29 June 2010

"Urban" is not the new "black"

Note: The pic to the right is the first image that comes up when you enter "urban" on Google Images.....

So I was on this author/librarian panel recently to discuss “urban fiction” aka “street lit.” And what I found fascinating was the first question asked of the panel – how do you define “urban fiction”? Those who offered their definition each had a different take on the question, and this set the stage for various uses and understandings of the term “urban fiction” throughout the panel discussion. This in turn, imho, played out what I believe to be at the crux of the confusion, debate and controversy surrounding this literary genre that we call “urban fiction,” “hip hop fiction,” “ghetto lit,” or “street lit” – the issue of what we call it, based on what it is. Even authors who write in the genre call it different things, but the terms that I see street lit authors use the most are “street lit” and “hip hop fiction.” This is understandable because the literature they write is a direct response to, and outcome of, the Hip Hop movement, which came from where? the streets. I’ve written about this point in past writings that are posted on my website, http://www.vanirvinmorris.com.

Okay, so I’m thinking about this whole “urban fiction” label, and whereas, I too, used to use this term to define the street lit genre, I now find this term problematic for a couple of reasons:

“Urban” is not the new “black”. I’m seeing that authors, librarians, and teachers alike find it easy to conflate “urban” with “black people” and/or “people of color.” Now what is interesting about this is that I’m listening to people talk, and they’re not saying “black people in city settings” or “people of color in city settings.” No. They are saying urban = black people; urban = people of color. This is flat out – incorrect and insensitive. To see “urban fiction” as a genre that describes just black peoples’ experiences overall, once again, marginalizes black people/people of color to a monolithic identity that is truthfully? Offensive in 2010. I’m not going to flesh out in this blog post the obviousness of the plurality of everyone’s experiences … that people of all hues live in all places and live all kinds of lives. What I will point out is that to equate whole populations of people to one location, setting, and therefore experience is just well, ignorant. Ignorant as in “not knowing,” “lacking knowledge,” “mis-educated.” Ignorant in terms of the dictionary-use of the word “ignorant.” I think it’s important to think about this also: not all black people/people of color in urban settings are low-income or working poor. The reverse is true also: not all whites in urban settings are high-income or wealthy. Case in point, Sister Souljah’s latest novel, Midnight: A Gangster Love Story (2008) illustrates the rich diversity of city/urban dwellers very well. In Street Lit, I’ve read stories that depicted all kinds of ethnic locations: Latino, Caribbean, African, Asian, European, etc.

Everyone is in the city, and by extension (not inclusion), yes, everyone, meaning diverse peoples from all kinds of backgrounds, traditions, identities, and locations, lives in the hood. To cite my own experience growing up in Camden, NJ, my neighborhood included Jews, Italians, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, and Blacks. My neighborhood today, in the Germantown section of Northwest Philly, consists of Blacks, Germans (it’s hard to understand Ms. Edith with her accent sometimes), Jewish, Irish, and Jamaican, who are also a hodge-podge of straight, gay, educated, under-educated, old, young, etc. The woman who runs the bodega down the hill is a Philly born and raised white woman, Miss Audrey, who is NO JOKE. Now that I think about it, I have yet to go to any neighborhood in any American city I’ve visited and/or lived and witness just one group of people living there, whether that neighborhood was high income, middle income, or low income. I’m not saying such neighborhoods don’t exist, I’m saying that by and large, that all neighborhoods express cultural diversity by default, because human beings are diverse, by default.

2) Call it what it is. Another reason I find the term “urban fiction” problematic is because what I’m picking up is that people use this term in order to NOT use terms like “street lit” or “ghetto lit” or “hip hop lit.” Yesterday, I heard someone call it “pop lit.” I was like – “Wow.”

Bottom line: The genre is about street living, street survival, reality-based stories about the streets. Yet, even though this is what the genre talks about, it seems like no one wants to talk about the streets. It’s as if we are ashamed, or scared, or intimidated to discuss, I mean to really discuss, the streets. However, this lack of discussion misses a very important and large point – that it is the power of the streets that is the central backdrop and impetus for the genre, whether we want to call it what it is or not.

I believe another reason we don’t want to call this genre what this genre is – “Street Literature” – is because we equate “black” and “people of color” with the streets, and we perceive the streets as chaotic, unpredictable, dark, big, powerful, unknown, unseen, dangerous, and scary. So because we view the streets in this way, it would give way too much power to describe the genre, as “Street Literature” and thereby, signify the very people the genre illustrates with this kind of power. We don’t want to think about inner-city residents as big, powerful, and unpredictable. Actually, truth be told, we don’t want to think about inner-city residents much at all. We’d have to see inner-city people as human beings, experiencing a full range of everything that goes with everyday living, and well, that’s just scary to our middle class and safety-focused sensibilities. It fucks with our fears that people from the hood have intelligence and morals and living standards– thus, they might wind up what-what? Moving in next door. We don’t want to think about what is unknown and unseen, even when such mystery is revealing itself right in front of our face (or school, or library, for that matter). The current iteration of this genre has been shouting for over a decade now, and we still, in our very identification of it, seek to silence it, to ignore it, to disrespect it, to push it under the proverbial rug, to try to deny what it is.

Here’s my thing: What’s wrong with the street? What’s wrong with there being literature about the streets? Every community is beholden to the streets – every community.

So, I’ve been doing some new reading and research on the term “street literature” also. In yesteryear, as recently as a century ago, street literature came in the forms of “broadsides” (i.e. large poster-sized publications that told the news of the streets) and "chapbooks" (i.e. small self-published pages). These publications were multi-formatted too – with poems, ballads, political announcements, social commentary, advertisements and community gossip lines (ancestral “tweets”) that were written in the colloquial language of the masses, “more versatile than printed books, with best-sellers, and classics of fiction and non-fiction” (Shepard, 1973, p. 19). Broadsides and chapbooks were how social and political commentary was passed to everyday people. Authors would walk the streets promoting their publications, selling it for a small fee (sound familiar?). Street literature was how everyday people got their read on in language and formats they understood and prices they could afford (sound familiar?). Street literature was how everyday people created and documented living history (Shepard, 1973). I contend that today's street literature is doing the same thing. And like street literature of yesteryear, today's Street Lit's shout is a form of protest.

My last word on today’s soapbox.
Urban is not the new black. Urban is not synonymous with black people or people of color or non-white people or poor people or hip hop people, or whatever other kind of people you want to ascribe the term to ( just ask the marketing team at Urban Outfitters - I bet they’d heartily agree). “Urban” is a geographic-location specific term, synonymous with the term “city.” I didn’t make this up – you can consult Webster, Wikipedia, or the OED on this matter. Better yet, I’d go with the US Census Bureau’s definition, at: http://bit.ly/b5bJ1R, because they are in the business of counting people. So when we are talking about “urban fiction,” we can talk about K’wan alongside James Patterson; we can talk about Nikki Turner alongside Lisa Scottoline; we can talk about Kimani Tru alongside Gossip Girls (although we might not really want to – I know). And then when we get that understanding down pat, then maybe we can talk about Wall Street, and Main Street, or maybe just swap stories about the street where we live. After all, that’s what street lit does, it chronicles where and how we live truthfully, unashamedly, uncompromisingly, unapologetically. It is what it is – even its rightful name.

Thank you for listening. My next blog will be about why I no longer believe that Street Lit is a sub-genre of African American literature.

Shepard, L. (1973). The History of Street Literature: The Story of Broadside Ballads, Chapbooks, Proclamations, News-Sheets, Election Bills, Tracts, Pamphlets, Cocks, Catchpennies, and other Ephemera. Detroit, MI: Singing Tree Press.


  1. How true. This "urban is the new black" thing annoys me to no end.

    I find this "urban=black" is another form of dehumanizing whole groups of people by taking away their differences and personal histories and making everyone the same.

    Real humans have individual personalities, favorite flavors and movies stars that don't like.

  2. Yes, I am in total agreement with what your argument about "urban isn't the new black". As a previous teacher, I recall that the term urban and rural was apart of my 3rd and 4th grade social studies unit. Not once did I, my texts or the Phila School District define urban as "the new black".Urban was def

    Once again the minds to be find it necessary to make urban synonousmous with Blacks or Afro-Americans. Their perception, not sense tells them so. I am an Afro-American or Black as some prefer who presently live in the fifth whitest city in America, Scottsdale AZ-some parts resemble urban areas. In the past , I've resided in neighborhoods such as Thorndale, PA, Malvern, PA, Phila PA, Mt. Laurel NJ.- urban and rural areas. In these neighborhoods , there have alwyas been diverse groups of citizens of many ethnic groups with positive and negative attributes in my neighborhoods- I might have purposely planned it that way, who knows. Urban means to me metropolitan cities not a description of a group of people.

  3. I am baffled as to how easily African Americans are "labeled" and "categorized." What really confuses me is how quickly we subscribe and take up those labels. It's like we embrace any and everything that defines us in mainstream culture. But when we define our ownselves (as in street lit) - we all of a sudden become "critical thinkers" and judge and denigrate. I just don't get it.


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