My Greatest Fear: The BLACK Box for Bestselling Authors

by Erica Buddington

black computer

I’m not a black artist, I’m an artist — Jean Michel Basquiat

After coming to terms with the “African-American Interest” section of Barnes and Noble, different variations of this quote haunted me. I found its remnants in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Skip Gates’ Signifying Monkey. I heard it echo whilst guidance counselors and English teachers lent me books, by authors they thought I’d one day aspire to be. I strolled the fiction section of the bookstore witnessing no partitioning of the genre, but “our” section. My biggest fear leaped from our isolated table, a lineage of contradictions aligned with one another, Toni next to Zane and “True to The Game” on top of T.D. Jakes:

What if they put me here?

What if I’m thrown into confinement, a crossover hand to never touch my pages? What if I’m Caribbean-American? What if I write about the war in Iraq? What if I become lost under an abundance of typo-ridden, half edited, urban novellas?

I was excited at first, when I realized that the section was gone, one day. My feet quickly made their way to the M’s of the fiction, eyes beckoning “Sula.” It wasn’t there, so I walked to the counter to inquire.

Inquiry: Hi! Can you tell me where I can find … ?

Response: Oh. We had to put all of your books behind the counter. You guys keep stealing them.

After I laid a NYC tongue lashing on her ass, I strolled downtown Brooklyn in a stupor. Something shameful cast over me, temporarily. (Let’s put the racism on hold, that’s for an entirely different post.) I was angry; because the cashier couldn’t tell the difference between the trashy urban lit, that the teenagers were slipping into their bags, when no one was looking, and one of the most revered authors of our time. I was hurt, because there was this division waiting for me to be hurled into. I would be punished, because I’d chosen to write about the brown skin I loved and the moments that petrified me. As an African-American writer, it would only be seen through that lens. There would be no correlation to the hurt we all feel when we’ve lost a loved one or a connection to the fragment we all sometimes become. Through their lens it would read as a black loved one or black fragment.  Well, when it came to publishers.

I fell into a coma of sorts, writing only for me. I cast the inklings of the book, I was working on, into a drawer and filled my personal journal instead.

One day, while taking the shelves in, I spied one of us …

Intermingled with the “feature” books was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (Well he’s Hispanic, but that’s close enough.) I devoured the manuscript morsel by morsel, only stalling for bathroom breaks and consumption of real sustenance. I was enthralled; Diaz was equipped with an infrequent equilibrium. He was a street smart intellectual, placing profanity parallel to footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic; there was no box for him, he could not be pigeonholed.

I discovered other authors like this, a sub-culture of Afro-Nerd literature. (My mentor dubs the lineage.)

Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle, Tayari Jones, etc …

Here were authors who ignored confinement. Through their words it seemed as if they were fearless and unheeding to the destiny usually slated for us. They spoke of the post-apocalypse, science fiction, and the dysfunction of the modern family through beguiling prose.

Well, hello there …

I was inspired. My inkling of a novel jumped out from its hiding place and I begun to write, like crazy. I spent hours pining over background and meticulous description …

The theme must be prevalent.

Gentrification, Afro-Caribbean, our demise and rise…  

All your characters must have meaning.

Melinda was lost without him; she trembled with a fear insurmountable to the earthquake that shook their home two summers ago.

Oh! Oh! Don’t forget metaphor.

I drove myself crazy. I didn’t realize how harmful this was until I looked up and realized that I didn’t enjoy writing anymore. I let the fear of the “black box” consume me. It was the final thing I had to conquer …

After worrying about my parents’ raised eyebrows …

After simmering love stories, so lovers wouldn’t think I’d experienced the instance …

After keeping characters neutral, so that they wouldn’t be recognized in reality …

After a fit of panic and an email to my mentor, I was put at ease. He was the only writer, I knew, unafraid of the masses’ opinion of his work.

His words w/ a few disturbances, in parentheses, from me:

“As far as what constitutes literature, that part is subjective… 

We all want to be… (Insert the names of the authors you idolize here). I feel you on that, and I respect you so much for aiming there. But I’ll let you in on a secret: they probably harbor strong insecurities about their own works and are elated beyond relief that critics tend to like what they do…

This is a new year and a new opportunity, and I have no doubts you will finish your book and be happy for your literary, yes literary, contribution.”

He’s right.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” –Marianne Williamson

I can’t let the secluded arena that big name publishers have built for us, define me. I can’t allow it to diminish something I’ve worked almost a decade to create.

Inadequacy is a myth and I’m all about debunking.

What’s your greatest fear?

  • Apple

    Well my greatest fear is hell but that’s on another astral plane . But umm if you want to afford the black box some authors make ambiguous covers to make it the mainstream shelves . There is this one black sci fi author who does it but I can’t remember a name, I heard someone say on the comment section of Clutch long ago

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    Sounds like we need more Black owned book stores.

  • http://creativegirlinacorporateworld.wordpress.com Esta Fiesta

    I think a lot of us fear the “Black box” – I know I do!
    PS. I can’t WAIT for the entirely different post regarding the racist comment!

  • Ask_ME

    That won’t help. What this writer is complaining about goes much deeper than just bookstores.

    Her issue comes down to the marginalization of black literary authors. Once upon a time the black literary author was revered both inside and outside the black community. Now he/she is lucky if their book gets any attention at all.

    The black masses don’t read black literary fiction and the white masses won’t touch it if it’s in the black section of the bookstore. The only exception to this rule appears to be Toni Morrison, whose audience is mostly white. However, if Toni Morrison was a new author (instead of one that’s been around for decades) it’s very likely that her books wouldn’t get any attention at all.

    It’s not just a matter of being placed on the same shelves as Terri Wood and company by whites, it’s also the fear being completely ignored by blacks, who overwhelming tend to favor Terri Woods and company.

    Black people love books like The Coldest Winter Ever, but many will not pick up The Bluest Eye unless it’s required reading for school.

    The black literary author is FORCED to depend on non-black readers in order to get some recognition because the black masses today favor urban degradation over all others.

    Getting stuck on the shelf between the latest Sister Souljah book and the latest Terri Woods book doesn’t help literary authors. Therefore, it wouldn’t matter if there were more black bookstores. Again, black people collectively don’t read literary fiction and white people don’t visit black bookstores/black book shelves. Thus, black literary authors find themselves marginalized.

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    “Again, black people collectively don’t read literary fiction…”

    And where are your stats to back that up?

    I get your point but, I disagree. Obviously your definition of a Black owned bookstore is one that only sells books written by Black writers and only caters to Black people. That’s not mine.

    A Black owned bookstore can solve this problem since the owner may be more aware of how Black books are relegated to certain places in White owned bookstores.And then makes an effort not to do that.

  • Ask_ME

    @Val

    Seriously??? Go ask Toni Morrison who is buying and reading her books. Go ask her who are the main supporters of her work. I guarantee she won’t say black people. You don’t need a stat to recognize the obvious. If black people read literary fiction HALF as much as URBAN fiction, this author wouldn’t complain about being in the black section of the bookstore.

    And it’s not just books. Black people do not support the arts (I mean the REAL arts…not Tyler Perry).

    Every black owned bookstore I have ever encountered has been in the heart of a black community and often times they ONLY sells black books. I have never seen a black Barnes and Noble. Never.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    i am not an artist, i am a BLACK artist.

    (that is why i’m broke)

  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com Val

    I need facts. You keep making these declarations about what Black people do and do not do but, where are the facts?

    People are constantly making false accusations about what Black people do using only anecdotal evidence.

    And if that’s the case, you are using anecdotal evidence, then that only makes me wonder what kind of Black people you know. Because the ones I know support the arts and read incessantly.

    And, how exactly would you know if a bookstore was Black owned if it catered to the general market?

  • http://roslynhardyholcomb.com Roslyn Hardy Holcomb

    I’m not a literary author, I write romance, and I must say that ebooks have saved my sanity. The way all books by black authors are thrown together into one indecipherable mess makes it impossible to find anything. With ebooks books are categorized by genre, not the author’s race. (I can’t believe I actually had to write that!) With self publishing it’s even better because I categorize my books as I see fit. As I understand it, some literary authors are disdainful of ebooks and I’m not sure why. As far as I’m concerned bookstores and their racist Jim Crow sections are as about as relevant to me as a white’s only fountain. Within the next decade they will no longer exist and I say good riddance to bad rubbish.

  • au napptural

    Ok, wow! That was my biggest fear too. I used to comfort myself with the notion that Toni Morrison and Alice Walker found recognition in times far more literature-ly segregated. But I think that’s because even though those books are genius they work on a stereotypical level. The people do have lots of gratituous sex, violence is a way of life, and whole, normal families are an anathema. But whaetever the reason those books are so lauded, they have been read.

    Then I think about Octavia Butler. There’s someone who wrote her truth and was recognized in a field black people hadn’t been really acknowledged in. And I think about Maya Angelou and her perennial bestsellers. And Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and August Wilson and Alice Childress and Terry McMillan and Tayari Jones (I just finished Silver Sparrow, wooooo). These people have all written inconvenient truths that could be considered niche work. Yet they’ve received critical acclaim. I think the secret is not looking for the acclaim or attention. Write your truth. Think about it- would you rather write “A Hood Wife’s Tale” and make millions or write the next “Sula”?

    On a seperate note, I think there should be a letter writing campaign to Books-A-Million. When I was young the black section was actually good, filled with classics I couldn’t wait to read. No it’s a bunch of garbage, which might make sense if it were popular garbage but I’ve never heard of half these books! I almosty never see a Pearl Cleage, Danielle Evans, a Valdez, etc. I had to search online to find any decent new black fiction. Ok, the new Zane book has a right to be there, but all these made up names (Kandi, etc.)need to be in the back or a special interest table. I don’t see “Twilight ” in their classics section. Right now, it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. They give us these crap books (the publishers and the bookstores) then go “serious black fiction doesn’t sell” so they can white wash our stuff. Grrr. Don’t give up though.

  • Ask_ME

    @Val

    Keep denying the reality slapping you in the face. I will not continue to argue with you and the false reality you tend to support in MANY of your comments.

    I know people that read literary fiction too. These people tend to be among the educated class, which is a SMALL group of black people (and yes, you can Google that stat…only an estimated 17-19% of black people have a B.A. or a B.S.).

    However, I’m not in denial about WHAT the masses of black people out here are reading….it is NOT literary fiction.

    I don’t think black authors are in denial about it either. Omar Tyree went on a rant about this very subject years ago. Poor thing found himself boxed in by readers who only wanted to read Flyy Girl 2.0. and bookstores that wouldn’t accept the title of what was supposed to be a literary fiction novel.

    Black owned bookstores are just like other black businesses. They are usually in communities or areas NOT visited by non-blacks.

    They are operated by black people and the owner can usually be found working in the store.

    They usually sell ONLY black books…many by self-published authors. It’s very unusual to see diversity on their shelves. In fact, their shelves are usually lined with URBAN books. They don’t look anything like Barnes and Noble. Their patrons are almost SOLELY BLACK.

    And like I said it’s not just black literary authors who often have to seek support OUTSIDE the black community. It’s black painters, opera singers, classical musicians, playwrights etc. Just the other day I watched a documentary about a gifted black artist that paints pictures on leather. Even in that video he said MOST of his support comes from whites. His name is Winfred Rembert…

    http://www.allmethemovie.com/

  • Tallulah Belle

    Maybe this is a crazy question, so pardon my ignorance. However: How do publishers or bookstores know if an author is black?

  • Dee

    Black books and black movies are both usually shunned by white people. It’s like they see no way to relate to us, like we don’t have emotions as well, but flip it around and we can’t escape it. White people on every channel being forced to read their books for school.

  • http://roslynhardyholcomb.com Roslyn Hardy Holcomb

    The assumption is that if the characters are black the author is black, of course, that is not always true. At least one black author got sued by her publisher forrefusing to write black characters. And, of course, in this day of social media it’s very easy to determine someone’s race.

  • AM

    awww!

    Question. Do you feel if you were white people would appreciate your work more?

  • Belle

    @Val

    I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have “statistics” to back up some of what Ask_Me is saying. But overall this person is correct. In MASS Black people don’t support the arts or literary works. How do I know? Because as a person in the arts community I only see a spattering of us, if any at all! Of course, this is going to be based on region. You’ll find more Black people who support the arts that are from areas who support artists in general. This is not to say that you won’t find a large group of Black people somewhere that do. As a student who has been in art programs and attended art schools, I can say you barely saw us around. The majority were usually obtaining some other degree. To say, “Because the ones I know support the arts and read incessantly,” really isn’t saying anything at all. How many are the ones you know? Is it 10? 20? 100? I doubt you know them all. All of the Black people I know support the arts and read literary works (both Black and White works)…but that’s because I surround myself around a specific group of people. However, IN MASS, when I leave my group of friends and acquaintances, most have no idea what I’m talking about. The next thing I know I am being called “bougie” in lieu of bourgeois because of my interests. It seems to me like you just want an argument with this persons point of view.

  • Blackgirlmd

    Interesting. I would say to play up your Carribbean background, that might help you.

    I think it’s good to be aware of obstacles that you might face, and just keep going. Do your best, keep writing, pray about it. It’ll work out.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    i am a fine art photographer. it is a field dominated by whites. black people do NOT value 2D art. too cerebral i guess. black people do not seem to realize the POWER of IMAGES. we need to control our own images.

    since i have a black sensibility, i get rejected everywhere even though i am MUCH BETTER than the white guys.
    i make a conscious choice to stay black.

    i will die broke and unsung.

    if i were a white guy with my talent i would be hailed as the second coming.

  • Cocochanel31

    I will say that THE HELP surprisingly enough was written by a white woman whose family had hired help for years. I guess it’s no shocker since the blacks were saved from themselves by the white hero in the book.
    Just fyi

  • Tallulah Belle

    So is it the “Black Perspective” and the accompanying experience that is shunned by agents, publishers and audiences? Or is it the actual black authors, the people themselves? Couldn’t one just use a pseudonym like J.K. Rowling? I write under a pseudonym.

  • http://roslynhardyholcomb.com roslynholcomb

    I can only speak for the genre I write in, which is romance, the assumption is white readers have no interest in reading about black people. Witness the brouhaha when it was discovered that a major character in The Hunger Games is black. If you’re talking about using a pseudonym to write nonblack characters, I’m sure that will be fine. If you write black characters you’ll be ghettoized.

  • aniya m.

    You shouldn’t HAVE to write under a pseudonym. Why can’t you expect exellence from being just whom you are?

  • Ask_ME

    @Belle

    Thank you! My best-friend is an artist…I see the people visiting her shows and 99.9% of those are not black.

  • me

    I agree with SMH and I would just like to add: the US is still very segregated. Schools are segregated almost back to the pre-civil rights level and so is academic achievement within the black community. I’m sure we all know that the certain populations due to stereotype threat and just lack of resources don’t have the same opportunities to become “educated.” I never saw any book stores opening up in the ‘hood’ and the libraries there, if you just check the hours in certain neighborhoods, certainly aren’t open long enough after school or on the weekends to give people the opportunity to explore the many authors on top of the fact that such literary books would never be found there (because those poor inner city kids don’t read good books of course). I think it would be a logical conclusion that most of Toni Morrison’s readership is white. When people do sell the books in these areas, it’s never really award winning literary novels either. Maybe instead of complaining, advocating the inclusion of authors of color in the curriculum of schools in addition to authors like Mark Twain and books like the Iliad would be a worthy goal to at least introduce children to black authors in wealthier and poorer schools.

    Lastly, I would like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data. What you see in one part of the country isn’t true for everywhere. My experience is based on the NYC library system and bookstores so I can’t speak for every part of the country, but nationally, the black population of the US still has a long way to go before having equal footing (on average) to the majority population so that could be an explanation for why faces of color are lacking in the arts sector. (They are few in many other fields as well.)

  • me

    Junot Diaz’ books will never be relegated to a section for ethnic authors because the dude is an MIT professor. In no world will a professor at a top 10 university be put into the category of trashy urban literature simply due to misconceptions about the book’s content because of the author’s race. Maybe being known for something else helps if you are a new author?

  • http://cupofjo-jo.blogspot.com bk chick

    wait, this happened to you at the B&N downtown? I used to liive in that store lol…and the AA section always got under my skin for all the reasons you listed. But I’m mad the lady at the info desk said that….smh.

  • Starla

    Irrespective of who the primary audience is, books should not be categorized by the race of the author, but by the subject matter. So romance titles have their own section, autobiographies, history, true crime etc. It is a vile practice to have a “black section”; this is art, creativity has nothing to do with race. Even the trashy urban novels can go into the erotica, or contemporary titles section. Nobody wants to be zoned, especially when it affects your income and your work reaching the larger market.

  • Barbara

    @ Ask-Me
    I too watched the documentary of Winfred Rembert. His art is brilliant. The life he lived in the segregated South was astounding!! He lived 40 miles from my home town.

    He wants more Black people to support his art; and I wish Clutch would at least direct people to the doucumentary at PBS.

  • apple

    hey i like photography.. i like to take photos too :-) (mostly of buildlings and objects thats how disconnected from people i am) whats your site james

  • http://brianaatkins.tumblr.com/ BriA

    I feel like most of the black authors that I use to read were like not worldly and went for a niche…ghetto girls involved in some drama with gangs/boys/hiv/sex it didn’t have any deeper meaning and was like somewhat everyday stuff….the books I feel get recognition seem to create it’s own “fantasy” world that isn’t in touch with ourselves and we have to daydream and create characters for….Some books that I like now are Kurt Vonnegut, Leonardo sciascia – equal danger, death in venice

    I feel like when someone writes it should be something that will be remembered after they have died….why would you want to do something half-assed?

  • http://brianaatkins.tumblr.com/ BriA

    I agree so much! If there is a black literary author they’re going to need a hell of a lot of PR/Publicist support because in general black people don’t read black literary books we def. read the smut…..which is why I feel a lot of black authors write it…..for black people because it sells and it’s sad….I feel like you can’t fault the bookstore for it honestly – although my BnN has all the smut-ish books in fiction and not African American so that’s good at least

  • Ask_ME

    Yes, Mr. Rembert is brilliant. I encourage everyone to Google his art.

  • ruggie

    I love this topic, am so glad it’s being mentioned here. I think a lot of black authors want that crossover but not all the things that come with it. This article quotes Basquiat. As a black artist he was exoticized as much for his cryptic style as for his Haitian heritage, socializing in white circles and distance from the black arts community. I love his work, but the way he was promoted took its toll. Kara Walker is another example. She stays on the same silhouette cutouts (even though she can do so much more) and the themes of race, slavery and sexual attraction to one’s “master.” This happens in the book world, too. White consumers of black works like something they can latch onto, a feminist perspective, slavery and race, the “negro problem.” An exotic locale like Haiti, as in Edwidge Danticat (and Basquiat) or the Dominican Republic, like Junot Diaz.

    Maybe the black book section needs to be refined so that it excludes fiction but keeps history and cultural criticism only. Let the fiction fend for itself among the romance, literary and scifi works, or with the gritty crime novels where most street lit belongs.

    Speaking of street lit, I think that literary writers could make a nice side gig out of editing some of these books. Why not use that great education and training to get paid elevating the game of street lit to make it more readable? Those books make money and you could make the case to those like Triple Crown Publishing that their output could be better. Hell, they have money to spend. Even teenagers are risking embarrassment and arrest to cop their stuff.

  • Mademoiselle

    I agree. I think your sentiment also extends to the “ethnic foods” sections and the “ethnic hair products” sections in other stores. It seems retailers were able to get around the dissolution of “separate but equal” laws.

  • Mademoiselle

    “if i were a white guy with my talent i would be hailed as the second coming.”

    This has been my motto of the month, only applied to a corporate office. I know how you feel jfp. It gets tiresome.

  • Kema

    “Think about it- would you rather write “A Hood Wife’s Tale” and make millions or write the next “Sula”?”

    I’m not a writer but I’ll take hood tale for a million. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker understood that substance isn’t enough. A book should also be interesting. I read ‘hood’ books for the same reason I read romance novels with pirates, Ladies and Lords. They are fast paced and satisfying. However I have wished that someone that could actually write would do similar stories. Maybe someone should write “Sula: A Hood Wife’s tale”. Lol!

  • Kema

    ” Why not use that great education and training to get paid elevating the game of street lit to make it more readable?”

    YES!!! Many of these urban writers excel at telling a story however the writing skills (structure) could use some tweaking.

  • http://gravatar.com/keimia Kam

    The one fact ignored in all of this discussion is the growing rates of illiteracy among Black students. In some urban neighborhoods the percentage of Blacks who are functionally illiterate is approaching 50%. How do we expect them to engage with a book like the Bluest Eye when they only have a basic reading level. No wonder certain types of literature are more accessible to them.

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