As a child, bookstores were the equivalent of candy stores, filled with all sorts of sweet reading delights and imagination catalysts. I’d walk into a Barnes & Noble, and proceed to run to the children’s section for the latest book of the Addy series American Girl or black history feature of Dear America. I longed for the stories of young black girls to reaffirm my beauty, thoughts, and young reflections on the reality of living in a predominately white neighborhood, attending white schools, and thus, primarily learning from white literature.
While I appreciate authors and characters of diverse backgrounds, I’ve always had a deep affection for blackness in between the pages of a good story. In middle school, I found myself obsessed with street lit’ as a looking glass beyond my suburban town. Just to name a few, I devoured The Coldest Winter Ever, True to the Game, Bad Girlz, and B More Careful as great stories that read like action-packed movies. In high school, I moved on to the likes of Eric Jerome Dickey, Pearl Cleage, and Omar Tyree to get my literary adventure fix.
At times, I felt rather frustrated because it felt impossible to find more authors like the ones mentioned above unless there was an “African-American” section of the bookstore. If not, I’d find myself browsing hundreds of titles for that one black story on a shelf of eighty books, inadvertently forcing author loyalty as it was too difficult to find new great black reads. Part of it was laziness, but another part was my desire to feel surrounded by literature that represented the various facets of black culture. I didn’t want to dig for the next Sapphire. I wanted to see her right there next to other black literary greats.
As I’ve grown older, become a professional writer, and long for a career as a bestselling author, I find myself rethinking the “convenience” of the African-American section and questioning why black literature can’t be visible in other ways. While numerous black authors have complained of being pigeonholed to the African-American section, the alternative is a buried shelf life, as black literature rarely gets displayed on bookstore tables. Unless you’re Pulitzer Prize-winning Toni Morrison or National Medal of Arts awardee Maya Angelou, the mainstream promotion black literary faces is few and far in between.
On a recent trip to Harlem, I found myself in the legendary black bookstore, Hue-Man, contemplating why black literary greatness was confined to black niches. It was there that I saw black authors on the front table as I walked into the store. It was there that I read a long schedule of black authors invited to speak about their literary creations. It was there that I had my beauty, thoughts, and reflections reaffirmed in the same way that I sought as a child. While I honor the relevancy of black bookstores, I wish that black literature and authors had more than niche racial options for marketing and product visibility. Why not diversify mainstream front store literature to reflect the multicultural reality of this country? More than black readers ought to be reading black literature.
As publishing houses cut budgets, bookstores go bankrupt, and authors face the challenges of the 21st digital century, how can black literature take its rightful, visible place beyond the African-American section and black bookstores?
Black literature isn’t just for black people. Our stories represent universal values.