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?
What Lies in the Souls of Men?
Alvin C. Romer
Does anyone really care about what men think nowadays, or what really lies deep within our souls? In 2008 most men that have lived a bit should be at the crossroads of their lives. Living the life and being able to transcend to levels of expectancy may not have been what we lived, give or take a few triumphs here and there. Of course there were the pitfalls, and we talk about them in bedrooms and boardrooms. We’ve had time to look deep within ourselves to exact some modicum of responsibility for the things that have been at our grasps to control…and if change is indeed indicative of wanting to do what is right, there are quite a few who wouldn’t complain. As husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, and mentors there are varying degrees of angst still lurking on the periphery that have not proven to be harbingers of good for men in general and Black men specifically, and we have a lot to say about them. Some would argue that the scales have not been equal, and parity is nothing more than a dream. Our conversations continue where voices are open and the volume much too high where truths are not arguable to good intent. Thus, the identification and definition of outward manifestations of inner soulfulness are portrayed in the minds of those that want to make a difference. Is it far-fetched to believe then that accountability should be first and foremost a prerequisite for first impressions? This is uppermost in my mind, and holds the glue to anything cohesive in this essay. Psychologists have analyzed the minds and souls of men for the longest and still there are doubts and intrigue to the psyche of what makes us tick, and why do we do the things we do. Undoubtedly there are collective reports that may be subjective to theories of thought, but what about individuals coming full circle to ask some of the same queries to gauge truth for better understanding, and to dispel any notions of negativism? What we think is important, and I feel that people DO and want to know what we are all about.
So here I am ready to solve a piece of a puzzle that is missing coherence and clarity to some to shed light on this dark passage – understanding men! My good friend and editor of the book you’re reading approached me with the query, “what is in the soul of men?” If you think nobody gives a hoot what Black men are thinking, think again. I often wonder myself! Nonetheless, some people would rather open us up and see why we do what we do, especially when there are those that fear us, and would do anything to keep us second class. We are a force – I know this because I’m aware that the corporate world loves us because they can coerce us to buy their products. Politicians have exploited us for years with promises and more promises. Banks coddle us because they want the deposits that fuel their institutional worth. The media, including TV, radio, and now the internet, want you to redefine what role models they want you to emulate…they want you to pay attention to more stereotypical crap. The point is, all of them want something from us. And when someone has a demand, and it’s us that they are after, we got power over them. Yes we, do! Anytime a collective group of people can earn more than 400 million dollars a year – that’s clout, baby! As a man of color, there are a plethora of things I’m always thinking about that have the propensity to make the grade for reflective thought. The depth of my soul is like a bottomless pit that cannot define volume. I’ve thought long and hard on how to answer this question and have come up with a few caveats that I’d like to share.
But first, hear me out. There’s just too much on the minds of men, where our souls are retched with pangs of how to do the right thing. It’s not far-fetched that men should be scrutinized for any meaningful intent in times like these. I welcome the chance to talk about my thoughts personally, and generically what other men SHOULD be thinking about. Every now and then the Black man’s long odyssey in America demands that we be heard. People want to know what lies beneath the shroud of anger and foreboding that has dogged us in time…and we haven’t been quiet, mind you. When the whispers get louder, the voices cry out in despair, rail against injustice, defy oppression, and have spoken truth with power and eloquence. For every man like me who will not be stifled by passivity, hundreds more are rising to occasions to be viable in communities struggling to be held accountable to legitimate concern. Other variables and paradoxes are at play, too. I think about the homeless and the predicament that dog the jobless. I’m at wit’s end with how to cope with the reality of stereotypical angst that propels the former and the latter. Success runs in our race for sure. At times we are embraced, sometimes we’re ignored, but mostly we are not understood by many who only see what’s on the surface. We endeavor to soar in triumphant unison where demand for respect is par for any course of acceptance. It’s when nostalgia reign supreme and my mind revert to thinking about the injustices and ill-will that we’ve had to endure that causes the hackles on my neck to stand on end. I feel that it’s always a moment to lament and wish that the pendulum swung yet the other way. I believe that time and circumstance has ways of affording the most astute among us chances to be the progenitors of good things despite all of the above. Moreover, we’ve always had our voices for self-affirmation and a sense of legitimacy. Each generation brings about change and new hope for better understanding as we talk among ourselves, and bring a sense of honor to our thoughts. It inspires us anew, and our souls and minds are full of the aforementioned ‘voices’. Thus, the real machismo insists that we are heard – our souls cry out to be taken seriously.
My idea of what lies in the soul of a man has many elements. Black men are much too complex for only surface matter to suffice, without myriads of other situations floating subconscious in mind. We’re not without reproach for things that we should be doing. I feel that men should first look in the mirror and see intrusively the need for concern dealing with self-esteem, lack of integrity and no accomplished value to have a better meaning to life in positive ways. What lies in the soul of a man? I can answer the question easily from a personal vantage point. It starts with me by being true to myself and maintaining an innate sense of relevance. Alas, I know that God made me in the image of Him, and had great plans for me, but along the way I stumbled… The African-American male, much maligned as he is, cannot be stereotyped any more justifying damages already incurred. What lies beneath the hubris is enough to begin the process for challenge and change as I regained my balance. With a new lease on life I picked up the gauntlet and ran with it! The intent is to posit frames of references to illustrate what black Americans should expect out of their men as opposed to what has been shown thus far on the surface. Interestingly enough, the first man of creation, Adam was given a blueprint and a set of directives and he failed miserably…so much so that the Divine plan originally entrusted to him didn’t exactly go awry to the point where we couldn’t eventually get it right. The souls of men should first emanate with a strong presence for spirituality where integrity can define a sense of worth for any progressive success. I feel that we could do a better job of stepping up, exerting ourselves and demanding respect on all levels of achieved reckoning.
What are we thinking about when we sit passively watching our communities fall in disrepair, see our families grow apart from apathy and lack of spiritual resolve, and most importantly, allow our progeny to fall prey to icons that are detrimental to their growth? I won’t say that my past is not checkered like so many of my peers, but having been there and done that, maturity served its purpose when my attention became centered on blueprints to construct a better role model. It is for the roles I’m destined to play in communities of thought and action. The wrongness that existed in my former life demanded that I make this change, and it took away the momentum of a nagging nemesis for intangibles to become much more than reality. You see, I once begged, borrowed, and stole anything that would allow me to be at the top of my egotistical game. I dressed the part, and allowed material things to define the fabric of my being. I was insecure at a time when I didn’t want to make mistakes that would have subsequent bearing on my career. I was a slave to sex, and at times disrespected women, myself, and distorted the truth enough to render me a mere caricature of the natural talent I had. Yes, I recall the times – ‘The ‘sensational seventies’ where the music was live and my imaginations ran away from me!
Time in its proper place will always be the barometer for change. I was able to triumph over adversity and iniquity by professing to elicit a better way of being respected, as there was something in it for me. I learned that in order to respect, one must intrusively pay homage in humble ways to see empathy in those with whom they endeavor to respect. Self-esteem became my focus, and it was not easy loving yourself in order to love others. I learned this by studying the Word. I began to think personally about how I could stop the degradation of women that I readily exploited in various segments of my carnal spirit. Instead of being the hunter after the game, I allowed the game to capture me…and in doing so I was forced to give them something to be respected of. Moreover, I thought about how equal parity could be afforded to women who were heading households while I was laying in the cut, or being cut down by society’s injustices. I sought to stop feeling sorry for myself and thinking that someone of another persuasion was the reason for my angst. I needed to think about what I can do to loosen the strings of racist attitudes and not allow it to hold me back
I can’t speak for all men, but I’m sure enough will agree that our dreams will often be imprisoned and relegated to the mockery and amusement of an unbelieving and unforgiving public. At times, life’s struggles, external and internal, will test the very souls for challenging resolve to go within. This is where self-esteem and integrity play the better part for us to get right. Social ills render us helpless, and we harbor thoughts, and sometimes do detrimental things to exacerbate the problems. Change allowed me to get completely naked; and as I stood before the mirror and saw myself for whom I really was, I stripped myself of all of the shame, guilt, and temptation of that which was not good for my soul. It forced me to get to know Him better as I looked deeper and saw the wonders of God’s penchant for putting everything where it should be at this point in my life. I had to find myself and the gift of discernment to let options be definitive of my actions – those where common sense would give good meaning to deductive reasoning. I couldn’t ignore that still small voice that roared so vociferously in my soul in the dead of night whenever He visited. It’s often at this hour that God prodded me to continue beyond sunrise to give more light at sunset!
The career I’ve carved learning to be a respected as a journalist and freelance writer is best exemplified in my writing. That’s my voice. I endeavor to write with clarity hoping that my peers see my worth. Along the way I got spiritual and spirited. I no longer worry about the friends I may have lost in my quest to be the best I can be. Words, wit, and new-found wisdom are my bosom buddies and my creativity will always flow. As I wrote, my thoughts gave new meaning to humbleness, and an ego that was lessened and lengthened for my journey subsided. It is my hope that my brothers and my many peers join me on this trip in making our race a good one to challenge what is needed for acceptance, be it from and to ourselves, or from different persuasions. The road we travel is not an easy one. What are we thinking about then? Our minds are not idle, and my mind is full and reverberating. I’m a conversationalist at heart and will talk to anyone willing to debate realism vs. ambiguity. There are some like myself who will run as fast as we can for the finish line of life, where God would be there to shake hands and say, “well done my faithful servants!” I want to be deserving of this, because I do not want to see women continuing to be the head of households, and where my community is not run by matriarchy. I want my young folk to take inventory of their lives so that self, family and community are interwoven for sustained awareness. I want black-on-black crime to cease for Agape Love to permeated using a sense of connectivity, commitment and the commission of good intent.
Lastly and certainly not lease of my thoughts were of those where I could be looked at with respect in any setting and excel because of, and not despite my race. Nowadays, it’s all about living vertically and continually seeking space to keep my thoughts just as reverent. The triumph of my soul is complete as I strive to make my achievements accountable. I’ve done some serious re-evaluation of my life while thinking back on my past. I do not lament for that which should have been, or what should be! I looked intrusively in that mirror I spoke of earlier, and didn’t allow laxity to dispel the truth that stared back at me. I lay bare my soul, and as black men with so many wrongs to right and for accountability to have value, we must challenge and be challenged. Of course I pray more now as I seek a greater audience with Him. I did it by using a triumvirate sense of awareness putting self, family, and community at the forefront of my initiatives. There’s a lot I will uphold to justify my covenant with God, with the changes I made in my life. I want to continue on an even plain. The applications that I’m adhering to, and the solutions thereof, are about a simple plan: I will live a code of honor where ethics and just doing the right thing will give much more to meaningful intent; I will live, learn, and listen more. Live for the moment that is, and allow a free spirit to guide me in my liberal leanings; and I will learn through the knowledge afforded me in my natural advantage it gives for discernable options, the importance of deductive reasoning, having common sense and good logic to define how I conduct behavior patterns. There’s more — I endeavor to gravitate around those that propel me higher as I will choose wisely my new friends. I will unclutter my mind, shore up my surroundings for a neater disposition. I will not hesitate to initiate and follow through on those things that need dumping, and will abandon what doesn’t work, and not dwell on things I’m unwilling to commit to fully.
What lies in my soul is everything that can and should fix what is wrong with the world according to man’s agenda to challenge and change the society in which he lives. My soul is my temple and my spiritual being is alive bubbling to the top waiting to explode! Asking me what’s on my mind is opportunity waiting to vociferate anew. I think about how we need to mobilize and support the election of that Black man running for President. The litmus test of loyal is upon us. We need to circle the wagons and support him, and in doing so change would start souls to solidify race to a new dimension. I’m sure there are those that DO believe in his progressive campaign for change, and in the minds of the men I talked to there are hopes, dreams, and accomplished verve that are ours to claim. We shall continue to talk, voice our opinionated views, and be on the mind of others who are wondering what we are thinking. The triumphs of our souls are the victories we claim over adversaries and how we can let others know what we are thinking in our souls. I think about loving the right way, and being loved in return. I think about doing my part to build the Kingdom and make sure that the Joshua generation has the role models to see what needs to be seen for measurable self-esteem. If we can dare to dream, let us have those great expectations and speak volumes for our victories. Check out my smile and measure my heart for the things I say and what I do. I will tell my constituents that there are peaks and valleys to life and that success will require opening up and being accountable. But by no means should they stop the flow of words between them. Continue talking, my brothers, and let your voices and actions be instruments for change. Perhaps the most important regimen for us to grasp is the need to reassert collective genius which has always empowered us in the past to survive. We can do this by loving each other more –but we’ll shout if we have to, and it should be okay!
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