National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!

Author Carleen Brice. Photo credit: Gail Gudder

Carleen Brice, author of Orange Mint and Honey, has launched a blog celebrating December as “Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black” month. Her blog, White Readers, Meet Black Authors, is designed as (a somewhat tongue in cheek) introduction of white readers to Black authors. You can hear Brice on Tavis Smiley, discussing her grassroots efforts, here

Brice, citing an online conversation post-election about whether white readers could be persuaded to read Black authors, and a viral letter to Oprah encouraging the mogul who fiercely celebrates reading, to incorporate and promote literature written by a more diverse spectrum of Black authors – not those just widely known (and accepted) by the literary canon like Toni Morrison, Stephen Carter, and Alice Walker, but also those writing experimental, accessible, or different kinds of stories. Authors like Brice herself, who received strong praise for her novel Orange Mint and Honey, Erica Simone Turnipseed who wrote A Love Noire and its follow up Hunger, Bernice L. McFadden author of Sugar, or Martha Southgate author of two critically acclaimed books for adults, The Fall of Rome and Third Girl from the Left. In her list of “Top 10 reasons white readers should read Black authors,” Brice balances a good deal of humor, while making some serious points, saying:  

6.You already like our music, dances, food, fashion and films.
5. Didn’t you resolve to try new things this year?
4. In October, Nikki Giovanni told me this was the best book of 2008 (so far).
3. Paraphrasing President-Elect Obama, we’re not black states of fiction and white states of fiction. We’re the United States of fiction.
2. We read your books.     

Underlying the humor is a reasonable question: why is it that Black readers are expected to read white authors, but white readers are seldom required to, or have rarely read or expect to read, Black authors?  Hidden behind this question is an assumption that what Black authors write, is not as good as what white authors produce, or that loving African-American or African diasporic literature means that somehow one isn’t “well read,” or the assumption is made that the only books you’re reading, must be under the now ubiquitous “urban lit,” publishing category.    

Supposedly, in this post-racial climate, all doors have been flung open, and race is no longer an indicator of access or success. But the publishing field is nothing if not a business, and right now, that business is enamoured with so-called “urban lit,” often rapidly produced literature that purports to portray Black urban street life. With its accessible language, urban dialect, focus on sex and the drug game, this novels at first experienced a grassroots level popularity. Then, by all accounts, the publishing industry took notice, and the rest was history. Now you can find such gems as Purple Panties and Pit Bulls in Skirts, in the same shelf as authors like Brice, Colson Whitehead, or even (gasp) Morrison.    

I’m of two minds about urban literature. One, it needs to be clearly understood that more now than ever “urban lit,” is controlled by the publishing houses – and it’s being used to lock in African American readers, so that publishers don’t necessarily have to venture out for talent or support current Black authors. Far easier to make money hand over fist. On the other hand, the revulsion of many in Black literary circles to “urban lit,” I think is sometimes informed by issues of class and appropriateness.  To be sure, I think the concerns and critique about urban literature are real and accurate. Urban lit glorifies violence, drugs, and hypersexualization of the Black community.    

Yet, I also think we have to find a way to talk about what makes this genre appealing , in a way that doesn’t demonize those who read and enjoy reading urban lit; in a way that seeks to understand the draw of the novels, while proactively trying to shift the focus away from the genre and onto novels that offer better writing, fuller story lines, more developed characters – and not just a longer version of a BET video.  I think we also have to be honest about whether or not readers are honestly seeing a reflection of themselves in these novels, and the very real impediment of literacy as informing what readers (who may genuinely love to read, but may be limited by their literacy) select to read.    

That’s why I love Carleen Brice’s grassroots effort. She’s actively working to promote Black authors, books by Black authors, and I think encouraging Black folks to continue our grand tradition of story telling.    

It reminds me of a great quote from Toni Morrison who said,    

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”    

An early edition of Octavia E. Butler's book Dawn.

 Both Brice and Morrison are challenging us, and specifically the publishing industry, on what is considered and labeled “universal.” Morrison hits the nail on the head when she points out that there is a “suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing.” Morrison is even bolder in her assertion of Black humanity and the right to story telling, when she says that from her “perspective there are only black people,” here she subverts and ultimately inverts the entire idea of universality, by centering black people as the sole protagonists of her literary universe – and unapologetically so. Black people are the people that concern Morrison.   

Erica Kennedy's book, Feminista

 The struggle by Black authors for attention and parity in the publishing field is not new. Science fiction great Octavia E.  Butler’s novels were often produced with white characters on the cover, even though the protagonists were predominantly of color (Black, Latino, Asian, multiracial), as a way to attract white readers – in a genre dominated nearly to exhaustive proportions by white male writers. Recently, while reading a review of Erica Kennedy’s book, Feminista, which has received strong early reviews, I recognized an unsettling trend on her book cover: though the book features Black protagonists, the cover features white-skinned people (literally, the color white) – erasing any sense of racial identification, perhaps in an attempt to broaden the “selling power” of the novel.  So! Get to your nearest computer, bookstore, or Kindle and find a book to give by a Black author. Do a search on a site like www.goodreads.com or check out Amazon. Below is a suggested list of titles  – classics and new books, to check out:    

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Intuitionist or Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead
  • Song Yet Sung, by James McBride
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, by Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler
  • The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, by Toi Derricotte
  • The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton – for Y/A readers
  • A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
  • Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice
  • Incognegro by Mat Johnson – a graphic novel
  • Bayou, by Jeremy Love – a graphic novel
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke
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    One Response to “National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month!”

    1. Love your blog. Interestingly enough, I was on FB and there is a group that hates Toni Morrison because they believe she is racist. Also, I remember when Charlie Rose asked her when she was going to have white characters as her main focus (even though Paradise has white characters), and I think all of this just occurs simply because she writes about the black experience. But we never critique whites for writing about the “white experience”. By the way, in what book or interview did Morrison say that–the Tolstoy quote? I might want to cite it in a a paper

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