Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Black Literature – Dead or Alive

This posting was written after I was prompted by a question posed at

So called black literature is not quite dead, but seriously injured in my humble opinion as someone who reads and writes plenty of it. This most likely is a temporary, even if rather long lasting condition. The problem isn't that there are not plenty of African American authors writing quality novels. The problem IS that these books aren't the ones being published, or when published, the ones being heavily marketed and promoted. Major publishers, who despite the emergence of self publishing still by far have the biggest say, have decided that only a small segment of fiction by black authors is sellable. This segment is largely made up of so called urban-street-hip hop fiction of a quality that presumably is somewhat superior to most self pubbed books falling into this genre. Thanks to the success of Waiting to Exhale oh so many years ago, "sassy tales of sistahood" bound in colorful covers also manage to get pubbed by the divisions of publishers dedicated to putting out books aimed to attract African American readers. Waiting to Exhale imitators are basically writing so called chick lit with black characters. Erotica with black characters sells nicely as well, with no small amount of credit to Zane. I'm not sure what the difference is (if there is one) between works of erotica and those fake letters published by Penthouse, but apparently it's critical to some readers whether the man's shaft/rod/spear/etc. is compared to ivory or ebony. Who would have thought this genre would have such a strong post-puberty fanbase? Not I.

What I want to know is where is the black authored literary fiction? Too few books too far between take up space on shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble. Apparently surveys were conducted and tests showed there is not a significant enough audience for such books. Once upon a time pretty much all black fiction was serious and literary in nature. Times were troubled and our literature reflected this. Writers like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude Mckay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen and Ralph Ellison had no shortage of material to work with during the hard times referred to as the black writer’s renaissance. Times are much better now, equality if not quite reached then come "close enough" to, with President Obama's existence being the prime example of this theory. So it has been concluded that there's no need for a 21st century Native Son or Invisible Man or The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, or etc. The civil rights struggle has been waged and won, so we can relax now and bring on the fluff. Such an attitude hurts all African American art, with literature the most adversely affected, although I suppose a very similar argument can be made for the plight of jazz. Walker, Morrison and a couple others have been designated as the official providers of serious African American literature, with no more room left at the table for additional voices. There is plenty of room of course, but it will not be freely offered, it needs to be taken by writers with something significant to say who find a way to grab the attention of an easily distracted audience. This mission is a worthy one, and a necessary one.

With African Americans being a minority group in this country, which makes AA lit a minority amongst genres if it absolutely must be considered a genre, I have no problem with any particular style or subject matter that is being written. Everyone should write in their own voices and about what they're passionate about. But since AA lit is a minority genre unto itself for the time being, it can only thrive through diversity and quality. There must be high brow to accompany middle brow and low brow. We can't allow ourselves to be represented as a group through the equivalent of the cartoon network without also showing consistent capability to both create and appreciate Masterpiece Theater. I'm fine with an outrageous BET reality show or lighthearted Tyler Perry production so long as balanced by substantive screenplays by Spike Lee. Books have a far more lasting impact than TV or movies. Classics of today will be taught in classrooms a century from now. So we must tell the full range of our stories in the widest range of techniques in order for AA lit to be amongst those classics. Neither genre nor subject matter is really an issue. A great literary novel can be written about the life of a drug dealing pimp (even one set in space in the 23rd century) same as a piece of drivel can be written on the same topic. I will always take quality over quantity, although quantity is critical too, not merely the amount of titles but the amount of perspectives being explored by the literary minds of our day. Darwin was right. Only the strongest will survive. This pertains to literature along with everything else. History will not judge the color of writers' skins, only the value of what they had to say and how well they were able to express it.

Ultimately I wait for the day when African American (aka Black) Literature is not considered a genre/category unto itself. It's somewhat ridiculous for there to be both a Paranormal Romance section and a Black Paranormal Romance section. Simply read a review or the back cover copy to learn what the race of the main character happens to be, and if this is at all relevant to the plot. The person who writes the next The Color Purple should not have their book placed (at the very least, not exclusively) on the Black Literary Fiction shelf. A shelf allocated to Literary Fiction by One and All, or simply to Great Books, should be more than sufficient. That's the shelf I write with hope to one day be set upon.
x x x x x
- Roy Pickering (author of Patches of Grey)

PART II to this story


  1. i used to like my literature segregated, but now going to the AA fiction section makes me upset. i've written about it as well, and while i don't have a problem w/ indie book houses (or even street lit), i DO have a problem when that's all you see in the Black Lit section.

    it's like only have BET be your bridge to black folks. we're not all sex & gunplay.

    last night i went to borders and couldn't even find a good book in the midst of all the bullets and sex, masquerading as Black fiction.

    i mean it's nothing new. before this there was Chester Himes & Donald Goines...but their stories were merely part of the black experience, not claiming (or being hailed as) the whole.

    i wish bookstore would break out the Urban Lit section from the black lit books. clear the noise.

  2. Hello, What a wonderful post and so true. I can't even go in to the black section of the bookstore because it makes me depress and mad

    It doesn't have to be like this.
    There are a few independent publishers trying to correct this. Plenary Publishing,a publisher, I just signed with is trying to add more books to the literary side of African American literature (check out their website.) They are a amazing group of dedicated people.

    One again thanks for this post.

  3. I think a change is coming. As a self published writer of sci/fi and fantasy, I'm seeing more and more black readers looking for something different. Many are buying my books as an alternative. Like all trends it will eventually play out, especially once the sales begin to decline.

  4. Excellent discussion point.

    African-American authors need to stop consistently choosing book covers that have AA characters on the front if the ultimate goal is to increase your reader base and sales through quality writing.

    Think about this - the separate section in the bookstore was created because African Americans started becoming more vocal about the inability to find books written by African American authors. These authors were unknown and there was no true resource to figuring out how to find them. So, the bookstores carved out a separate section and much to their surprise sales took off alot faster than ever before for African American fiction. There is a displeasure among some AA authors who are trying to reach a wider audience, particularly in science fiction, mystery, etc.- the more specific genres - because their marketing strategy has just changed. I have seen Walter Mosley's books in mystery/horror section AND the African American Lit Section. Not many bookstores do this especially the independent ones.

    There is an increase of nonfiction among African Americans and there's definitely a fight to produce quality AA fiction right now but big publishers don't see that demand...but self publishers and small presses do ;)

  5. Terrific post! I agree, what will people think of our generation if the only snapshot we provide them is urban lit. We are a multi-dimensional people and we need greater exposure to the other writers that speak from the African American perspective.