In Search of Story
My daughter and I enjoy visiting bookstores
We went to a bookstore in Waterbury, Connecticut and just smiled at all the Black YA selections.
The cover art was delightful and the selections were definitely more than we had seen in years' past.
She began to consider what she wanted to read.
As she picked up a book by a set of authors we read in The Hurston and Hughes Literary Circle, she sighed. Even as she enjoyed engaging with their work before and virtually meeting them, there was a heaviness that set upon her.
What's wrong? I asked her.
It's always the same thing, she replied.
What do you mean? I queried further.
The same story arch over and over. We don't all have the same lives.
Tell me more.
Well, I know this is what sells, but it seems like they traded one stereotyped story for another.
I had to step back from my own armful of book selections to consider what she was telling me. I have lived in this independent scholar world of studying and writing about Black women's literature for so long that I just appreciated there were more and more Black women getting through the brick wall of publishing to be on the shelves in major bookstores.
What my daughter was telling me was a quandary.
We chatted more as we walked through the selections, she finally decided upon two rom-coms. One was by a Black woman and another by an Arab woman.
"We'll see what these give me." was her reply when I asked her about her selections.
I want teens to read and I want them to see themselves in the cover art and in the pages of the book.
This same daughter, in a session with the literary circle, in discussing the future of Black lit, talked about oppression as continuous theme and what it does to the psyche of Black teens. For those who are living in the middle of challenging situations (note, only 27% of the entire Black population can be considered poor, while 66% of the entire White population is, but this is not what is shown in the media. 17% of the stories about extreme poverty and challenging situations that derive from it, show white people, while well over 75% of the stories that show the same are of Black people. Even in states or cities where Black people are a minority and thus unable to be a "burden" on the social system, they are the ones the news media chooses to show in their stories). My daughter talked about this as indoctrination and how it has the potential of creating a perpetual cycle of proving one's right to exist fully as they are, even if they are a nerdy Black girl or boy who does not listen to hip hop, does not sag his pants, does not wear multicolored braids to her waist, and does not spend every dollar on some name brand thing to be relevant. That is a complete stereotype that she talked about being depicted in multiple stories, even some of the books we have chosen to read in the literary circle because of the author's debut.
So what do we do about this?
One of the things is to take notice, visit bookstores or virtual Black owned stores and notice what is being centered.
Another is to celebrate those who have made it past the editors and publishers but to also challenge each other to talk about the uncomfortable place of stereotype and singular stories.
One of the hardest is to penetrate the brick wall of the big publishing houses. To them is about what will sell and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy of stories. Indie houses and self-publishing is one way more literary stories are cutting through the noise. Another is through the growing population of IG book bloggers and book clubs. As people read more and consider literary arts, they are able to celebrate more the diversity of story and the space there is for all of Black culture to exist in pages.
A final thing is to demand more, as she did, with how she choose to spend her book dollars.
We remain in love with literature and the beauty of a good story. We also remain in search of the one that catches our breath, has us close our eyes in appreciation of the art, and ponder a time when there are more and more to chose from.