Tuesday, July 21, 2009

White Readers, Meet Black Authors
(a book blog recommendation)

I stumbled across White Readers Meet Black Authors last Saturday while scouring the internet for romance novel news bits, and have been obsessively ingesting their archives ever since. The blog's by-line -- "Your official invitation into the African American section of the bookstore! A sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted plea for EVERYBODY to give a black writer a try." -- pretty much sums up the purpose of the site, so I'm gonna go ahead and pontificate on the subject for a paragraph or two before circling back around to the recommendation.

(Clears throat, rests hands on either side of podium)

We all notice the color of someone's skin, be they a cousin, a co-worker, an acquaintance or an artist. And whether we like to admit it or not, our behavior, demeanor and conversation are often altered by it -- even if it's only slightly and unintentionally. If we were to take an accounting of our acquaintances, it's safe to say that the majority of us would find that most of our friends shared our skin color. After all, isn't there some truth to the lie that someone who looks/dresses/talks like us has more in common with us than someone who does not? But if we allow ourselves to play it safe, to put up walls around ourselves, to hermetically seal ourselves in a stagnant social and cultural casket, we're, in a word, f**ked. Not only are we sowing the seeds of ignorance in ourselves (with ignorance being the root of racism), we're robbing ourselves of a broader intelligence, an expanded empathy, and a wider variety of life experiences. And for what? To avoid having our preconceptions challenged? Where's the fun in that?

I see this a lot at our bookstore. More often than not, White customers buy books by White authors.* While this in no way makes them racist, their unwillingness to explore something outside their comfort zone does make them dull. What makes these FUBU buying habits even more frustrating is the fact that the majority of these White readers consider themselves to be highly liberal thinkers. They listen to world music, they donate money to Darfur, and they campaigned en masse to make Barack Obama the President of the United States. Still, I dare you to try and push Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go on a fan of Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Both books deal with the slowly crumbling mental states of misfit Los Angelenos, both books make frequent and poetic use of dream imagery, and both books garnered their authors considerable critical acclaim at the times of their release. So what keeps Mr. and Mrs. Whiteperson from picking up Himes' novel while they wait the requisite 7-10 years for Didion's next? You know the answer. It's the pigmentation of the author and his protagonist. Simple as that.

Another thing that makes this segregated reading style so nuts? We're living in a world where Black movie stars, athletes and musicians are considered to be the arbiters of cool. So why are the biggest, so-called 'hippest' faces in the literary world almost all White? In today's hip-hop-centric society, it would seem like keeping the status quo in such a state of stasis would actually require some effort. Or is it just the fact that 99% of the literary world's gatekeepers -- be they agents, interns, publishers or bookstore owners -- are bookish White folks who never really grew up exposing themselves to anything other than the bookish White by-products of other bookish White folks? Could the publishing industry's lack of prominent, young Black writers simply be the result of its historically White world view?

Let me put that another way: If you grew up only listening to rock music, chances are you'd miss the lyrical genius of a rapper like Notorious B.I.G. -- despite the fact that his story-telling techniques are quite similar to, say, Paul McCartney's or Lou Reed's. To take it a step further, if you grew up only listening to rock music, chances are you wouldn't be giving Biggie Smalls a listen in the first place. It's the same thing with literature. For the past few years, the book blog world has been eagerly awaiting the release of Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked -- a.k.a. Hornby's return to music writing. Yet there's an amazing book titled Songs In The Key Of My Life by a Black author named Ferentz Lafargue that got ignored by virtually all of these same book blogs at the time of its release -- despite the fact that Lafargue's smart and funny blending of memoir and music reviews made Songs the perfect fix for a Hornby fan suffering from withdrawal. Care to take a guess why?

Anyway, that's my admittedly overly-simplistic two cents on what is obviously a complicated and controversial topic. Author Carleen Brice, the main brain behind White Readers Meet Black Authors, has plenty of her own ideas on the subject, all of which she presents in a series of thoughtful, conversational, and un-accusatory posts (wholly unlike mine!). Listed below are a few of my favorites:

The similarity between Black authors and Dr. Seuss' Whos.

In response to Newsweek's recent 50 Books for Our Times, they've complied a list of 40+ Books that W.R.M.B.A. Suggest You Read Now.

An introduction to authors writing about slavery in a manner that is neither guilt and/or shame-inducing, nor old-fashioned in its approach.

The 12 days of Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa -- specifically day 5's recommendation, Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks. I am so getting this book now.

A discussion about 'What constitutes a Black book?' that starts with a 'Which one of these things is not like the others' game and ends with one of the most thought-provoking comments threads...ever.

*It's also true that our male customers mainly buy books by male authors, our female customers primarily buy books by female authors, our Black customers buy books mostly by Black authors, and our gay customers tend to favor gay authors. In a future post, we'll do our best to address all of these self-imposed parameters. But for now, let's try and stay on topic, okay?