Wednesday, April 12, 2017

I think that African American Fiction should not be separated for the reasons mentioned: It promotes segregation and disrupts serendipitous discovery of an author who might be different from the reader. Plus, the following from N.K. Jemisin's website makes me think that it wouldn't be OK with many of the writers of urban fiction themselves because their books are being marketed to a part of the population instead of the whole population.
The following is from N.K. Jemisin's website found here
"I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting. But — and here I include myself, as someone who’s been a voracious reader since the age of, like, four — we managed. And most of us, because we were just like any other reader, also read plenty of non-black writers, particularly if their works weren’t full of racefail. That’s how I ended up a science fiction and fantasy fan given that SFF is, shall we say, not so much on the multicultural content. (At least not in the case of human beings.) That was okay, though, because many of the stories were universal enough that I loved them anyway.
We’ll come back to this concept of “universality” in a later blog post. Got a book to write, today.
It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.
And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”
I am ashamed to say that many black publishers and authors were happy to cater to these assumptions, because there was money to be made. This has perpetuated the problem. But I digress.
Now, let me be clear: there are some good writers in the AAF section. It’s not all “baby mama drama”. I’m a fan of Terry McMillan, who I discovered through this section before she started getting shelved in mainstream, and some SFF authors have been cross-marketed here if they’re big enough: L. A. Banks, Octavia Butler. If you’ve never visited that section of your bookstore or library, I urge you to do what Reader did, and go take a gander. You might discover something new and cool.
As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. "

I am a little unsure about LGBTQ books having their own spot. I thought no because it also promotes segregation and disrupts serendipitous discovery, plus I thought perhaps some kids might not want it to be obvious that they are in that section because they aren't ready for people to know. But, as the article from School Library Journal below mentions, materials should be available without kids having to ask for them directly. I think maybe a compromise for this could be a list of where the books are that is on display (the list would be on display)? I'm really not sure what would be best in this case.
The following is from:
"With 82 percent of LGBTQ students reporting verbal harassment, among other forms of bullying, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2011 School Climate Report, finding a space to feel safe may be particularly crucial for these students. So is finding materials in which LGBTQ students can see themselves—resources that reflect the stories of their lives and the themes that mirror their own questions and concerns. School librarians provide support through their very presence as well as through the services they can provide.

Wanting to make sure materials were available for them—without forcing students to request them directly—

Butler focuses in particular on making sure his students have access to “accurate and age-appropriate sexual health information,” he says. While he makes sure he has materials available, he also watches to see which titles are never returned. Books that mention anything about sex? They often go missing, he says.
They’re not just being checked out voraciously. They just disappear off the shelves,” he says. “The books that are stolen are often the ones most needed in your collection.”
To highlight the books he thinks are important, Butler simply puts up displays on topics about sexual health and education when the Gay Straight Alliance comes in for their regular meetings. While “hanging out” near the check-out area afterwards, Butler says, they discover the titles he has purposefully, but casually, placed there.
They’re seniors, so they won’t admit they need the information. But they do,” he says. “They say they’re going to give the resources to their classmates. They become information vectors.”"

So, I would say no about an African American section and I lean towards no on the LGBTQ books but am not as certain about that.


  1. Hello Jodi! Thank you for adding those outside resources. I have to admit I was answering this prompt more from the GLBTQ-items side rather than the African American Fiction section side. I had not thought too closely about the African American Fiction section, but the quote from N.K. Jemisin's website really made me think about this issue.

    Especially after reading this quote, I don't think books written by African American authors or about African American characters should be divided up into their own section. I don't see why they would be separated in the first place-- why wouldn't they simply be part of the general fiction or included in the genre where it fits best, like romance or mystery. Separating them into their own section almost feels like we are promoting "black/white" segregation all over again, which is just wrong.

  2. I second Julie's gratitude for the outside sources, and overall for providing such an in depth look at the topic of African American literature in general. Your discussion of the history of the publication of AA literature is especially useful and provides a good context for understanding how we, as librarians, best include and amplify this collection.

  3. Wonderful annotation! You pulled quotes from great sources and used them to back up your opinion. Great job!