Back then, I loved heading to my local Borders (R.I.P.) and perusing the African-American lit section, losing myself in the towering shelves of books from Bebe Moore Campbell, Martha Southgate, Collin Channer, E. Lynn Harris, asha bandele, Bernice McFadden, Shay Youngblood, Benilde Little, and countless others.
Their tales spoke to me. They were filled with complex, upwardly mobile black characters who fell in love with abandon, went hard at their jobs, and knew when to relax with their girls. And there was always drama. Not the ignorant, I’m-going-to-beat-you-down drama of reality TV or street lit books, but the riveting, I-wonder-what-will-happen-next kind that would leave me turning pages late into the night.
I miss those days. I miss slipping in between the folds of a tome and being instantly transported into a world so unlike my own that I couldn’t help but keep reading. But these days, that feeling is fleeting, at least for me. With the exception of a few writers (Tayari Jones, Ernesta Carter, Lorna Goodison, Aliya S. King, and a few others), I’ve yet to recapture that feeling again.
I recently posed this question on Twitter and Facebook, and many chimed in saying they miss those days as well. One industry insider told me the demise of contemporary black literature was due to a lack of demand and publishing houses eager to jump on what was selling: street lit.
I’d like to think there are many others out there, like me, who still long for these types of books, but perhaps it makes sense.
Just like great black movies and quality shows have virtually disappeared from the mainstream and been replaced by trashy reality shows, well-written books by up-and-coming authors have seemed to dry up as well.
So what’s next? Are we doomed to wade through a sea of street lit titles until something of substance comes along every few years, or should we be looking for (or cultivating) the next crop of black authors?
As a writer, I’m torn. I love to read other people’s words, but it might take more of us taking Toni Morrison’s advice (to write the books we want to read) and mixing it with a little inspiration from our girl Issa Rae (to put things out on our own) if we’re going to continue the legacy of great black fiction.