The Pigeonholing of African-American Literature

Visit your local bookstore or browse online selections of African-American literature and you'll likely find a plethora of books featuring highly-sexualized images of Black women accompanying titles like Altered Destiny: A Hustler's Choice or Still Wifey Material(pardon me while I throw up). Gone are the days when Barnes & Noble would have an African-American Literature section that featured books by Alice Walker, Walter Mosley, Donald Goines, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and even, I regret to say, Eric Jerome Dickey (blech).

In the featured selections you found a variety in time, perspective, tone, and message. These selections have been replaced by tired, done-to-death novels about hustlin, and love triangles gone wrong. Of the new featured selections, the only variety is in the name of the authors and the pairs of breasts prominently displayed on the book covers.

Five to ten years ago -- before self-publishing became easy enough for a third grader to do -- books like Man Child in the Promised Land, The Bluest Eye, The Color Purple, Black Girl Lost and Invisible Man were prominently displayed. In fact, I was exposed to some of the finest African-American literary works for no reason other than that they were displayed in a bookstore.

If you wanted to find a run of the mill tale about a woman who slept with her best friend's baby daddy, you had to visit a corner in the hood to find it. While I don't necessarily agree that certain books only deserve to be housed on card tables on 125th Street in Harlem, I miss the days of not being disgusted when I come upon the African-American Literature section in bookstores.

Some might argue that I shouldn't concern myself with these books if they don't interest me; I should spend my money on the books that I want to read. But I have much reason to be concerned. Bookstores are featuring these books and making them more readily available because people are buying these books en masse. Black people -- who may very well relate to some of these books -- are likely the main procurers of these books. Other people -- likely White people as history has proven -- are buying these books because they epitomize many of the stereotypes about Black people that far too many Whites are enamored with. So, how does this affect me?

I don't want to be bombarded with subpar writing masquerading as the best of modern contemporary African-American literature; I want to choose from a variety of well-written Black literary works. I want to choose from books that challenge me to write and think better or offer me new perspectives.

I don't want my choices to be limited to books that add no value to my life. I don't want to have to choose between a book about a woman whose baby daddy got locked up for selling drugs and a book about a woman whose baby daddy is cheating on her. I can watch Maury Povich for one hour at no charge to get my fix of hoodtacular drama.

People are obviously buying these books in large numbers. If not, bookstores wouldn't give them prominent display in their stores. So, yeah, this affects me. When I can find infinite selections of inexpensive hood life novels and have to search harder and pay more for thoughtful and well-crafted novels that offer varied perspectives of African-American life, it becomes a personal problem.

I wish Black people would get a clue. I know we're not the only people buying these books, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that we're the majority procurers. I'm not against the existence of these books. I don't like them, but I understand why a market for these books exists. What I am against, however, is how we continue to pigeonhole ourselves.

We use our currency to make a statement about what we value. If we're spending our money on uni-faceted depictions of ourselves we'll create a climate in which writers who want to offer us varied perspectives, present us with new opportunities and challenge us to higher thinking will be met with obstacles that early Black writers made strides to overcome.

Variety is the issue here. I suppose, begrudgingly, that the story of the ride or die woman who will get on the stroll for her man should be told. But that tale needs to be countered. And perhaps, some might argue, that a place needs to exist for writers who have had no formal training or invested much time refining their craft; perhaps people who merely want to tell a story deserve to be read too. But mediocre and unrefined stories that keep being repeated need to be countered with well-thought, polished, reflective and challenging stories. The only way we can ensure the latter is to invest in those kinds of works and to encourage others to do the same. I hope this is not merely wishful thinking.

Note: I want to extend a special 'Thank You' to Alexandra (@youngfabmama) for engaging me in a conversation that sparked me to write to this post.

Kay Renee resides in Boston, Mass. She is currently pursuing her Master's Degree in Liberal Arts (concentrating in Anthropology). She is heavily guided by her multi-cultural background and she has a passion for immersing herself in various cultures. She is passionate about a number of social issues, particularly those concerning cultural, racial and gender equality while enjoying sports, social commentary and popular culture. She can be contacted via her website:

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