Thursday, February 24, 2005

Segregation in Literature and in Life

It has been a minute since I last posted on my very on own blog. How pitiful is that? A good friend of mine Monica Jackson who actually turned me on to the whole "blog thing" has been nudging and hounding me to post something.

One thing I 've noticed about some blogs are the rants, the getting wound up and pitching those thoughts out there and the hell with what anyone thinks. That's a good thing. A great thing. It gets the juices and the adrenaline flowing. Most important it gets people thinking and talking... hopefully making some changes if only in a small way.

When I finally took all the nudging I could stand I figured if I was going to rant it needed to be worthy. So I'm going to talk about a very dirty word--SEGREGATION. Ooooh, yes.. the "S" word, the word that society would love to believe has been relegaterd to the sixties, buried forever, America disavowing itself of any connection with .... we've come a long way baby. On some fronts... maybe.

But the front that I want to talk about is the literary front.. the segregation in bookstores, in book placement, in contests, in literary categories... yes, segregation... specifically the segregation of African American books from the rest of the literary world. Why the hell is that?
But even more curious, some of the very people who are being segregated against believe "it's a good thing." Hmmmm.

I've had the opportunity to travel to a great many places in the country doing book tours, speaking engagements etc. (calendar)And one visual that is repeated no matter where I go is "The African American Section." I thought it odd, that an entire race of people and its writers needed to be sectioned off. Why? Were the buyers... who are primarily African Americans going to be unable to find a book if they couldn't find the section? How do readers of other cultures and nationalities find books when they go to a bookstore?? They browse, they ask, they come in with an idea of what they want to read. Are African Americans incapable of those same basic browsing skills? Or is the work by African American so specifically unrelated to the rest of society that there is no need to bring it to the attention of a reading public that is not African American?

And what about African American covers? Do they simply scream I AM A BLACK BOOK HEAR ME ROAR!!! Why? Will African Americans be unable to locate a "black book" if there are not black cartoon characters on the covers or bright colors... and of course so that you don't get sidetracked and wander into the wrong part of the store--they will be in the "AFRICAN AMERICAN INTEREST SECTION."

I suppose what makes this such a glaring insult (at least to me in my little world) is that it is insulting to my intelligence, it is insulting to my sensibilities and it is insulting to the rest of the reading populace.

And what it does to the African American reader (in my opinion) is marginalize them. It promotes tunnel vision, limits or curtails the African American's interest in books written by anyone but themselves. Thus, narrowing their view of a world beyond their own.

Granted, for decades there were no books that talked about black life, glorified black successes, showed blacks in a positive light with good stories to tell. There were no books with characters on the covers that looked like us. And so of course, what black readers have longed for for so long is now available in droves. Unfortunately, the surge in black books for black readers has in many cases made the black reader oblivious to anything else and simply gobbling up any and everything that is black because we have for so long been dying of literary thirst.

So as we robotically march to the black section of the bookstore we don't see anything else, and others in turn--don't see us. This "black literary world" instead of opening doors to give the rest of the world a view of who we are in all our beauty and ugliness has been systematically excluded... simply by being categorized as "NOT FOR YOU IF YOU AIN'T BLACK SECTION."

This is a topic I will revisit. I for one want to go down in the literary history books as a damned good writer, a versatile writer with a great story to tell. Not a "damned good black writer" that someone stumbled upon in the "black section" of the bookstore.

Sigh... that's it for today. Love to hear your thoughts. Is this the reason why whites, hispanics, asians are not interested in black books? or is it something even deeper than placement and packaging???

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have to agree, tucking black books away into a certain section of the store says that this is nothing that would interest anyone else. With AA generally depicted as bafoons on TV, the willing sidekick, the gold-tooth interviewee on the news, and the violent criminal in the paper, the only other way in which to illuminate and enlighten about black life is through our literature. But if no one reads it but us, it's like preaching to the choir.

Wendy said...

Well I'm glad I stumbled on this discussion (yours, Monica Jackson and Holly Lisle). I about killed myself looking for "Killer Chameleon" by Chassie West (the latest in an AA mystery series) when it came out in October. Finally I just gave up at Waldens (I had no clue they favored a separate AA secion!) and just ordered it online from Amazon.

I know, I should have asked the clerk - but it's just as easy to order online. And besides, who doesn't love getting books in the mail?

Oh, and ditto, ditto, ditto and the discussion.

Donna Hill said...

In response to Wendy... what you wrote is a perfect example of my gripe. The work of talented and even the not so talented (*wink*) AA writer is being hidden in many instances from the mass audience

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is what distinguishes "AA literature" from "good books written by people who happen to be black?"

I mean, last I checked Toni Morrison was shelved with general fiction. As, IMO, she should be. Someone with a Nobel Prize is, by definition, mainstream literature. But where are her contemporaries?

Last I checked, Walter Mosley was shelved with general mystery. As he should be, heir of Raymond Chandler that he is. But where are his contemporaries?

Donna Hill said...

In response to what makes a good black book and black literature... your point is well taken. In my humble opinion it is the quality and integrity of the writing, the execution of the story and the use of language and imagery that lifts a book from commercial, everyday fiction to literary. Again.. how does that play out in the world of book placement...how does Mosely and Morrison rate being shelved where they should be and all other (most other black books) shelved in the "ghetto section" (sorry if I offended anyone). I would have to say that on some level these two writers in particular have been accepted and deemed acceptable by white readership. It's "Okay" to read them...even in public. (LOL) Whereas the majority of other black books simply do not or will never ever reach that distinction.

More on this...

Anonymous said...

"I would have to say that on some level these two writers in particular have been accepted and deemed acceptable by white readership. It's "Okay" to read them...even in public. (LOL) Whereas the majority of other black books simply do not or will never ever reach that distinction."

The majority of "white" books don't rise to that literary level, either. It is the nature of ghettoization that merit has very little to do with it.

And so everybody loses. White readers who enjoy Morrison and Mosley and are very open to other writers "like them" (even if those writers happen to be black) are unlikely to find books they might enjoy. The writers themselves lose by being segregated from a potential audience. And the society as a whole loses valuable cultural contributions.

LindaChavis said...

I disagree. I dont want to look through 50-million books to find the authors I want to read. I have trouble seeing as it is. They place Mystery with mystery etc., I see nothing wrong with the books I want in a section. The ONLY problem I have with where they place the AA books is in some stores they also place gay/lesbian books so close that I have found myself looking at them not realizing what they are until I take a very close look. Now that is a problem.

Monica said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Monica said...

I decided to repost my comment to be more diplomatic :-)

Segregation is segregation and a good romance book is a good romance book, no matter the race, background, gender or type of sex the characters practice. Why separate out romances by these characteristics?

Does it take that much effort to find the sort of books and authors one prefers amongst all the others in a particular genre?

Mystery readers seem to manage it just fine--even with their various subgenres, cozies, hard boiled, etc.

Andrea said...

I mostly visit Barnes and Noble and the AA fiction books there are interspersed amongst the general fiction section. The AA Interest section consists of non-fiction or the historical literary works may sometimes be found there but normally not general contemporary fiction. Also, they do have sections for other ethnic groups for the "interests" sections and I find it helpful for those types of books. B Daltons is basically the same setup. Not a separate AA section for fiction. However, I have heard many readers state they prefer to have the AA fiction segregated.........makes it easier for them to find/exposure to new books all in one area. I prefer the setup of Barnes and Noble because I do not strictly buy AA books and I like to browse all. Now, as far as the bookcovers. My preference is a non photographic bookcover. Cannot stand the caricatures. Paintings or pictures of objects are my preference. Also, the sexually explicit covers I can do without also. I have a mind.....allow me to use it based on my perception of the book once I read it.

Dee-Dee said...

Wow Donna that was a good one and I feel where your coming from. As a reader I see both sides of the issue and in the end it doesn't matter to me. What I have found more and more of is that we have a seperate section for our No-fiction and books that fit under African American Studies and the fiction is mixed with everything else.

Those store that have a seperate sections have it due to demand. It made it easier for the store owners and managers that did not have a clue about these authors to direct their customers to one place to find their books.

Either way I see a sale as a sale and in the end everyone profit and I find my books without having to search (I am not a big fan of shopping.)

Anonymous said...

I think it's going to be difficult to change this trend of division until the authors come up with a consensus of what they want. (ie Do they want to be divided or do they want to merge?)

I admit that I haven't sought out books published specifically by AA writers. I also don't purchase Latina romances anymore.

My hesitance comes from preconceived cultural differences, not race. I worry that I won't be able to relate to the characters. (That is what occurred with the last Latina romance I read.) Once bitten, twice shy. I feel the same way about most chick-lit books. I simply can't relate.

VAR said...

This is funny because I went into a bookstore inside the Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles and just laughed to myself about where umm..."our" books were? *smile*

When I walked inside the store, I was greeted by an employee, which was nice. But then the person asked "can I help you find something?" And I'm sorry but I just couldn't resist saying what came to my mind. I said "umm, let me guess... We're somewhere in the back, right?" I didn't get a verbal response but the employee smiled nervously and sure enough, the "African American Interest" section was way in the back next to the pets section and the reference books... lol.. alrighty then!

Donna Hill said...

The comments here have truly got me thinking (sometimes that's a good thing LOL) I do want to piggyback on an earlier comment--and I must applaud the author of the comment for their honesty--when they said "I feel I can't relate." That is so very interesting.
As an African American woman as most AA I was raised in a Eurocentric society. We were weaned and bred on white culture across the board. It never occured to us( until we had choices) that the white books we read were "unrelated" to us. They were simply something to read--good or bad.

African Americans have attended white schools, worked in white businesses, worn white designer clothes the whole gambit. Unfortunately the converse is not the case. Other cultures have not had to accept or deal with black life (if they choose not to). Hence the difference.

So when our work, attitudes, mode of dress, language, etc. is placed in front of those who have not had to deal with us in their lives--it becomes something "exotic" out of their comfort zone.

That is unfortunate. The only way we can learn to understand others is to open ourselves up to possibilites, open the doors to something new.

Is black love different from any other kind of love? Is Hispanic or Asian love different from any other kind of love? Love is love. What makes it different is simply the people who populate the pages...and it offers up another look, another perspective.

Anonymous said...

Part 2

I don't doubt the terminology African-American literature/romance/whatever was used initially as a marketing ploy by publishers who wanted to make blacks aware that they were publishing literature targeted at that audience, NOT as a means of segregation. It worked, and now blacks can read strictly black literature if that's what they want to read.

Those who haven't read an AA Romance are probably going to assume that the books reflect society. If you're black, hey, you're going to probably be totally in your comfort zone. White America, on the other hand, will by and large shy away from it, because "African American Romance" labeling is going to give them the automatic assumption that the books are filled with things White America doesn't "get" (like things mentioned earlier), as well as content that will "segregate" the reader from the character.

A romance reader wants to be able to get into the head of the hero and heroine, and very often while reading, imagines herself as the heroine (regardless of the heroine's eye color or hair color or skin tone). But it would be vastly difficult for the average white reader to feel at ease in the fictional body of a black heroine who made comments about white people, who spoke distinctly "black" English, who referred to themselves as "African American", etc.

Just a side note, it would also be difficult for most white women to celebrate having something referred to as a "booty", as white women tend to wish their asses were smaller and would rather not acknowledge their asses at all :o)

Because "White America" often feels segregated from blacks -by- blacks (examples stated earlier), they may also assume AA Romances will highlight that segregation. Anything that distances a romance reader from being able to relate to the hero and heroine, whether it actually exists or they assume it will exist, is enough to make her shy away from the book.

Any white woman willing to purchase and read an AA Romance more than likely doesn't have a racist bone in her body. By the same token, she is probably not an activist for black causes (any more than she's an activist for "white causes"). But the fear that the book will be about "black issues" might well be enough to turn her away from even trying the book. After all, a romance reader, regardless of their race, reads romance for the relationship story first and foremost. Many readers don't want "issues" of any kind interfering with the romance aspect.

As a junior high schooler, I cut my teeth on those historical books in the 70s that were set on southern plantations, where the heroine would be the white wife of the plantation owner and the hero would be a black slave. Or the hero would be the plantation owner who was different than other plantation owners and the heroine a black slave. I never had a problem with those books, because I could sympathize with the black character's plight, and cheer on the white character who loved or helped them because that character knew that slavery was wrong. For me, these weren't "black issue" books, but books about "human issues".

In our contemporary times, I've read AA Romances that were basically just like any other romance, except that the characters were black and might have had a few cultural difference from me, but nothing that prevented me from feeling as though I could relate to the hero and heroine.

I've also read a few AA authors (not necessarily romance) that made me feel like a total outsider, because no matter how well written, I cannot suspend my disbelief enough to get into the characters and plot. Why? Because in these books there were too many decidedly "black issues" in the books. Issues all people can share, I can deal with. But I have no point of reference that makes it possible for me to feel angst against "whites" just because they are white and someone white somewhere has done something wrong to the main character.

Give me characters to dislike for their actions and personalities, but I don't want to read "evil WHITE man" or "stupid WHITE man" in the description - evil and stupid are fine, and if the bad character happens to be white, that's OK, I get that the character is evil, stupid and white (I wouldn't want to read "stupid BLACK man" or an "evil BLACK man", either).

I guess what I'm trying to say is there are no doubt many white people who don't think they'll be able to relate to characters and situations in an AA themed book simply because it's categorized as an AA book. By being labeled as such, if the white reader feels segregated in real life because of all the distinctions the black community makes between blacks and whites, they will assume the same sort of segregation-type issues are part of the books. They'll assume that the books are categorized as AA, not so much because the characters are black, but because they are about black issues.

So I would recommend to AA authors that they get the publishers to stop labeling the books as AA first. If your book is a romance that a white person can read without being reminded that they are white and without feeling like an outsider, that book should be stocked with the rest of the romances - the black hero and/or heroine on the cover will be enough to let the reader know the characters are AA (just like a Regency has a Regency hero and heroine on its cover that lets the reader know it's a Regency).

Shitty cover? Probably not much you can do about that. White authors' books have shitty cartoonish covers, too.

As a reader, personally, I'd like to see the AA contemporary romance stocked with all the other contemporary romances, because it's a pain to have to go to another area to browse for books.

I'd also like to see the subgenres separated, so that historicals had their own shelves, contemps had their own shelves, romantic suspense had their own shelves, and so on, so I could browse the specific types of books I wanted to read at that moment, rather than having to wade through hundreds of titles to find one or two books.

These are just some thoughts in regard to why the AA romance market is currently somewhat limited to AA readers, and therefore why the booksellers "segregate" the books. As far as the bookseller is concerned, they are trying to help their readers find the books they want to read easily, and setting the AA books in their own section makes it easier for AA readers to find AA books.

Now I expect either everyone will ignore this post or flame me. But these are the conclusions I came to after thinking about Donna's original post.

Anonymous said...

Part 1

I am going to be as honest from my "white" perspective as possible, and as a result, I know someone, somewhere will peg me as a racist.

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I have black friends whom I dearly love, and who I don't personally label as my "black friends" (except when I'm making the point that not all of my friends are "white"). Some of the most important people in my life have been black.

That said, I'm going to offer a view from the white side of the issue, based on what I've heard others say and in some cases, what I've felt myself.

First, I think many whites would assume blacks would want their books segregated from "other books", if for no other reason than the black community intentionally sets itself apart from the rest of us in so very many ways, every day. Whites have come to see it as not an issue of any racism on their part, but perhaps a bit of racism on the part of blacks - that blacks WANT to be segregated from us.

Here are some of the things I've heard white people speak about that create a "divide" between blacks and whites, and probably contribute to the continued "segregation" where books (and other products) are concerned.

Example 1: "African-American". Many whites look at this and think "WTF???". I've never, never referred to myself as anything but an American. My ancestors were from Ireland, Germany, Scotland, Wales, Finland, France, but -I- was born in America. Therefore, I am an American. Never an Irish-American, even though I think Ireland is way cool. And never, ever a Franco-America (would make me sound like a spaghetti-O). The reason I've never referred to myself as anything but a plain and simple American is that -that- is all I am. Unless a black person has a dual citizenship, if they were born here, they are also just plain and simple Americans.

Unless I'm missing something, you don't hear blacks in England calling themselves "African-British" or blacks in France calling themselves "African-French". It seems unique to the America.

By calling themselves "African-American", blacks are automatically putting themselves in a category of their own, while the rest of us shmucks are lumped together as "Americans". We don't mind the latter - guess we just don't understand why you don't want to be there with us, or why being "American" alone isn't enough.

Example 2: Miss Black America beauty pageant. Another "WTF" moment. Blacks are absolutely setting themselves apart from the rest of us here. Blacks are, without question, participating in the all-inclusive "Miss America" pageant. Whites are not permitted to participate in the "Miss Black America" pageant, because they lack the ever important distinction of being black. Whites would be quickly villified and called "racist" if they even considered for one moment organizing a "Miss WHITE America" pageant.

Example 3: Blacks have their own month. Many don't get that, either. Maybe it's because most us wouldn't even be able to comprehend wanting to celebrate our "whiteness". I can honestly say I've never uttered "I'm proud to be white" or "White pride" or "I'm a white American". I've never marched in honor of my whiteness, I've never written about being white or spoken about it.

We should celebrate our individuality, creativity, etc on a daily basis. Celebrating our white skin tone - at least from the perspective of whites I know - would seem very strange.

Example 4: Accent/speak (for lack of a better word, because I'm not sure Ebonics would be correct, either). It seems like more of a black identity thing than anything else, in that blacks from all over America speak with basically the same accent, using the same lingo, rather than adopting the regional accent/slang of the community they live in. Whereas whites, regardless of the accent their own family uses, tend to primarily adopt the accent of the region they live in.

Though many blacks don't speak any differently than whites, for those who do, it sets them apart. For some of us, it's like hearing a foreign tongue. We don't understand the lingo, and sometimes the accent itself is so pronounced, we can't understand some of the non-lingo words, either. And I've heard blacks make fun of other blacks who don't speak the slang or whose accents are the same as their white counterparts in the same region.

This is something that's also difficult for whites to understand. Blacks in other countries, as far as I can tell, don't speak any differently than the whites. This seems to be unique to America.

Example 5: Black racism against blacks. On various message boards and even in articles, I've heard blacks who have condemned other blacks - for no reason except that the blacks in question have de-segregated themselves, so to speak. The first example that comes to mind is that I've really heard blacks make fun of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice - "They're not black! They are white puppets!" (or something like this).

This sort of thing galls me. These are two highly intelligent people, who have worked their butts off to succeed in life. They have accomplished more than most people of any race. They are highly respected in their fields. I don't get what it is some blacks have against them. Is it the way they speak? The way they dress? That they are Republican? That they mingle with white people? That they aren't activists? I would think every black would see these two people as accomplished and respect them for that.

When I - a white person - look at them, I don't think about them being black. I think about what they have done, for themselves and their country. And I confess that I just don't get blacks ragging on other blacks because they are accomplished or have white friends or aren't activists or whatever. If I was black, I'd rather my child had these two people as an example of what a black American can accomplish than some rapper thug.

Don't get me wrong - I totally understand that it's not been that long since blacks were treated as second class legally and socially (though I never remember feeling that way or even any first hand witnessing of this).

I totally understand blacks wanting to get the message out that they are equal in every respect, that they are proud of who they are, and I understand that it has taken a lot of work to get not only whites, but some blacks, to realize this, and for blacks to be accepted as equal.

I know that some whites are still racist. I also have witnessed blacks being racist against whites. Some people are racist against Latinos, Indians, Arabs, or Asians. It's shameful, but racism exists in every culture. But by and large, MOST whites in this country are not racist.

As a society, we've progressed to the point that MOST whites would not even be thinking about the fact that someone is black, except we are reminded constantly - by blacks - that they are different than we are, that they are black.

NOW BACK TO BOOKS AND HOW THIS ALL RELATES in Part 2

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