Why Can’t Black Writers Escape the Literary Ghetto?

While a few authors have made it into mainstream literature, many can't escape the publishing industry's narrow category of African-American literature.

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By Bernice L. McFadden


Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, published by a Penguin Books imprint, sold 1 million books within a year of publication. Her novel has gained accolades and awards, including the prestigious South African Boeke Prize. The Help is being adapted for the screen; at the helm of production is the Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg.

Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel The Secret Life of Bees, also published by Penguin Books, is another story set in the South with African American characters. Kidd’s novel garnered similar fame, fortune and recognition.

Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd are living the dream of thousands of authors, myself included. But they are not the first white women to pen stories of the black American South and be lauded for their efforts. In 1928 Julia Peterkin wrote a novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Stockett’s and Kidd’s novels tackle racism and celebrate the power of friendship and acceptance. Both novels were given beautiful covers that did not reveal the race of the characters. Both books were marketed to black and white audiences.

My debut novel, Sugar, was also published by a Penguin imprint. Set in the 1950s South, the story line deals with racism and celebrates the power of friendship and acceptance. The original cover depicted a beautiful black woman standing behind a screen door. Sugar was marketed solely to African American readers. This type of marginalization has come to be known among African-American writers as “seg-book-gation.” This practice is not only demeaning but also financially crippling. When I looked into why works by African-American writers were packaged and marketed so differently than those by their white counterparts, I did not have to search far for my answer.


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