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Why black literature is important

When I first published my first novel, The Ebony Tree, I will never forget finding out later that my 23-year-old niece ran through the house and burst out laughing after reading the book. Now mind you, my niece had always been an avid reader of white romance novels since her teens, but reading my book was like landing on Mars for her. She reportedly asked her mother, “Mom, did Aunt Maxine make this up? Did you guys really ‘play white’?”

My sister-in-law told him, “We don’t just play white, we dream white. That’s all we saw in the books or on TV were white characters. They seemed to have fun.”

Typically, most blacks grew up in the ’50s with pictures on the wall of white Jesus, white Santa, and even white angels. There was nothing in the media or in books that reflected the beauty of blackness. Needless to say, if there were books other than the Bible in the home, they were not black books. He sent a silent message that black was ugly and white was beautiful. This was just as negative an experience as when reading was forbidden for slaves.

Fast forward almost half a century. I know from raising my children, who are now all adults, that having black books in the home was, and still is, a good influence on their self-esteem and confidence. When a person sees himself reflected in the literature he reads, he indirectly helps build a better image of himself. Because in literature we find our role models, our archetypes from which we can learn life lessons. More specifically, in African-American literature, the stories are relevant to the black experience in this country. These experiences range from people coming from different socioeconomic classes, from different urban to rural regions, to different professions. We often take Alger Horatio’s rags-to-riches story to his reversal, the rags-to-riches story. Most of these stories make social commentary on how we all participate in the symphony of the American Dream.

“Black Writers on the Rise,” screamed the headlines. I believed them. After all, seeing the different genres of African-American books in local, predominantly black bookstores, who wouldn’t think so? Hadn’t things gotten better for us as black writers since the late ’80s? However, after attending the Book Expo of America (formerly the American Book Association) held in Los Angeles, California in late April 1999, I had a rude awakening. Because I saw all the books in the efficiently black bookstores dotted around Los Angeles, I was lulled into a false sense of complacency that we as African-American writers were publishing at the same rate as mainstream books. To say the least, he was disappointed.

Yes, The Book Expo of 1999 was a great revelation. The bad news is this: our problems (as African-American writers) are far from over. When I compared the books represented by the major publishers, I saw that the percentage of black books is infinitesimally small compared to that of other races. I’m no fortune teller, but I believe that the number of African-American books may disappear as it did after the Harlem Renaissance, after the late 1940s, and after the revolutionary 1960s, if we don’t take control of our own written words.

However, the good news is this. The increase seen in the number of African-American books can be attributed, in general, not only to more black publishers, black publishers, but also to self-published books. Given the advent of desktop publishing, the Internet, and black book clubs, many writers are taking control of our destinies and empowering us by publishing our own stories.

So consider these questions. In what other ways has having more black books helped? Is it easier to get published by the mainstream as a black writer, in a tight publishing market? Why is desktop publishing so important, particularly for black writers, if you can’t get your books published in the mainstream? To encourage other writers to write their stories, here are some of the good things black literature has brought to this country.

1. Salvation. To paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara, fiction pulls you back from the brink as a black person in America.

2. Continuity with your ancestors. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, “if you’re not writing about the town you come from, then you’re not writing about anything.”

3. A reading public eager to see stories that reflect their reality.

4. A way to restore history that was not allowed to be written in the past.

5. A way to raise the next generation through the printed word, in addition to our oral tradition, which is reflected in rap, Hip Hop and Poetry.

6. A way to promote racial understanding for other ethnic groups. I learn a lot about other parts of the diaspora when I read books by Haitian Americans, or when I read Chinese American literature, or literature from any other culture.

A teacher recently told me at a book signing that a study was done at her school. It was found that all the black girls said that the beauty image of her was still a blond girl with blue eyes. Conceived! It was December 1999! It reminds me of the tragic story in Toni Morrison’s book, The Bluest Eyes, where the whipped black girl, Pecola, went insane, all because she wanted blue eyes. The setting for this book was around 1940.

My point is this. If we continue to write our stories, we as African-American writers may never have equality in the world of books. But at the same time, we won’t have another generation of black girls playing white, like my friends and I did, with scarves and towels over our hair, which we felt wasn’t beautiful enough. Or maybe, we won’t have little girls freaking out like the fictional Pecola did.

Copyright 2006 Black Butterfly Press

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