Urban Black Lit Fiction-A Place For All Things Black?
by Sean Moore
As an aspiring Black writer, and a fan of reading novels, I often cringe when browsing through bookstores or a supermarket and come to the African-American Authors, Black Literature, or Urban Reading sections for several reasons. More importantly, it makes me ask myself: Do we need these sections? Or rather, do we even need these books? Maybe my view seems extreme. I’ll illustrate my point momentarily.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an appreciation for highlighting those in our community who are trying to make their contributions to the literary world, particularly those who probably wouldn’t fit in this category, but I also think that some seem to pigeon-hole the genre into a self-fulfilling prophecy of oversimplification, and maybe even exploitation to some degree, in a way that many predecessors would be ashamed to be categorized with. I am fearful that I might publish something and it would be relegated to these sections, but then I realize that I don’t fit the requirements, because obviously being black or African-American alone isn’t the only thing that qualifies someone for admission. If so, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope wouldn’t be absent.
One of the first things that stick out to me is the titles. And not in the way that makes me want to thumb through a few pages. Titles like Welfare Wifey, A Hot Mess, and Put A Ring On It, to name a few, seem to be the trend for the books in these sections. Observing this, a few questions come to mind. Do the authors pick these names because the titles would appeal the target audience, simply because they use the names of familiar hip-hop and R&B songs? Must the titles include vernacular it is assumed all and only Black people use? Are the titles limited to the small range of subjects they represent? I’ll get to the
short list of subject matter later.
The use of this type of titling is obviously a marketing ploy. And one that seems to be effective, because if I were to ask the average black woman (the target demographic) the title of the book she just read, if the response is a title anything like the examples I’ve given, I can
usually assume that it came from one of the aforementioned sections. Black women also seem to be the target audience, but I know that not all can be placed in this category. My late grandmother, for example, read everything from Stephen King and Anne Rice to James Patterson and V.C Andrews and a mixture of genres we, unfortunately, usually don’t inhabit as authors.
Maybe I shouldn’t knock that hustle, and just accept it for
what it is, but my main point of contention is that I feel it holds us back culturally and doesn’t do justice to Black authors from previous generations by trying to fit the mold that has been created. It limits the true variety in what we read or write, while simultaneously saturating a category that has become less that what it may have once proposed to represent.
These books may not have been possible to be published in any other period of time but now, with the advent of publishers who cater to this trend; this niche. They seem to have come into their own by fitting in a genre not necessarily representative of the labels I stating in opening, but more of the subjects of homosexuality, infidelity,maliciousness, poverty, and overall struggle; generally from a woman’s point of view. Is this an attempt to show the “Black experience” while subtly introducing other types of fiction? Or putting to words the outcry felt from Black females, by creating fictional, but supposedly familiar events, characters, and situations? I don’t believe so, but if you read the synopsis for many of the books listed in the section I’m speaking of, you would find similar themes and characters, as if the
Urban Fiction section defines it own genre and not the other way around. With that in mind, none of these themes or characters belongs to any particular group, albeit stereotypically, and yet they are made to fit and are widely accepted.
It’s as if there are certain criteria for the characters, male and female, that make them applicable for these types of books. For example, how many homosexual, “down-low”, drug-dealer, NBA, NFL,drug-addict, non-monogamous, preacher, rapper, singer, woman-beating,illegitimate child-having, ex-convict men are required per book? And how many bi-sexual, man-stealing, down-on-her-luck, hair salon-owning,promiscuous, single parent, gold-digging, bible-thumping women? And a lot of the times, the characteristics listed belong to the protagonistin the story. I understand characters have to be flawed, but I don’t think they should necessarily be damaged and broken. And not in every book. I understand the need for conflict and the drive to overcome that conflict, but why do they seem cookie cutter?
What about a blind, ex-military man, with a seeing-eye dog who talks to him, and who agrees to do a dangerous experiment to pay his rent? I just came up with that, and nothing about that character tells you his ethnic background, nor does the plot seem specific to it. I just used a little imagination, and even less time.
I’d bet that anyone could pick a random book from this section, and more than one of the traits or descriptions I’ve listed would fit the book’s characters. I could make characters just from the some of the descriptions I’ve given, and give no implication for their race, and most would assume they would be Black as if those things define us alone. Looking at the synopses of these books, one could make that assumption. But maybe that’s what the authors and the publishers are going for.
My main issue is the fact that we typecast ourselves in the same way that would be insulting if written by a writer from another race. Are the authors selling out, making an artistic expression, or do they truly believe that’s what best describes our experience and are trying to accurately display this for the world to see? Maybe it’s all three. But with respect to the latter, I think it does a disservice to our people, much in the way the late period of “gangsta” rap did.
Initially it was about showing the evils of a world that many people never saw. It was showing the inequality, racism and poverty, along with the struggle of overlaying street violence and day-to-day survival. Then it became a commercial commodity and more of a caricature of itself and the initial message was lost.
If there was a metaphor to be made between the two forms of art, I would say that when black authors showed prominence, those such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston, they wrote about issues such as segregation, inequality, and the institution of slavery. Topics that were very prevalent, and with regards to slavery, whose effects were still being felt.
The chronicles of today have become more commercial and almost satirical in an attempt to sell the “ghetto” image, in the way gangster rap became more of a figure with requisites than a tale needing to be told.
Besides, the stories that fit in this urban category weren’t designed to be told in a way to cause one to appreciate, or understand the self-defined culture of Black America. They were designed to be digested and absorbed, unknowingly contributing to the current state of artistic suppression, while simultaneously brainwashing readers into accepting this as more than just satire but life as we and those in our communities know it. But where does art stop imitating life or vice versa, and does the reader of this sub-genre know the difference? Does
the author know the difference? Maybe the readers in our community don’t want stories that seem unfamiliar from their own, or people they know, but is that all we are?
No other sub-culture, or ethnically-based demographic seems to have its own section of books, and I don’t take the fact that we do as a badge of honor. On the contrary, I feel this allows for the art and the talent to be cheapened since the expectation is minimal and seems to be perpetuated by the writers and the readers as well as the publishers.
For example, there’s no Italian-American literature section. If it were to be done in the same narrowed manner, I guess many mafia, or organized crime books would be in this section, instead of the Crime section.
Accordingly, there would be an emergence of Italian-American writers who would write to appeal to the lowest common denominator, with the same limited, stereotypical beats, much in the same way Jersey Shore attempts to represent that demographic in the form of reality television. If we choose to adhere to this, there will continue to be a lack of variety in literature written by us, as well as the already ever-present absence of variety with us in cinema. The only genres or sub-genres seen with these books (much like our movies) are spirituality, romance (a.k.a. thug love), raunchy romance, and drama. Honestly most of the books I’ve seen could fit into any one of these categories, as all three seem to have universal themes, as I’ve mentioned earlier. But where is the horror, sci-fi, or fantasy? Where is the imagination? Can we not write stories in these genres?
If a black author is to be taken seriously by his ilk does he need to have predominately black characters, and if so, does it have to be established that they are black by assigning some pre-determined stereotype to their character, or have them use slang that is mostly attributed to inner-city blacks (which is also used by suburban whites)?
Or can a white author like James Patterson who has black characters,i.e. Alex Cross’ friends and family in the Alex Cross series, be placed in the “urban fiction” section. I don’t see that happening, but what,or rather who, makes that determination?
If there are such criteria to this section of literature I think it should be renamed. Black or African-American literature doesn’t seem to fit. Not at this point. It should probably be called, Black Authors
Who Write Things With Black People In It That Embraces And Exploits How We And Others View Black People. Of course I’m being facetious, but I think the message is there. If we don’t do more, or do different, we can’t expect anything to be different. But perhaps those who read this type of fiction don’t want that to change. I can assume that if any of the readers are like the characters, they may relish the experience.
Much as a woman in the demographic for Tyler Perry movies and TV shows enjoys them even more if they are plagued with some of the same issues as the protagonist, with misery loving company and so on.
When did we start limiting ourselves? As a writer, you can write about anything you imagine, much like an artist creating a painting on the canvas. It doesn’t mean that you’re sacrificing yourself if literal and figurative representations of your physical or cultural make-up aren’t seen in the piece. Some would say you can’t have one without the other.
Nor does it mean you can’t create original, thought-provoking,
emotion-tugging, black (or other) characters, instead of manufacturing from the standard palette. I challenge more writers to do this, at the risk of creating more competition for myself, but for the sake of eradicating this current trend in literature that seems to thrive in an audience that is entertained by Maury Povich because they believe to be
an accurate depiction of our culture, but in reality is only a
Unfortunately, as benign as any of my complaints may seem, and as irrelevant as some may think this article to be, I truly believe things such as these types of books keep us in our current state of cultural stagnation. A state where it is believe that we all have the same experiences, talk the same, and have the same activities.
There was a time where we were stuck with certain archetypes in media,specifically the 1970s, but even in the midst of this, there was pride in positive representation of a black man or woman, who usually went against the oppressive regime. There were heroes and heroines, who had various reasons for fighting their battles, but were bound by the same struggle. Now, much of the struggle in these works of fiction is self-inflicted through a series of bad personal choices, and yet these protagonists are revered or pitied. The best “good guy” is working in the music industry, or is an athlete. The best “good girl” usually has a little more variety in how her character may be, but seems to get mixed up with unsavory male characters or have multiple children by them nevertheless, which with the amount of undecidedly single mothers no doubt draws empathy. It may even be a point which causes her to root that much harder for the main character to triumph. But how many books need to go this route?
The statements I’ve made may strike a chord and leave some with a bad taste in their mouths. Good. I hope it at least sparks dialogue about this trend. My words may be interpreted as an opinion, but I call it a diagnosis. A diagnosis for a painful condition plaguing our community that I would sum up as having the same impact as turning to BET and noticing that the entire line-up for the duration of the network’s airtime consists of Basketball Wives, a Lil’ Wayne video, a gospel play,and random low quality “hood” movies starring hip-hop artists who used to be relevant. Unfortunately that scenario isn’t farfetched. But the effect of this may be lost on many. That in itself speaks volumes.
The only solution is to show other possibilities and expand the horizons for future readers and writers so that their work, and options aren’t predestined to suffer the same fate as being placed within the same type of boundaries as the characters and plot lines of the very books that attempt to define their audience. I believe that change in our literary community would trickle down to other forms of media, and eventually enlighten the masses, bringing them out of this dark period of self-imposed limitation which seems to have metastasized in the past decade or so. What better time than now?