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.

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  • paintgurl40

    i order my books online…and i do like some authors from other races, but i mainly support my own. i happen to like romance and urban street fiction, and some classics. “their eyes were watching god” is one of my favorites.

  • xenu01

    Institutionalized racism is a bitch. Authors of color sure as hell are writing amazing novels- you only need basic internet literacy to see that. The problem is that the racism is at every single fricking LEVEL. First, the POC author has to basically prove off the bat to the publisher that their story is worth reading & promoting and often face the “well, we already HAVE a Nigerian-born author, so.” kind of nonsense. Even though there’s approximately one million billion books somehow deemed worth publishing about white people and THEIR feelings. Then they whitewash the cover. Then they don’t promote it very hard. Then the bookseller doesn’t buy it, or promote it very hard. We wouldn’t be having this debate, even, if more than 8% of the books on the shelf were by black authors.

    A few summers ago, I declared a three-month moratorium on reading books by white people. I use the library pretty much exclusively and let me tell you, if it weren’t for the internet (I found “Black Science Fiction” and lists like it helpful- thank you Wikipedia!) I would have quit reading for the summer. It was much harder than it should have been to read every author bio, etc, and a good portion of the books that were set in Japan, India, what have you, were written by white people! It was sort of an eye-opening summer, let me tell you.