There’s a game I like to play when I walk into a bookstore. Based on the the title, cover and store placement I can always interpret the marketing intention for a book meant for an black American audience. The best part of this game is that the books will, typically, fit into the following categories (they are, in no particular order):
1. Black Pathology or “What’s wrong with Black people?”
2. The literature of “sistah gurl”
3. Christian-oriented fiction/inspirational
4. Street-Lit or Hip-Hop fiction
5. The Slave Novel
6. The Civil Rights Book (This also includes Black Nationalism)
7. The extraordinary rise from street life/poverty/welfare into the middle class.
8. Poorly styled celebrity memoir, or well researched and documented hagiography
9. Black Queens and Kings
10. Hip-Hop analysis
12. The “Black” version of some mainstream topic (For example: “Black Girl’s Guide to Fashion; “Black Families’ Guide to Wealth;”) Guides will include slang, bright colors, and inevitably the phrase “the legacy of slavery.”
13. The Classics: Harlem Renaissance 101 and/or The Black Arts Movement. Toni Morrison.
14. Contemporary Classics or Literary Fiction (Mostly woman, mostly diaspora authors)
15. Non-black author writes really compelling story about black person(s); story gets awards accolades, lots of press and movie deal.
These topics produce wonderful books and poorly written books. They often represent a compendium of the black American experience, and just as often, they are simply a reflection of what publishing thinks black people read.
In a recent Washington Post op ed, author, Bernice L. McFadden wonders about the nature of books that would fit into number 15 on my list.
“Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help, published by a Penguin Books imprint, sold 1 million books within a year of publication. Her novel has gained accolades and awards, including the prestigious South African Boeke Prize. The Help is being adapted for the screen; at the helm of production is the Academy Award-winning director and producer Steven Spielberg. Sue Monk Kidd’s best-selling novel The Secret Life of Bees, also published by Penguin Books, is another story set in the South with African American characters. Kidd’s novel garnered similar fame, fortune and recognition. Kathryn Stockett and Sue Monk Kidd are living the dream of thousands of authors, myself included. But they are not the first white women to pen stories of the black American South and be lauded for their efforts.”