22 July 2010

"Dem Black Books"

In recent months I have been listening to librarians (via conferences, book club meetings, conversations) from various areas of the country report about how when library patrons come into the library looking for Street Lit that they invariably ask for the genre with the question, "Where you got dem black books?" Librarians from the south, midwest, and northeast regions have all intimated this exact same expression, which I find to be an amazingly fascinating synchronicity at work here. 

So this has me thinking about what does it mean to be "dem black books"? This goes back to my earlier blog post when I stated in a P.S. that I would be blogging about why I no longer believe that current day Street Lit is solely a sub-genre of the genre of African American Literature. Couple this earlier position with "dem black blooks," along with the recent Washington Post article by African American author Bernice McFadden where she throws Street Lit under the bus to explain her frustration at her view of the current publication trends of the U.S. publishing industry, along with the recent blog post by Belleisa that furthers explores the topic of "Who's Allowed to Tell The Tale?" .... and well, my mind is swirling with all kinds of "what's goin' on" memes. And for me, when I am asking "what's goin' on" in the realm of literature and cultural representation, my concern automatically pings at who I am - a black librarian - thus I begin thinking and wondering about what things mean in the context of black librarians servicing library users.

I think about what library users expect of librarians when they walk into a library to find texts in various formats. So when a patron asks "Where you got dem black books" I'm wondering what does the black librarian think "dem black books" mean? What does a librarian think this query means for a patron of color? for white patrons for that matter? Are librarians automatically shuffling patrons to the street lit/urban fiction books because it is explicit that that is what the patron is asking for (i.e. because they're black), or are they automatically shuffling patrons to street lit because that is all that the librarian knows him/herself about 'dem black books'? 

What if a white patron asked, "Where you got dem black books"? (Whites read Street Lit too, by the way). Where would we go in the library collection to satisfy their query? What would that readers advisory interaction look like, sound like? 

Is it all right or enough for the librarian to go, "Yeah, they over here..." or can the librarian go, "What do you mean by 'dem black books'" (irregardless of patron cultural identity) and spiral the interaction from there? Is the patron expecting this from the librarian? Do library users expect librarians to know more about a genre, about books, and to share that knowledge with them?

For me this brings up ideas about how we black librarians in particularly, assess and define our own cultural literary spectrum, and based on our assessments and definitions, how we consequently act as conduits for patrons accessing our cultural literary spectrum. What I mean is - if the black librarian defines 'dem black books' as just Street Lit too - don't that mean we in trouble as a literary folk? Ain't librarians supposed to know more, define wider, and be savvy at offering up inclusive ideas about what it means to read, what it means to read literature, and what it means to read 'dem black books'?

As an advocate of Street Literature, I am not an advocate of street lit at the expense of any other literary genre, especially African American Literature. I am an advocate of Street Lit as a genre that has the right to exist and thrive just like any other literary genre. Having said that, I also define street lit from a geographic/socio-economic-specific stance, and not solely from a cultural or ethnic stance. And this is why I no longer believe that Street Lit is solely a sub-genre of African American Literature. There are Street Literature novels, memoirs, and biographies that contribute to the genre of African American Literature, yes indeed .... and this is where for me, exists a literary 'fork in the road', if you will, where I contend that Street Lit is more than 'dem black books' and 'dem black books' are more than just Street Lit. I posit that librarians must understand this reciprocity concerning all genres and should be about promoting the entirety of the library based on the notion of open, fluidic access to the library as a holistic representation of each patron. If you think about it, all genres are hybrid genres that ebb and flow into one another: For example, Twilight by Stephanie Meyers is not just a 'vampire book' - it's romance, fantasy, and a bit of horror, all rolled into one tome. The same is true for any book, I believe, including Street Lit books.

I do understand and have experience with how in librarian practice, literary literacy begins with how the patron sees and views a book. It is about how patrons define what they are interested to read. But the librarian, as an acolyte of literary tradition, has to also be a critical thinker as the in-house 'expert' of the collection and ask - "What do you mean by 'dem black books'?" - even if they are asking themselves this question as a point of practitioner inquiry - for the librarian to ask him/herself what they mean by 'dem black books'... 

I believe that it is a part of a librarian's educative mission and stance to stimulate patrons intellectually and thereby help educate patrons on what is meant by 'dem' and 'black' and 'books'. Why? Because libraries are more than bookstores. Libraries are not just 'give them what they want' spaces - libraries are also traditional spaces for learning more about what you want. Libraries are spaces for intellectual ah-ha moments. These moments often come from interacting with librarians who are lifelong learners themselves.

Readers advisory practice, where we have these kinds of conversations with patrons, creates a deep, rich, social interaction where the patron teaches the librarian and the librarian teaches the patron. The patron comes with what they know and are expert, and the librarian comes with what they know and are expert. Patrons go, "I read this or I wanna read that." The librarian goes, "Cool, and I read this and I know about that - what do you think about that?" Within this kind of social-professional interaction, it is embedded that the patron expects and needs the librarian to know a little more about 'dem', about 'black', and definitely to know more about 'books.' 

Thus it is the librarian's job to at least have an understanding of where street lit sits within the historical continuum of not just Black literary tradition, but American literary tradition as a whole, since street lit stories come from all kinds of cultural locations. In this vein, the whole library becomes 'dem black books' (reflecting who the patron is, or identifies with, not what the genre is purported to be) and thus, a broader literary view becomes discourse for the patron to consider and browse. If the patron says, "No thanks, just take me to where the Triple Crown books are," by all means, take them where they want to go and on the way, let them know what else lives alongside K'wan and Vickie Stringer, on the shelves. Patrons deserve that, and K'wan and Vickie Stringer deserve that too. It's what we do.

**This blog post is dedicated to Patrice Berry. Thank you hun.**


  1. I shared it on my facebook page. Hopefully some more folks will read and comment. I think in light of what is going on with Ms. Sherrod I think this is a discussion we have got to have. You did a great job! I could feel your passion as I read it

  2. "...libraries are more than bookstores. Libraries are not just 'give them what they want' spaces - libraries are also traditional spaces for learning more about what you want."

    I have so mean quote take-aways from this post! Thank the Lawd for your thoughtfulness and willingness to challenge and open this up for discussion - you're right on.

  3. Thank you ladies for the support! I'm really working in earnest to highlight the value of librarians.

  4. Vanessa, I gave a presentation on Street Literature Books last week for a group of middle and high school librarians. They mentioned that the students also identify these books as:

    Rough Books
    Rough Rider Books
    Ride or Die Books

    I agree with you. As a African-American librarian it's my duty to educate my patrons about the correct name for this and other genres. Hell, if I can get my students and yes some teachers to say 'library' instead of 'libarie' I've made some progress.

    Still can't keep up with you! :-)

  5. Excellent points here. Back in the 1960's and 1970's, if someone asked for "dem black books" they would have been shown Baldwin and Wright, who where the equivalent of 'street lit' at the time. Those writers only got canonized later on in their careers. Time truly defines genres.

  6. I think one of the things we can be sure and do - even amidst the hurly-burly of our increasingly busy libraries where reader's advisory is sometimes given short shrift in the effort to get the patrons what they want - is to always keep the range broad. In other words, if someone were to ask me that question and perhaps (as is not unusual, especially with some of our newer library users) be less than forthcoming in attempts to clarify, the everyday strategy we often find ourselves falling back on is to quickly grab up a wide ranging selection. Say, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Pearl Cleage and Chunichi, to name some folks I can grab off the same aisle. And lay these before the patron to see if there is a direction they're gravitating towards. If they're into Street Fiction, they'll make it really clear at that point. But even then to pull for that patron as broad a range of things as the collection allows, with some outliers that are not associated with the current scene but share affinities, such as Chester Himes or William Attaway, with some non-fiction, with Piri Thomas or Luis Rodriguez, with Mario Puzo or Richard Price. Frankly that is often a survival technique when we can't scrape together more than a couple Triple Crowns etc, but it is also a good strategy for reader's advisory in general, always adding breadth and inviting readers into a larger world, no matter what their reading interests are.

    I do have to say just to reflect on our patrons interactions here in Seattle, that while formerly readers or urban/street/erotic had a harder time lighting on a term to communicate to the (presumeably clueless) librarian, lately almost everyone who asks has been making use of the 'urban fiction' tag. I don't know if that is owing to the Urban Books imprint or various websites, but it is in common usage now for a few different genres. And here I light on your earlier post about that term, just to say that while I totally get what you're saying, I think in practice/praxis it is a little moot. (Graphic novels aren't all novels either, but readers ask for them by that name even if it is a memoir or reportage they're after). The label is still pretty vague and evolving with the market - in fact I'd say it is now being used as a tool of the market to draw new readers and expand on the success of street fiction and urban erotica. So while I get what you're saying about the insufficiency or inaccuracy of the tag, a useful tag it is proving to be to get us at least into the reader's literary neighborhood of interest.

  7. Let me hasten to add that I really appreciate your thoughtful coverage of this area. Amidst all the hype and hooplah that often attends on Street Fiction, I find your discussions and opinions are really refreshing.

  8. David, I talk about in my upcoming book on street literature, how urban fiction is an umbrella genre for a series of sub-genres that are all urban fiction. Street lit is one of those sub-genres.

    I don't think it's moot to explore and encourage librarians to not be afraid to call something what it is. Are we going to contribute to how the market is driven or are we going to be driven by the market? This is part of that discourse where librarians talk about libraries as bookstores; are libraries going to embrace the fads or are libraries going to claim and frame their own standards and traditions within contemporary trends?

    What I'm interested in, within the context of this article, is librarians having a broad understanding of what "dem black books" are. When I talk to a librarian and he/she tells me that they see "dem black books" as street lit, just like the patrons, do - to me, that's problematic, as Street Lit is not definitive of Black literature and Black literature is not definitive of Street Lit. I'm challenging librarians to want to know more about what literature is, as you've elucidated, and to challenge within Readers Advisory what their own thinking and assumptions are about what the patrons is asking for. Believe it or not, there exists a population of librarians who do not do this.