Every black writer I know complains about it. "Street lit" has taken over as the de facto literature of our time. We've all seen it — the teeming shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble full of raunchy books beckoning the generic black reader. Meanwhile, serious fiction is hidden behind come hither covers, presumably because publishers believe that if they make literature look like, say, the next installment in the Video Vixen series, people will be fooled and buy it.
It's crazy. But the mega-bookstores didn't create this phenomenon; they're simply capitalizing on it. Publishers? They're just trying to sell books. Rather than fussing about the need for them to change their ways, maybe we should change our own.
We need to take a hard look at black bookstores, black magazines, black book fairs and black awards foundations. These entities are generalist cheerleaders and make no distinction between the different types of literature out there. They all too willingly lump everyone together. If you're African American and a writer, you end up on the same list—often the same shelf and the same panel—as everyone else.
It's like putting John Coltrane, James Brown and Soulja Boy on equal billing, at the same concert. James Brown was the funk master, but no one would ever compare his songs to the complex musicality of Coltrane. And Soulja Boy may have his fans, but no one equates him with the Godfather of Soul.
The Ghettoization of all black books into a catch-all category now dominated by "urban fiction" has crowded out both well-written popular books and more serious work from seasoned and new writers alike.
Saving black literature requires a movement, a concerted effort by all involved to grab hold of serious works and place them squarely at the nexus of the American literary tradition. We need a commitment from black booksellers to promote ambitious writers with the same vigor they promote urban lit authors; organizers of black book fairs need to use discretion and not allow their events to become a "street-lit" bacchanalia; black magazines need to stop forcing serious writers to compete on bestseller lists with less ambitious ones; reviewers need to focus more on craft and language and form in their critiques of books by black authors; and awards foundations need to distinguish between different types of writers as they dole out prizes.
If all this sounds elitist to you, I ask: When did we stop applauding excellence? Consider what it takes to write a book like The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. It takes courage and craft and time and vision. It takes a way of seeing the world and one's place in it that's expansive. It takes a greater black imagination. In fact, it takes those same qualities to create any kind of ambitious art, and black literature is an art form, quiet as it's kept these days.
It's too easy to blame the reader, by saying, "Stop buying ghetto fiction and bad Terry McMillan knock-offs." Readers buy what they're exposed to. Yes, publishers should do a better job of promoting the range of our work. But we have an existing potential pipeline for promoting ambitious literature by African Americans— this "sliver of a sliver" as one editor calls it — that goes largely untapped. How can it be that there are dozens of black bookstores nationwide, hundreds of African American professors teaching literature, thousands of public school students in desperate need of stories that reflect their lives, as well as a plethora of black writers' conferences nationwide — yet many serious black writers face dwindling careers after the first, second or third book because of dismal sales?
It's because of the dumbing-down of black literature. And it will continue until the traffickers of black books acknowledge that certain kinds of titles deserve to be called what they are, to be distinguished from their popular and urban counterparts. Why for instance are there catchy phrases for urban fiction and lightweight books by black women (black chick lit), but no name for serious literature by black writers? Why not call ambitious, complex, thoughtful writing by its rightful name?
It's time we use the "L" word: literary. It's time to have conferences for black literary writers, and sections in bookstores called Black Literary Fiction & Non-Fiction; it's time we have book fairs devoted to black literary books (or whole sections devoted to the genre), and bestseller lists comprised exclusively of literary books by black writers. It's time to celebrate ambition. And if you're wondering who gets to decide what literary writing is, well, that's a conversation to have. Criteria can be debated. But first, we've got to call it out.
Only when you name a thing can you begin to claim it.
Birdgett M. Davis is an author and contributor to The Root.