Today one of the biggest publishing markets is Urban Literature. However, Street Lit has come under fire from many angles. With urban novel 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.
Before I became an author I knew that urban literature had credibility issue, I just didn't know how deep the 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. So why would anyone think that there is a problem with black literature? With so many titles selling like hot cakes and its proponents saying 'I've sold X amount of books" , "people are buying it'. I have heard statements similar to these being uttered by crack dealers of the 80s, as justification of why they sold drugs. I was at a book event and 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 stories of black success, 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”.
Another argument is that ghetto literature attracts new readers, or that it provides escapism, but for many blacks this type of escapism can be had by not opening a book, but a door. After reading novels filled with busty women and thugs, novels overflowing with misogyny, depicting female characters as “dime pieces” or “trophies”, proudly display real gritty scenes of criminal activities and murder that go unpunished or 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 a white literature section, though I have seen American Literature sections devoid of black authors, except for sport stories of course. Is a book made urban by the skin color of its characters, or the skin color of the author? 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 that, "Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity.” Apparently many disagree...
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