As an avid reader and genuine lover of books, I really do not spend a lot of time in bookstores. Why? Because brick and mortar establishments rarely carry the titles that I desire. That’s understandable. They only have a limited amount of shelf space per genre. Given that fact, it often puzzles me how some selections have made it to the shelves while others are absent. Recently, I was hanging out in one of my favorite bookstore chains, which will remain nameless, and decided to venture over to the African American fiction section.
Upon browsing, I became annoyed and dismayed; so much so that I had to call a friend and have her bear witness to the literary atrocity I saw on those shelves. Many of the titles (and authors) escape me and for good reason–there’s no way that I would want to remember them. All of these books fell in the trendy genre of ‘urban fiction’, which translates into ‘hot ghetto mess’ on paper. What about the rich literary heritage of Black writers? Where were those books? Ah! One hardcover copy of ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison sat on the top shelf, while all of the street culture lore remained at eye level. By training and profession, I’m a marketer so I understand shelf placement very well. These tales from the ‘hood were readily available with multiple copies; on the other hand, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison were situated high enough so that a customer would have to want that book really bad to retrieve it.
Now, this bookstore is located in a predominately White, upper middle class neighborhood, but there are a few surrounding areas that consists mostly of middle class African American families, so apparently, the bookstore services those areas as well. Nevertheless, the titles carried at the bookstore were audacious enough to pique my curiosity. Who in the hell buys and reads those books?
Our children? White children? If so, then that frightens me, whether it’s one or both groups. Black youth who have taken up a love of reading should not be subjected to such material, unless they have been properly introduced to those prolific Black writers who laid the culture’s literary foundation. How else will they learn how to balance their imaginations? Think about it this way. Most secondary English classes require students to read what has been dubbed as ‘classics’ by authors such as Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and William Faulkner. If I recall my high school English class experience correctly, we read very few titles by Black authors. I’m almost certain that hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. So, whenever a Black child desires to read works by Black authors (like I did), if the only thing that’s available to them are the urban fiction titles….now, do you see why I’m frightened?
Suppose White children are reaching for these urban fiction titles. Will they believe that they have effectively tapped into the essence of the African American cultural landscape? If you add the current state of Hip Hop music and about 90% of Black television, then unfortunately, I would have to answer that question with a resounding ‘yes’. Both White and Black children would have a rather lopsided perspective about the African American experience, which is a pity. For Black children, reading these works could potentially establish a warped sense of cultural identity, while for White children, these works could possibly continue the legacy of stereotyping.
Could it be that serious, Chandra? Yes. It is. After all, we are talking about impressionable minds here. Besides, books are a gateway to acquiring knowledge and understanding. Whether fiction or non-fiction, all books can be used as a learning tool and give a deeper meaning to many of life’s occurrences and bodies of thought—past and present. For instance, we are able to gain incredible insight regarding the past just by reading a book written during that time frame. During present times, books shape our opinions regarding ongoing social, political, economic, and cultural issues. Therefore, it would be foolhardy to discount the effects of these ‘hood stories’.
So, is urban fiction really needed? Yes and no. Yes, because I have always been a firm believer in balance. Everything Black ain’t good. In addition, Blackness has many different angles and all of them deserve some light. But there should be a sufficiency of all of it; not some of it—and most definitely not the worst of it. This leads me to the other answer of ‘no’. In the long run, urban fiction will perhaps cause more harm than good because it will become harder to spot passionate and sincere writers. If garbled vulgarity is considered quality writing and storytelling, then that means nearly anybody can write a book. Secondly, the need to construct a complete story and most importantly, leave the reader with a profound message will no longer be the motivation to write. What a disgrace to the legacy of Black writers such as James Baldwin, Chester Himes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, James Weldon Johnson, Gloria Naylor, John Oliver Killens, etc.
The aim of urban fiction is the same as much of contemporary U.S. culture—to entrap us all in the downward spiral of dysfunction without a purpose. For us, as African Americans, this nihilistic behavior is becoming the centerpoint of our cultural identity. Considering that Black culture has been in a defensive position for several decades, trust me, that’s not a good look and I….am….scared.
Sidebar Note: I have a good friend of mine that works in a bookstore. He told me one day while we were discussing this very subject that the bookstore does not donate any of these urban titles to prisons for inmates to read. Why? Because the prison administrators do not want the content of the books to interfere with the prisoners’ rehabilitation.