Today one of the biggest publishing markets is Urban Literature. However, Street Lit has come under fire from many angles. With urban novels being turned into Oscar nominated movies such as Precious, this is as good of a time as any to ask what is the state of Black Literature? There are those that say that Street Literature has no real value to Black Literature as a whole, and that it is equivalent to gangster rap’s relation to the larger genre of Hip-Hop. Then there are people who swear by Urban Literature, as they claim that is type of literary fair is the only kind they will consume. Surprising the people who swear by Ghetto Literature the most are middle class black women. Many Black authors are relegated to an existence of selling books out their car trunks at every stop, while their white counterparts enjoy the heights of respected best seller lists. Thousands of black authors have to ‘grind’, and or’ hustle’, while their counterparts have no concept of those two words. Is it the literature that is the problem, or is it those who are writing the literature?
Before I became an author I knew that urban literature had a credibility issue, I just didn’t know how deep that issue really was. I won’t go into how many authors have four or five books, but still don’t know how to use a simile, yet and still street literature dominates the market. With so many titles selling like hot cakes and its proponents saying ‘I’ve sold X amount of books” , “people are buying it’. So why would anyone think that there is a problem with black literature? I have heard statements similar to these being uttered by crack dealers of the 80s, as justification as to why they sold drugs. At a book event I overheard an author say “I am an Essence bestseller”, followed by the publisher snickering, is that respect? This is not to say that there are not some wonderfully well written positive African American books out there. There are many stories of black success and black triumph, but are black people reading those books? “Any story celebrating the beauty and strength of black family life, the power of education, and the desire to succeed in the workplace and in business is now out of fashion.” wrote Juan William in his article titled “Precious’ Little of Value in Ghetto Literature”.
Since “Urban Lit” began as an often overlooked subdivision of the Blaxploitation era, over 40 years ago. The Film genre was considered exploitative because they took place in the ghetto, played up stereotypes and were mostly written by whites. Today Urban Literature contains many element that were present in its now defunct film counterparts the only difference, no is that blacks are at the helm of these projects. The main argument for this type of literature is that it attracts new readers. It has also been said that Ghetto Lit provides escapism, but for many blacks this type of escapism can be had by not opening a book, but a door. After reading a novel filled with busty women and thugs, overflowing with misogyny, depicting female characters as “dime pieces” or “trophies”, novels that proudly display real gritty scenes of infidelity, criminal activities and murder that go unpunished or they are glorified, one would have to wonder if Marva Allen owner of Hue-Man bookstore in Harlem was right when she said, “It’s not literature it’s fiction… they offer no literary advantages.” Or is there something more to this “Box” that these Black ‘Harlequins’ have put black literature in? Maybe it has something to do with where you find these books in the bookstore. I have never seen the White Literature section, though I have seen American Literature sections devoid of black authors, except for one dimensional books like Steve Harvey’s “Straight Talk, No Chaser” and sport stories of course. Is a book made urban by the skin color of its characters, the skin color of the author, or its content?
In the New York Times article “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut”, Nick Chiles said ,“On shelf after shelf, in bookcase after bookcase, all that I could see was lurid book jackets displaying all forms of brown flesh, usually half-naked and in some erotic pose, often accompanied by guns and other symbols of criminal life. I felt as if I was walking into a pornography shop, except in this case the smut is being produced by and for my people, and it is called literature.” Is Nick Chiles right? Maybe the problem is in the definition, What is literature? If you solely define it as it as publication of printed material then there is no issue, but historically literature has meant much more than that. Rebecca West once said, “Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity.” Apparently many disagree, noting that literature can mean many things to many people Nick Chiles mused, “That leaves me wondering where we – writers, publishers, readers and the black community – go from here. Is street fiction some passing fad, or does it represent our future? It’s depressing that this noble profession, one that I aspired to as a child from the moment I first cracked open James Baldwin and Gabriel García Márquez about 30 years ago, has been reduced by the greed of the publishing industry and the ways of the American marketplace to a tasteless collection of pornography.” I do not believe that these articles, bloggers, or reviewers are trying to ‘hate’ on anyone, or ‘knock’ someone’s hustle and neither am I for that matter, but these are legitimate questions, what is black literature? Where do we go from here? Is Black Literature viewed as nothing more than a collection coming of age Pre and Post Prison tales? “A lot of people complain that most of the Urban Lit books are the same three or four stories with different titles, character names and locations . And that many of the authors have the same felonious background story in their bios. I have been to high profile author meetings where terms like “This is Crip Shit” and “Am a Blood” were tossed around with hand signs. It was comical and something I will most likely write about later, but I digress. “Urban List is just like Hip-Hop nowadays” Was Joey Pinkey correct in his widely viewed article, ‘Urban Lit is Dead? ‘
As an author I feel all of these sentiment, but I also believe that urban literature, like hip hop, is not dead and that the problem, with both forms of entertainment, lies in where you get it from. Many people have asked the question I have posed in the title, but there have been no definitive answers. Perhaps this literary dust-up is equivalent to the one going in among our “Black Leaders”, see Al Sharpton and Tavis Smiley. Perhaps this was summed up in an article titled ‘The Shaky State of Urban Literature (a book reviewer’s lament)’, “this new millennium of emerging writers and novelists are still struggling to find a place in contemporary literary circles.” For the sake of argument let’s say that the critics in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the blogs are all wrong, or at least mistaken. Let’s say books like mine and The Other Wes Moore are not “really Urban Lit. Let’s say that when you tell a publisher that you are an Essence Best Seller that they do not snicker, not even privately. Let’s say that the media gives black authors the same amount of press and credibility they do their white contemporaries. Let’s say that urban literature isn’t as watered down as hip hop. And let’s say that big publishing houses market African American works as they would the works of others. Does an author not want the respect of their peers? As a people we have always been told to wait for things, that everything takes time, this is what was said decade ago about urban literature. When street literature was young, we heard “it is just starting out, give it some time.” It is now 2011, so the question is has anything changed? Hopefully the documentary “Behind Those Books” answers some much needed questions, regarding the genre future.
Maybe, but now the question is one of Credibility, but a question for who? Is it a question for The Relentless Aaron’s, Larry Wilson Jr’s, Vickie Stringer’s, and Zane’s of the literary world? Or is our new direction for the Aisha Ford’s, Eric Jerome Dickey’s, and Terry A. O’Neal’s to forge? Or do we follow the examples of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Phyllis Wheatley, and others? Chances are that those in Ghetto/Street/Urban/African American Literature wont stand up, but the hope is that they will coalesce around something more important than shelf space, money, the thrill of the hustle or fame. Maybe Black literature reader see more of themselves in Rachetville and Grimy than they see of themselves in the future, which is why they haven’t fully embraced black sci-fiction because of how omitted we see ourselves in the future. Unfortunately, like many forms of entertainment, it is all we got.
Perhaps the discussion can best be summed up by what Mo’Nique said when accepting The Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Precious, “Sometimes you have to forgo doing what is popular, in order to do what’s right.”
The Shaky State of Urban Literature (a book reviewer’s lament) http://blogginginblack.com/?p=1076 Urban Lit is DEAD http://www.theurbanbooksource.com/articles/editorials/urbanlitisdead.php “Their eyes were looking at smut” http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/04/opinion/04chiles.html “A critical look at Street Lit” http://www.theurbanbooksource.com/interviews/nick-chiles.php “Precious’ Little of Value in Ghetto Literature” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740004574514260044271666.html