Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Power and Place of Literature in Shaping Perceptions

I'm writing this sitting in my local county library.  It is a magical place with chairs for working, wifi for surfing, newspapers for reading, magazines for thumbing, and of course, lots of books for reading.

This free open and accessible place is a mecca of all humanity. There are college students, retired, tutors waiting for the descending of the high school students that will fill the main area in an hour. There are writers and consutants, and yes, the homeless, all in community in this one place.

When I stopped in today, respite from the contractors doing work in my townhouse, I made my usual look through the fiction section to see what was new or what I have missed.  I remain a literary critic, primarily in the African and African American fiction genres. I also remain critical of the lack of quality offerings from mainstream sources.

One of the things I always note are the tags that indicate it is an "African American Fiction Selection." It is helpful in the thousands of volumes to be able to find it. There are also sections for mysteries, westerns, teens, and I think even tags identifying Histpanic/Latino and women offereings.

Why would I be upset, then, to be able to quickly find a book?

My ire is in that for years, it seems as if they are trying to manipulate the minds of not only the black people who would read but also the white people who may casually pick up such a book and think, see, told you so.

The covers remain hyper sexualized. There is always money, jewelry, cars, and if a man, he is stereotypically thugged out.

That does not represent my life or the lives of the many African Diasporians I know. It is also something I wrote about back in 2013. 

It begs the question then, is it a lack of quality writing? Or access? Or messaging? Or manipulation?

It is perhaps all of it.

Most of the agents, editors, and publishers are white. 

Like Hollywood has a minuscule sprinkling of strong black actors in strong lead roles, so do the books that make the shelves. 

It is enough to make me run to Amazon because they do have the self-publishing platform of Create Space and offers independent writers a way to bypass the choke hold of traditional publishing. The love I have for local libraries and independent bookstores is offset by my disappointment at what is facing my daughters in the teen section or me in the adult section.  Some of the hyper stereotyped books are actually written by white men or older white women (check out the Buford High Series, google the authors).

When I stopped to look around, I thought about fifteen years ago when I was buying books left and right. There were large sections with thoughtful books, some black book stores, and just a time when I felt promise as both a reader and as a parent providing books to my children.

There are many thoughts I have about the change and demise of books for black readers.

Urban fiction genre is one of the biggest strikes against black books, in my opinion. The erotica, the stereotypes, and the lower-quality writing all made this unappealing. The sexualized covers used by some of the big houses for even black books that were not titillating, also added to the perception of blacks as wanton.

It is not unlike what has happened on television.

I was in college when Different Strokes reminded us that we could do whatever we wanted. We would race from class to watch the fictionalized tales of Hillman College students and know that the possible was achievable for us, that first generation post Civil Rights Movement.

The same was with 90s era shows like the Fresh Prince, with its professional, albeit wacky wealthy, black California family. It showed blacks in a ways that was uplifting.

Something happened after 9/11.  

I noticed that shift. I'm not a music person, but some of the hip hop friends I have also talk about the infusion of gangsta rap genre infiltrating culture in a way that was detrimental. It was coming from majority owned companies that were skewing perceptions for the dollar.

Today, in the middle of my lament, I'm also watching independent publishing increase for Caucasian and writers of color. There are smaller houses like Akashic Books that have some great authors like one of my favorite reviewed writers, Bernice McFadden. There are also independent published authors like Keturah Israel that have made a name for themselves in quality writing. These and may others have been reviewed on Tayé Foster Bradshaw's Bookshelf.

The perception persists about black writers perhaps not having space or not being good enough or simply only a trickle getting through the now big five publishers that have a black books imprint.

This problem is not something new. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about it as did Toni Morrison.

It bring me to the power and place of literature in shaping perceptions and what the power of the black reader can do to shift the focus.

One thing I did was tell the librarian that I did not appreciate all the new buys of black books being these urban genre ones versus all the wonderful literary choices for mainstream readers. It was a challenge I also took to my daughters' school librarian to push the envelope and get more youth books for students of color.

There are some that are bringing out more. Scholastic does a pretty good job. There are also more conversations centered on diversity in children's literature that I hope will trickle up to adult literature.

Libraries are magical places with people from all walks of life who can pull a volume off the shelf and be transported, elevated, or rejuvenated. The need for more offerings is there as our country becomes increasingly diverse. There is power in literature to shape minds and opinions, I hope there is also courage in moving beyond stereotype and into substance.

I will keep reading and reviewing to find out.



Tayé Foster Bradshaw is a proud Black woman of Creole and AfroLatin heritage. This writer, poet, essayist, and amateur literary critic primarily reads African and African-American female literary works. She dreams of  dipping her toe in the Caribbean and standing on her ancestral island of Hispaniola to gaze upon the waters and wonder about her foremother who once stood on that shore.

She and her husband reside in the St. Louis suburbs with the last of six children and are newly minted grandparents. She enjoys a fantastic latte and is always with a handmade pen. She can be reached at readwritethinkconnect ATgmailDOTcom or tayefosterbradshawAToutlookDOTcom.



2 comments:

  1. Tayé I can't agree with you more! It's as if the publishing companies want to erase good black authors from the list. It always annoys me when I go into bookstores and see African-American interests and look a lie of books with covers that are highly sexualized, containing no substance. That is not my interest and I'm a proud African-American who is reading old and new black authors of substance, who hardly get press. It's depressing some days.

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  2. I agree with you! It's not that there shouldn't be street lit as an option, but that it shouldn't be the majority of the novels by African-American authors that get published.

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