I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing. Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section. Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section. The result in either case, no sale. That fucking store was taking food from my table.
- Erasure, Percival Everett
This month Carleen Brice’s blog, White Readers Meet Black Authors, asks readers to vote on the following question: “Should Bookstores Have a Section for African American Fiction?“
I say, NO. And I didn’t have to think twice about my answer. As of today, only 31% of those responding to Carleen’s poll agree with me. Most have mixed feelings. That’s okay. I used to be on the fence, too. But no longer. Today I summon the spirit of my forebearers who fought long and hard for an end to segregation in the days of Jim Crow. I lean forward like the fictitious Miss Jane Pittman into the cool, cleansing stream of a forbidden water fountain meant to divide the races. I call for bookshelves as mixed as my metaphors when I declare: Mr. Barnes & Mr. Noble, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!
It’s time we distinguish between the myths about the ways our bookstores should operate and confront the reality of how they actually do:
MYTH #1 The existence of an African-American Fiction section demonstrates my bookstore’s commitment to providing its readers with a range of black literature.
Years ago when my local Waldenbooks first began separating black fiction from the general fiction section, I spent hours kneeling in front of the shelves, loving the fact that the books I enjoyed had be given special treatment. Indeed, the sign above the books was more than just a sign; it was a celebration that legitimized the value of black writing. Today the signs are becoming the bookstore equivalent to all those streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. — superficial gestures that do not always translate into a meaningful selection of material. Booksellers have become lazy, relying too much on the market boom in black urban, inspirational, and erotic fiction. I used to let the major stores off the hook for promoting “what sells,” but if this were true, then it seems to me that they would offer nothing but New York Times best-sellers, porn, and books about Elmo.
MYTH #2: The African-American Fiction section is the best place to find literature by or about black people.
This isn’t true and we all know it. As Carleen points out in a recent post, “What is a Black Novel?” good books are too often mis-categorized in the black section based on a faulty understanding of their content, while a superstar novelist like Toni Morrison, a British writer like Zadie Smith, and a white crime writer like Richard Price are typically allowed to mingle among the literary “general population.” Of course, categories and canons are always difficult to define. Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin sometimes wrote books featuring only white characters – where do they belong? And how does a African-American section engage the increasing globalization of black folks across the world? Our old identity politics are in desperate need of re-evaluation when it comes to books.
MYTH #3: By separating the books, the African-American Fiction section encourages readers who may not ordinarily pick up a book by a black author to do so.
I have serious doubts about this claim, although I would like to be proven wrong. I just don’t think that the narrow offerings in a section shaped solely by race will help to attract new readers in the same way that a genre-based selection process would. If I’m a fan of vampire fantasy, for instance, I’d appreciate a bookstore that shelves the L.A Banks “Vampire Huntress Legends” series alongside Laurell K. Hamilton and Anne Rice. I worry that the African-American Fiction section discourages readers from doing their homework, just as they would for any other genre by nurturing an interest in black literature one book at a time. The large bookstore chains need to put their efforts into table displays and endcaps that reflect the diverse offerings of the entire store, rather than letting a bookshelf sign do all the work. (I should pause here to acknowledge that smaller, independent bookstores often avoid these pitfalls due, in part, to a more knowledgeable staff and better familiarity with their customer’s needs.)
The “Bottom” Line:
My argument, in other words, is this: all works by and about black people should be integrated into sections categorized by genre right along with everything else. While the African American Fiction section may have been created in good faith to highlight the wide range of works by black writers, the shelves today reflect a narrow and constricting view of this literature that actually discourages reader interest and stifles more complex representational diversity.
Now that I’ve made my case, I encourage to you travel over the Carleen’s blog and participate in this month’s poll. Or write a response or rebuttal of your own! I’m eager to talk with others who have an opinion about the matter, even if we don’t agree.
Now for a rousing chorus of We Shall Overcome…