18 March 2011

Isms and Street Lit

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I participate on a few professional listservs for educators. Every once in a while someone will post a request for Street Lit titles to meet reader demand or programming ideas for Street Lit or they are seeking advice on how to approach the genre in the classroom or library.  

What I've noticed in the past few months is that there seems to be a few "isms" at play in the ways in which some educators perceive Street Lit and its readers. One  librarian posted that she was tired of the "slim pickings" of literature for African American youth as she was trying to locate "non-urban" titles. Another librarian chimed in with a "it's such a shame" kind of response.

I was bothered by this exchange, and disappointed. I then posted to the listserv my response and suggested that the librarian basically do her job and do the research to find the authors and titles she needs for her service community instead of posting thoughtless musings about the state of African American literature. Another librarian posted to try to calm my angst. While the compromise was/is appreciated, it didn't work for me...I duly wrote a full response to articulate why I was feeling annoyed. I'd like to share my full response below. Please post back and let me know what you think.


"I'm not saying there should be a broad spectrum of human experience in African American literature, I am saying that there IS a broad spectrum of human experience in African American literature. Af. Am. literature wasn't born 12 years ago when The Coldest Winter Ever was published. Maybe we aren't asking our students the right questions when it comes to fully understanding what it is they want to read. Perhaps they want to go beyond the problem novel, maybe they want to read horror - there's Af. Am. authors who write that ... or maybe they would be interested in romance novels or science fiction - OR - maybe they want to read a biography or poetry.

I believe we have to be realistic also, and accept the fact that Black people in America ARE an urban people, because Americans are an urban people. As of 2008, 82% of America lives in metropolitan areas. Of the 42 million African Americans, about 60% of us live in cities. The median income for African Americans is about $32K/year. (sources: http://www.census.govhttp://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmcensus1.html).

Now if we take into consideration the publishing industry and what they do and why they do what they do - we understand that - they're going to publish what appeals to the masses. For me, it's not like anyone in the U.S. is writing or publishing any deep, empowering, OMG-esque stuff right now. If you look at the NYT bestsellers list - the fiction list is mostly escapist fluff. And for me, as a librarian, that's all right. The public reads.

Now I know I'm in the minority on this view, but I don't see a "huge discrepancy" in the publishing trends of African American literature, especially since for the past decade, we have been having a boon of African American entrepreneurs running their own, credible publishing firms. And yes, they publish street lit. But they also publish Christian fiction, romance, and other genres. Even the street lit publishers are branching into other things. Also, I think that when we decide to include all African American experience in our readings and in our research to share with the teens we're working with, we'll find a lot of authors and titles which perhaps missed our radar before. I'm taking about Caribbean, Haitian, African, and Latino (yes, Black Latino), and Black Indian works. I'm talking about Black Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, kinds of works. I'm talking about GLBTQ works. I'm talking about those experiences - I'm talking about all of us. 

And lastly, I'd like to share this. I was recently talking to a Street Lit author - one of the biggest authors - and this author also publishes novels with their publisher - in the genre of fantasy. But you'd never know it because the novels are published under a nom de plaume. When I asked the author why they don't use their real name, they said the market shows that neither Whites nor Blacks would want to read someone like this person in this particular genre. Bottom line - even authors have to eat. And this brings up the question also that - for real? for real? Alot of times we dont' know WHO is writing WHAT. So while we are moaning about not enough of this or not enough of that .... those who are trying to give us enough aren't being supported enough in order to keep giving us what we perceive we lack.

And the beat goes on...."


  1. And a mighty beat it is-point well made. I feel that it is necessary for this to be rewritten as often as possible. In other words the fact that not enough support isn't given to those trying to provide the right stuff for street lit awareness needs to be said and written as often as possible-to get the idea across that street lit is here and doing fine.

  2. "When I asked the author why they don't use their real name, they said the market shows that neither Whites nor Blacks would want to read someone like this person in this particular genre."

    That part of the post summarized that blacks pretty much only want to read urban/street lit when it comes to fiction books

    So people shouldn't be surprised when new and current black authors write in that genre since the others don't draw as much interest

  3. I'm always surprised when librarians ask for African-American authors or fiction set within the african-american experience. The shelves have always held such titles from the toddler books of Donald Crews, the picture books of Lucille Clifton, to the children's novels of Walter Dean Myers and Sharon Flake to the genre titles of Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Iceberg Slim, so many others.

    In this hectic world we sometimes forget the benefits of taking a deep breath, pausing, and browsing the shelves, looking for serendipity to strike.

  4. @ Jeff

    Negroes can't "relate" to the books from the authors you named

  5. Wow @The Jackal. Do you really believe that? I work with "Negroes" everyday and they read and relate to many different genres depending on the individual. How people digest and crave "the story" is as different as their experiences and upbringing. And as different as their personal choices in music (not every black person likes HipHop and R&B), movies (I know some people who lust after intense horror and NOTHING ELSE), magazines - from Martha Stewart to PCGamer,and it goes on and on and on...

  6. @ Veronica

    Yes, I do "believe that"...the article just told you how the Urban/Street Lit author have to write under a different name for his fantasy novels.

    And THAT author is considered the "king" of Street Lit...so what does that tell you?

    Urban/Street Fiction dominates the Black Fiction readership...otherwise, authors wouldn't have to use pseudonyms to appeal to other markets...and that's why a great number of Black writers are writing Urban/Street

    ...Just like the seasoned veterans who wrote contemporary novels in the 90s because Urban/Street Lit SELLS!

    That's why 95 percent of books in the AA Fiction section of book stores, and Black owned book stores as a whole, is dominated by Urban/Street Fiction

    It's like what this store owner once told me, "I don't like Street Lit, but I sell it to keep the food on the table"

    The proof is in the pudding...numbers don't lie...

    Popular Fiction will always sell more than Literary Fiction for the most part

    It is what it is

  7. Jackal, you misunderstood what my article was saying due to your ignorance of the breadth and depth of human beings regardless of skin color. Please do not post on my blog again. I will delete anything you post. My blog does not exist to offend nor to be offended. Thank you.


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