Thursday, April 8, 2010

Re-segregating Black Authors, Can I Get a Winess

I sincerely hope that I can write this post and not melt the keys on my lap top. Going into this I know my blood pressure is going to rise. But as you will see, not without reason.

Barnes and Noble is one of my most favorite places in the world. It probably has something to do with growing up in New York City and the original B&N being almost a second home, the New Public Library was first. Then B&N caught the expansion bug and went global. But I digress.

Moving to Georgia almost four years ago now, and discovering a B&N within five minutes of my house was a source of great great joy. I've spent a lot of time there sitting, sipping, wandering, listening, reading, and of course buying books.

Last night though, I wandered in to my favorite B&N and inquired, "I'm looking for UPTOWN, by Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant." Now understand, I only inquired after trying on my own to find this new book that was just published a month ago! It wasn't with the NEW FICTION-JUST RELEASED. It wasn't in the Fiction section that also has a space for JUST RELEASED. By now I'm scratching my head and feeling slightly perturbed.

So the kindly well trained clerk rapidly begins walking away from the fiction section, actually it looks like she's heading to the kiddie section, then a detour around a couple more areas that look like research and non-fiction and voila, she points to the African American section. Huh? To add insult to injury it is a right pitiful African American section at that. It can't rightly be called a section as it is only one book case and it isn't full. Hello. What's wrong with this picture?

My kindly clerk checks the few books in Afr Am, UPTOWN is absent. Like a run away slave, I wonder, maybe it ran to another section? So back we go toward the fiction section but we only get as far as the entrance to the golden gates for there on what I now know is called an end-cap, there are more books by Black authors! About six of them, and at the very bottom, there is UPTOWN. Your two or three year-old might find it, it would be at eye level for them. But for adults? I don't think so.

So even if not in the Af-Am section, just in case you don't get the message, it is "segregated" with other books by Black authors because they just have so so much in common.

Sensing the heat radiating from my head, the clerk inquired, "Is there something wrong?"

Is there something wrong? Hell yeah there's something wrong. Because as I looked around the fiction section, prominently displayed in the front so that it can't be missed with all the other books they want you to see as you come in the door is a book, Little Bee, by a white male British author, telling the story of a Nigerian girl in England. Excuse me! Why is his book featuring a story about a black female considered "General" fiction and put up front but a book by two black authors about black people is considered Afr Am and relegated to the back of the book bus?

Just writing this gets me infuriated all over again. The kindly clerk, by now figuring this is something over her pay-grade, tries to explain that the store gets the book, scans the bar code supplied by the publisher, and that tells them which genre or audience to place the book. Apparently the bar code supplied by Simon and Shuster for UPTOWN, African American.

Now here's one of those moments that makes you go, hmmm? Little Bee. Also published by Simon and Shuster. Yes, that's right. So I want to know, what does the bar code for Little Bee tell them? General market? White, black everybody? What exactly did it tell them that resulted in its being promoted as story that everybody should want to read?

How is it that in 2010 we are still fighting this same damn battle. Does it really mean that Simon and Shuster and Barnes and Noble think that books by black authors should only be read by, be of interest to, Black readers? Or that it has to be endorsed by an acceptable non-threatening Black person like Oprah before non-blacks might be comfortable reading? Really? Seriously?

What I do know is the effect of this re-segregation of Black authors is that once again, someone else gets to tell our stories, to become the authority, to explain us to us and to them. And where does this leave us? With less and less diversity of voices, perspectives, and experiences because Simon and Shuster, or Penguin, or who ever the publisher is would rather give the contract to, publish and promote to the general market, a book by a white writer telling a story about us, and a white male at that.

Must black authors write stories featuring white characters before they will be published?

It is time to stop the madness. Everyone knows the publishing industry is going through a major shake-up. Like newspapers they are losing the war against technology. How do they respond? By publishing tons of urban and Christian lit for black audiences. Say what? Don't believe me? Check the book shelves. This is great for those writers. Not so good for the rest of us.

Urban and Christian lit doesn't even begin to touch the places I may want to go when I curl up with a book. If you want something more complex and nuanced, something contemporary, something that might make you think, challenge you, or expand your point of view, dare I say something well written, apparently neither publishers nor book stores care. Nor do they think that white readers can find anything written by black writers that might expand or enhance their perspectives, or that they may even relate to.

Before I give up my B&N jones, I am going to give them a chance to do better and seek a meeting with the branch manager. (Shades of Dr. Maya Angelou, "if you knew better, you'd do better.") Simon and Shuster will also get a letter, as well as this post. Hopefully this might move you to look at your own favorite book store and see what books are being pushed at you, who's telling your story. Especially if you live in the South. I'd love to know what you find in your local B&N, or Borders, or Books a Million.

Black writers who have been published, who have an audience, established writers, skilled, talented, funny, interesting, writers are dying in this not-so-brave new world. Without us weighing in on our own behalf, black literary voices will go the way of the dodo bird before long.