Well anyway part of what McFadden is saying is that when black authors do document these experiences, and in similar ways, they do not get the same red carpet treatment.

          • Christian

            Right, which is absolutely bonkers. Similar situations happen all the time in other media, as well. It’s like we need our stories blessed by Whiteness before they are valid like Steven Spielberg and The Color Purple.

        • DVE

          But there are a lot of black authors who are writing books about corners of the black experience that would be illuminating except that they don’t get the same kind of publicity and audience.

          I just read the Skloot book, and it was fascinating, and well written, and I would put it on my required reading for humanity list just for the well written account of ethics issues in medical reasearch. But I think the sections Skloot spends with the (black) family of the woman about whom she’s writing have a certain distance to them, a sort of anthropological “how others live” feel. I don’t mean this as a knock on the author– she went through all kinds of drama to get close enough to the family to get any kind of story from them at all, and she put up with a lot of withholding and back and forth. There’s a distance there because they kept her out, and she does a good job providing context for why they’re so wary of outsiders inquiring about Henrietta Lacks. I respect her decision to transcribe people’s words as they spoke them, preserving idiomatic speech and grammatical errors, but there are places in the book where it works and others where it comes across less as preservation of dialect and more as a person transcribing a language that’s foreign to them.

          She publishes a lot of speech from a woman who sometimes suffers stress and blood pressure related incoherence, but tells the reader only later that there was a medical explanation for this– during most of the book you’re experiencing this strange behavior as the author did, without the benefit of the author’s current knowledge. The perspective is of a bright, determined young white woman thrown into an incredibly bizarre world and remaining sympathetic when its inhabitants frustrate her for sometimes inexplicable reasons. I think if you were a reader who were inclined to see poor black people as “other,” this book might not shake that up any, even if it convinced you that other or not, poor black people should not be experimented on in the name of science.

          I do think the issue actually goes beyond marketing and publishing of books by black authors to a genuine issue with readers. It’s not accidental that most of the black books that are marketed as literary fiction are by diaspora authors from outside the US. Teaching Af-Am lit, I’ve often encountered a real discomfort with books that are about racism within the US. When I taught The Known World (which– I’m not giving anything away here that’s not on the book jacket– is about black slaves who are owned by wealthier blacks in the 19th century south,) there were students who actually said things like “This was the first book that we read that didn’t make me feel guilty or responsible as a white person.” Which, I argued, is actually a fundamental misunderstanding of Jones’ work and a lot of the work we’d read before it, and which ties back to the original post, because if we were policing authors’ work based on how down for the cause it is, incredible books like Jones’ might not be considered “pro-black” enough by some. But I do think for a lot of readers, books about racism in the US, or books that deal with the legacy of the US even in an indirect way, set off some defensive I didn’t own slaves/ I’m not a racist /I have black friends/ I’ve heard all this before and it’s not relevant anymore reaction. I’ve had this experience in creative writing classes where students have been upset that an author mentions the character’s (non-white) race in a story they see as not “about” race, because it makes the character less “relatable.”

          In some of the well publicized books by white authors about black people, including Skloot’s really amazing book, I think the authorial gaze is part of what makes the book broadly “relatable.” Maybe it’s a chicken egg thing– because they don’t read or even see contemporary black fiction in bookstores, media, etc, they think it’s strange and not relevant to them when they do, or maybe that strangeness is part of the problem and also part of what we need to address when talking about the marketing and audience for books by black authors.

    • belleisa

      I don’t know if it’s Black authors/scholars not having the same access to the opportunities to publish as their White counterparts – or just not being removed enough from the culture to appreciate some of the more obscure aspects of it.

      What do you mean?

      • 1st – thanks Christian for the shout, you were right to assume that I have no “beef.”


        • **Glitch in the matrix**

          Belleisa – what I ment by my statement is that when “culture” is swirling around you, it can be taken for granted.

          I’m a car guy, and last Thanksgiving I was talking to my dad and uncles about the custom car scene in LA during the 50’s and 60’s, and Black involvement. The proceeded to rattle off several all Black car clubs, trends that they swear started in the Black part of town that White guys get credit for, and other such stories. All I could think is that someone had photos of all this stashed somewhere, and a book should be written. A couple of months later a magazine I get had a big feature on Black hot rodders in the era I just mentioned – written by a White guy. I’m sure this happens in music, the fine arts, and other aspects of our history.

          -typing like I talk, way too much!

          • Christian

            That’s insane. I’ve never even heard of Black car clubs. See what I mean haha?

  • Suzie

    Wow. This has been an issue I have struggled with concerning white authors writing books about the Black experience. Though, at times. I would like to boycott these books and tell others, “It really was not a good read.” I would be lying to myself and others would see right through it. I enjoyed The Help and would love to see on the big screen. But, I would love to see The Known World cinematically as well.
    In defense of hip hop lit- they helped me become interested in reading about the black experience- these books are not always fiction. Donald Goines and Iceberg Slims told the stories that AA’s would rather keep in the dark (Precious, anyone?). We laud over the McFadden’s, DuBois, Danticat, and Adichie’s of the world. But sometimes, you just want an easy read. You want a book that gives you drama, crime, and straight up foolishness. These tragic characters make us feel better about how we are living our lives and allow us a peek into an underworld we will never experience. The Unforbidden that is what attracts people and sales.

  • April

    Although I’m not at all a fan of “street lit,” I have to agree with this argument. It’s ironic that McFadden mentions Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God wasn’t exactly celebrated when it originally came out–Richard Wright famously panned it–because it supposedly pandered to stereotypes and wasn’t militant enough.

    I do understand the hand-wringing among authors in McFadden’s position, though. On one hand, you have publishing houses scooping up street lit, because it sells. On the other hand, there are the books by whites about blacks that receive lavish praise, as though their stories are so exceptional. (I consider nonfiction works such as Skloot’s a separate case; the story of Henrieta Lacks actually hadn’t been told, at least not in such depth.) But when similar stories are penned by black authors, they’re ignored.

    I think one important factor to note is the marketing of these books. A supposedly “unusual” book like The Help is more likely to be highlighted as a potential bestseller for a house, and so the publisher will lavish plenty of attention on it, make sure it gets placement in the press. That rarely happens for African-American authors telling similar stories. Most of the publicity for street lit, however, seems to be generated by word-of-mouth and more “grassroots” means, rather than from the publishing houses. (Perhaps that’s because many of the stories are lurid enough to sell themselves.) I think McFadden and her peers may need to take lessons from that–not writing racier content, but using alternate means of generating publicity–in order to gain more visibility, because the publishing houses don’t seem to be making much effort.

    • Zesi

      wholly agree. it’s true that publishers should put their money behind black authors—but they don’t. so if you want to be read as a black author, the traditional route may not be for you.

      with street lit—people read it. black people read it (i’ve never seen anyone else reading street lit.) no, it’s not right that other books more likely than not don’t get published because someone’s acquired every thug needs a lady and that means they don’t want to take a chance on your literary tome on the coming of age of a black ice skater who would really rather be doing less safe and sparkly things, like hiking solo w/o compass through the Canadian wild. i’m not a publisher, so i wouldn’t know exactly, but i imagine that they feel that that’s a niche book and that not many readers (read not many black readers, since i imagine most publishers and stores market af am lit to, well, af ams) would be interested.

      meanwhile, in the whiter side of the bookstore, there are stories that are even more niche than that, but get marketed with fanfare. yes, that sucks.

      but as people have said before, perhaps the traditional get your book published by a publisher route is not working the the person of color (i’m sure other writers of non-white ethnicities get a similar reaction from publishers—there’s probably not a pakistani american or korean american literature section partly b/c there aren’t that many of those voices being published). if the main idea is to get your work in the hands of your readers, why not diy? is the stigma of the self published author worse than not being published when your work is as good or better than work coming out that’s not written by a black person?

  • I really enjoyed your post. I agree with all you said. I also think that a major reason as to why many black authors object to street lit is that they are culturally embarrassed by the content. Black people don’t want to believe that black people are still living like they lived in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and now. Black people don’t want to think about the real work that we need to do to heal our community, to heal our culture. We keep pointing fingers outside of ourselves (like McFadden) to blame white this and white that. Whereas in actuality, if we would discuss, debate, and work together to define ourselves regardless of what any other culture or system thought, we’d be much further in full societal participation – perhaps even on a global level.

    Street lit will continue to shout the dirty laundry, until the black bourgeois “come home” roll up their sleeves, dig in, and help the community as a whole. Only we can fix each other. I believe that is the underlying message to street lit anyways – through all the dramatic stories, we’re really trying to figure out how to heal.

  • Pingback:   “Seg-book-gation”? by Kicking Ass Ann Arbor()

  • tm

    I enjoyed this post and the conversation. Could the participants suggest for a hungry reader some excellent fiction written by black authors, exploring black cultural experience, that has been missed by way of being relegated to niche marketing, as McFadden notes?

    • Christian

      Sure thing, TM. “Wench” by Dolen Perkins-Valdez was sensational. You should dive into that voraciously. “Cane River” by Lalita Tademy is equally incredible. “The Darkest Child” by Delores Phillips is absolutely amazing. I haven’t read “Perfect Peace” by Daniel Black, yet, but I have heard great things. I’m not sure if he’s Black, though.

      Don’t overlook the classics. Dorothy West with “The Wedding” and “The Living is Easy” are must-reads, as is “The Blacker the Berry” by Wallace Thurman. I LOVE Nella Larsen, but she wasn’t prolific, so read everything by her. I liked The Chinaberry Tree and Plum Bun by Jessie Fauset, but I still haven’t gotten my hands on “There is Confusion.” And, for some reason, people tend to forget about “A Gathering of Old Men” by Ernest Gaines. That was powerful. “Catherine Carmier” by Ernest Gaines is potent as well. It is so bittersweet! I love them all.

      • tm

        Thank you so much! I am Amazoning them now. :-)

  • Steve

    Viola Davis is going to play Aibeleen (sP?). Thus, I can’t hate on the movie adaptation if it gets her her oscar.

  • Publishing is overwhelmingly white. One could argue a selection bias is at work because white editors naturally gravitate to white authors. I think it’s more that white marketing people don’t understand the diversity of interests in their white audience. Publishing isn’t known for great market research. I think this is an example of such deficiency.

  • Michael

    On a similar, but admittedly different issue within the topic of literature…About 1 month or so ago, I was shopping at a popular national book chain searching for my 12 year old nephew to read over the summer…I faced the impossible task of finding a book that I deemed appropriate—right or wrong, I had no intention of buying him a street-lit novel…I was also opposed to buying any books that did not feature characters of color (whether they were black, Latino or Asian). My goal was to find something challenging and interesting where he could use his imagination as a 12 year old intellectually curious black male to feel as though he were a part of the story…To say that the task before me was daunting is putting things mildly. I couldn’t believe the dearth of novels targeted toward teenagers that didn’t feature the usual suspects on the cover—the alpha white male or the shopping/boy obessesed white female. I just wanted to voice my frustration. I ended up buying a book where the main characters race was obscured on the cover. Its funny to me to hear all of this alleged talk about post-racial (which we will know is a fiction). It seems to me that post-racial means that non-whites are required to further submit to racial assimilation (and racial erasure) as oppossed to whites overcoming their racial biases. Race may be a social construct, but its one that exists and has to be dealt with. Ignoring the presence of non-whites, whether they are adults or teens, doesn’t further the end of moving past race.

  • Pingback: [Thursday Throwback] Who’s Allowed to Tell the Tale? (And Which Tales Should They Tell?) | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture()