Black writers in a ghetto of the publishing industry's making

By Bernice L. McFadden
Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help," published by a Penguin Books imprint, sold 1 million books within a year of publication. Her novel has gained accolades and awards, including the prestigious South African Boeke Prize. "The Help" is being adapted for the screen; at the helm of production is the Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg.

Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel "The Secret Life of Bees," also published by Penguin Books, is another story set in the South with African American characters. Kidd's novel garnered similar fame, fortune and recognition.

Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd are living the dream of thousands of authors, myself included. But they are not the first white women to pen stories of the black American South and be lauded for their efforts. In 1928, Julia Peterkin wrote a novel, "Scarlet Sister Mary," for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Stockett's and Kidd's novels tackle racism and celebrate the power of friendship and acceptance. Both novels were given beautiful covers that did not reveal the race of the characters. Both books were marketed to black and white audiences.

My debut novel, "Sugar," was also published by a Penguin imprint. Set in the 1950s South, the story line deals with racism and celebrates the power of friendship and acceptance. The original cover depicted a beautiful black woman standing behind a screen door. "Sugar" was marketed solely to African American readers. This type of marginalization has come to be known among African American writers as "seg-book-gation." This practice is not only demeaning but also financially crippling. When I looked into why works by African American writers were packaged and marketed so differently than those by their white counterparts, I did not have to search far for my answer.

Literature about the oppressed written by the oppressor has a long tradition. The trend can be traced all the way to colonialism -- a movement that was not only physical but textual, the evidence of which can be found in the diaries, letters and journals of colonists, settlers and plantation slave owners.

Representation of African Americans by white people in texts records a history of "inferiority." Based on these perceptions, African Americans have endured slavery, genocide, medical apartheid and segregation.

This "inferiority" is a tool fundamental to ethnic distancing in society. Today, this tool is used with great precision in the mainstream publishing industry. While, yes, the distancing may not be total -- meaning a few select African American authors have "crossed over" into the mainstream -- the work of many African Americans authors, myself included, has been lumped into one heap known as "African American literature." This suggests that our literature is singular and anomalous, not universal. It is as if we American authors who happen to be of African descent are not a people but a genre much like mystery, romance or thriller.

Walk through your local chain bookstore and you will not see sections tagged British Literature, White American Literature, Korean Literature, Pakistani Literature and so on. None of these ethnicities are singled out or objectified the way African American writers are.

And while, yes, a vast majority of all writers, regardless of skin color, are struggling to stay afloat, and there are more African American writers being published today than at any other time in history, one must still take note of exactly what is being published.

Mainstream publishing houses contort themselves to acquire books that glorify wanton sex, drugs and crime. This fiction, known as street-lit or hip-hop fiction, most often reinforces the stereotypical trademarks African Americans have fought hard to overcome. And while we are all the descendants of those great literary pioneers who first gave a voice to the African American experience, and one certainly could not exist without the other, somewhere down the line the balance was thrown off and the scales tipped in favor of a genre that glorifies street life and denigrates a cultural institution that took hundreds of years to construct.

This year is arguably the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. It is also the 50th anniversary of the death of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most iconic figures of the Renaissance. In 1950 Hurston addressed this very problem in her essay "What White Publishers Won't Print," which was published in the Negro Digest.

"For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear, and which ever expresses itself in dislike."

Her words still ring true.

Bernice L. McFadden is the author of seven novels. Her most recent book, "Glorious," was published in May.

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