It’s No Theory That This is a Conspiracy….It’s taken me two days to digest and respond to Nick Chiles’ excellent New York Times piece on the sorry state of black literature and the crucial role that the big book chains play in it. Chiles’ point:
Last month I happened to go into the Borders Books store at the Stonecrest mall in Lithonia, Ga., about a half-hour from my house here. To my surprise, it had one of the largest collections of books by black authors that I’ve ever seen outside an independent black bookstore, rows and rows of bookcases. This is the sort of discovery that makes the pulse quicken, evidence of a population I’ve spent most of my professional life seeking: African-American readers. What a thrill to have so much space in a major chain store devoted to this country’s black writers.
With an extra spring in my step, I walked into the “African-American Literature” section ? and what I saw there thoroughly embarrassed and disgusted me.
On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called “literature.”
The problem is not that blacks want to read porn and prefer junk to serious writing like everyone else. It’s that black porn and junk are passed off as literature. I can’t help believing that both publishers (though much of this dreck comes from fringe houses or is self-published) and the chains believe that this is the best that blacks can do, that this crap is good enough for us.
Liberals and blacks don’t help matters much in this regard. We participate in black degradation by refusing to make distinctions between literature and manure as long as it’s produced by blacks; back in 1992 (or so) when Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Terry MacMillan (which of these is not like the others? Anyone?) were all on the bestseller list, papers around the country ran photos of the three writers, or the three books, together and celebrated the “coming of age of black women’s literature.” Literature. Terry MacMillan. Please. My writer friends and I were so depressed, we got together just to pass the offending page around, stunned into wordlessness at having our intelligence so blatantly insulted. Serious writers must sit on panels moderated by best selling hacks. Award winning hacks, blessed by a condescending white majority. Black/liberal writers at major newspapers fight to run profiles of these authors and review their work. Increasing numbers of black/liberal professors teach unworthy writers like Benilda Little and Omar Tyree in their African American Literature classes. Can you imagine scraping up the tuition to pay for your kid to study James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Sister Souljah? God forbid they’ve begun to go beyond the merely awful to the actually pornographic. Magazines like Essence and Black Issues Book Review legitimize the least objectionable of this ilk by taking them seriously, the equivalent of a poetry magazine reviewing odes to men from Nantucket.
One of the reasons I quit reviewing books (aside from the miserable pay) is my disgust with how often I was asked to review these monstrosities. Most were so awful, I refused and dissuaded the editors from insulting their readers with such offerings. Often enough to sap my will, though, editors ? always white liberals ? either rejected my withering critiques of the ones passably worthy of review or edited them into meaningless. I can’t tell you how often some white boy from Yale, who chuckled over my maulings of a white author’s work, chastised me for my “insensitivity.” They were honestly shocked that anyone would rip apart a black person’s work. How dare I subject blacks to the same level of analysis as whites?
But what can be done about it? No doubt, the “blacklash” against us elitists and playa haters will be swift and vicious. Nonetheless, those of us who know the difference between Jerome Dickey and Shinola have to stand our ground. No one’s saying black porn and beauty parlor books shouldn’t be either written or read. I’m saying they shouldn’t be taken seriously. I have a lowest-common-denominator novel or two in my head that are going to buy me all the plastic surgery and boy toys I’ll ever need. I’m just not going to call them literature.
If you want to help pressure the chains to rethink their position on what is and is not Black Literature, write ’em:
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