Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Part II of Black Literature: Dead or Alive?

Back in August of 2009 I wrote this blog posting, posing the hypothetical question of whether or not African American Literature is still alive. By using the term “literature” rather than books/novels/fiction I hoped to draw a distinction between works of obvious literary merit and cases where brilliance isn’t quite so recognizable. Full disclosure: I was referring to books (self published as well as traditionally) that I snobbishly found by and large to be drivel. No reading of interior content or even much cover copy is required to make a quick analysis. A glance at the ridiculous titles accompanied by absurd cover imagery tells you all you need to know, basically, that these books are the publishing equivalent of coarse, low budgeted, misogynistic, violence glorifying hip hop videos. And when it comes to art that objectifies half the human race and prettifies the spilling of blood while setting back civil rights and social status equity strides by decades, I prefer the slick, well produced variety. Whether the protagonist is a pimp, whore, drug dealer or all of the above, bottom line is that you’ll probably have to go through A LOT of them to find decent writing. And yet A LOT OF THEM is precisely the number being published annually. The genre of urgan/gangsta/street books threatened to dominate the arena of “black books”, and in so doing, was causing damage that just may have been irrevocable.

I am therefore happy to report in September of 2012 as we prepare to kick off Banned Books Week that African American Literature is alive and kicking and thriving, delighting readers of fiction with melanin. As evidence I point to the titles listed below. Each of them was published in the 21st century (since 8/09 I’ve read several excellent novels by black authors [Kindred, Middle Passage, The Intuitionist, Tumbling, Things Fall Apart, etc.] that were published prior to 2000 as well) and reviewed after my concerned blog post. Those with asterisks next to them were published in 2009 or later. They collectively serve notice that great books by authors of color continue to be published in respectable numbers, meaning that we do indeed have balance, and that works just fine for me. I am not the swiftest reader, otherwise my line-up of evidence would be more plentiful. In addition to the books I’ve gotten around to, my TO BE READ cup runneth over. Apparently great novels are being written faster than I can read them, and this is the best possible news for the state of literature in any category.

My cynicism sometimes carries me away, and the speculation of others is often way off the mark. Turns out that radio didn’t kill the radio star, eReaders haven’t murdered the printed word, self publishing has not knocked off literary fiction, there's no reason to incarcerate book bloggers for the homicide of literary criticism, and ‘hood books have not stopped great works by African American authors and/or about everyday African American lives from entering the marketplace. They could certainly be promoted with more vigor, but the same can be said for literary prose in general. Twilight may have revived vampire stories (in glitzy teen fashion, anyway), but it is AA Lit that has risen from critical condition.

A Mercy – Toni Morrison

John Henry Days – Colson Whitehead

* Sag Harbor – Colson Whitehead

* Silver Sparrow – Tayari Jones

* Black Betty – Walter Mosley

* The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey – Walter Mosley

Hunting in Harlem – Mat Johnson

The Warmest December – Bernice McFadden

* Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward

The Intuitionist - Colson Whitehead

The Taste of Salt - Martha Southgate

Home - Toni Morrison

Freeman - Leonard Pitts Jr.

The Cutting Season - Attica Locke

Loving Day - Mat Johnson

Ruby - Cynthia Bond

The Star Side of Bird Hill - Naomi Jackson

Ghana Must Go - Taiye Selasi


R.I.P. Miranda Parker, known to many as @DeeGospel on Twitter, founder of the hashtag #BlackLitChat

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