I was on my way to Wendy’s to pick up my brother, when I took a detour to Walmart to do a little shopping. Since I had about an hour to spare, browsing the shelves in Walmart sounded like a better option than wasting gas sitting in the Wendy’s parking lot waiting for my brother, or worse, going inside to buy something not on my diet.
While in Walmart, I ventured to the tiny book section next to the electronics department. I hadn’t read a really good book in quite some time, so I decided to browse around, see if I could find something that would spark my interest. As I trekked down the aisle, picking up various books, looking at the covers, reading the synopsis on the back, flipping through the pages, and returning them to the shelf, I found myself standing in front of the tiny African American authors section, and immediately, I lost my appetite.
Covering the shelves dedicated to authors who look like me was hood story after hood story. Around the Way Girls, Gangsta Twist, The Streets Keep Calling, the list goes on. My response: WHY? Why does it seem like this is the only type story my contemporary black authors can write? Stories that center around drugs, sex, money, gangs, murder, and everything in between. The urban fiction. The street lit. The explicit stories. Maybe we should rename the African American authors section. Let’s call it the urban/hood writers section. Maybe we should move every book written by a black author in with the erotic novels like some bookstores have done. While I was in a used bookstore in Charlotte, I found the African American authors section adjacent to the Erotica section, and, other than the color of the cover models’ skin, I literally could not tell a difference.
So what does that mean for me as a writer? A fellow writer once told me that I would have no problem in finding publication because I’m black, and there’s apparently a huge market for African American authors. Well, if this is what I have to write in order to be published as a “black” author, then I’ll pass. I’m not saying that these books are bad. Who knows? Maybe Bottom Bitch is a great book, full of plot twists, good character development, and so on. I myself have written a story set in the projects, but it wasn’t a “projects story;” it could have easily been set in the suburbs if I wanted. Plus, the main characters were children—not much drugs, sex, and murder you can do with that.
I’m just so sick of seeing stereotypes dancing on my TV screen; I don’t want to read them too. I feel like the novels written by African American writers today, are interchangeable with the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s. It’s offensive that these novels are all I see in the African American section of bookstores across America. This can’t be all we’re writing, could it? What happened to variety? What happened to the Toni Morrisons, the Terry McMillans, the Ralp Ellisons, the Richard Wrights and so forth? Maybe they still exist; they just don’t want to be associated with the . . . can I say trash? . . . in the African American sections.
I remember in an Intro to African American Literature class, one of the first things we discussed was whether or not African American literature still existed, if it isn’t all just American literature now. I think it does exist. White people can’t accurately write about the black experience, even with extensive research. Only a black person can convincingly explain why black people are angry about what has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. Only a black person can give you the low down on how things got so bad in Chicago, and if you think it’s simply because of gang violence, you are completely missing the bigger picture.
I wish black authors could get back to writing novels that told more than just a story. If you think the trap, or the sidechick, or the local weed man, or the neighborhood Bloods, need a voice in literature, fine, but give us more than just the average, explicit street lit. I want some depth!