That was the original title of the op-ed piece which I wrote some months back and pitched to The Washington Post, which was gracious enough to publishunder their chosen title:
"Black Writers in the Ghetto of the Publishing Industry's Making"
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. In 1928, Julia Peterkin wrote a novel, Scarlet Sister Mary, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Stockett's and Kidd's novels tackle racism and celebrate the power of friendship and acceptance. Both novels were given beautiful covers that did not reveal the race of the characters. Both books were marketed to black and white audiences.
My debut novel, Sugar, was also published by a Penguin imprint. Set in the 1950s South, the story line deals with racism and celebrates the power of friendship and acceptance. The original cover depicted a beautiful black woman standing behind a screen door. Sugar was marketed solely to African American readers. This type of marginalization has come to be known among African American writers as "seg-book-gation." This practice is not only demeaning but also financially crippling. When I looked into why works by African American writers were packaged and marketed so differently than those by their white counterparts, I did not have to search far for my answer.
Literature about the oppressed written by the oppressor has a long tradition. The trend can be traced all the way to colonialism -- a movement that was not only physical but textual, the evidence of which can be found in the diaries, letters and journals of colonists, settlers and plantation slave owners.
Representation of African Americans by white people in texts records a history of "inferiority." Based on these perceptions, African Americans have endured slavery, genocide, medical apartheid and segregation.
This "inferiority" is a tool fundamental to ethnic distancing in society. Today, this tool is used with great precision in the mainstream publishing industry. While, yes, the distancing may not be total -- meaning a few select African American authors have "crossed over" into the mainstream -- the work of many African Americans authors, myself included, has been lumped into one heap known as "African American literature." This suggests that our literature is singular and anomalous, not universal. It is as if we American authors who happen to be of African descent are not a people but a genre much like mystery, romance or thriller.
Walk through your local chain bookstore and you will not see sections tagged British Literature, White American Literature, Korean Literature, Pakistani Literature and so on. None of these ethnicities are singled out or objectified the way African American writers are.
And while, yes, a vast majority of all writers, regardless of skin color, are struggling to stay afloat, and there are more African American writers being published today than at any other time in history, one must still take note of exactly what is being published.
Mainstream publishing houses contort themselves to acquire books that glorify wanton sex, drugs and crime. This fiction, known as street-lit or hip-hop fiction, most often reinforces the stereotypical trademarks African Americans have fought hard to overcome. And while we are all the descendants of those great literary pioneers who first gave a voice to the African American experience, and one certainly could not exist without the other, somewhere down the line the balance was thrown off and the scales tipped in favor of a genre that glorifies street life and denigrates a cultural institution that took hundreds of years to construct.
This year is arguably the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Harlem Renaissance. It is also the 50th anniversary of the death of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most iconic figures of the Renaissance. In 1950 Hurston addressed this very problem in her essay "What White Publishers Won't Print," which was published in the Negro Digest.
"For various reasons, the average, struggling, non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America. His revelation to the public is the thing needed to do away with that feeling of difference which inspires fear, and which ever expresses itself in dislike."
Her words still ring true.
Now, I knew exactly what I was opening myself up to as author Carleen Brice had pioneered this particular frontier with her December 2008 essay "Reading Too Much Into Race."
I remember sitting here at my computer reading the numerous, nasty, racist comments that readers left in response to Carleen's essay—and and I felt as if I had been transported back to a time and place where someone of my color could not sit at a lunch counter or ride in the front of a city bus. It was frightening. Yesterday, I relived that moment.
While these readers felt their comments would disgrace and discredit my claims - they actually justified them:
"While I'm not familiar with Bernice's work, I can tell you why I don't read novels by most black authors. The fact is that many and probably most are not written in standard English. (I'm not talking about dialog from characters sprinkling in vernacular, I'm talking about the whole darn thing."
"What I would love to find, sometime, is a novel written by a black person which succeeds on character, plot and writing quality alone, and is not somewhat polemic-based. Maybe I have read such a book and just didn't know it - in which case, great! But as long as most black writers are depending on their race as a primary determinant for "success," however they choose to define that, they are competing on an uneven playing field of their own making."
"It is certainly racist, immoral and irresponsible to blame all of your troubles on someone else. Why is profiling bad when it's applied to blacks, but profiling is just fine and dandy when applied to whites as the imaginary source of problems for all troubles in the black community? Maybe more time spent in school and less time having children out of wedlock would fix a few of your issues. Maybe less time "celebrating diversity" and more time adhering to the rules of civilized society would fix a few of your problems. Maybe less time looking for scapegoats and more time being responsible members of civilized society would fix a few of your problems."
"What a bunch of self-serving, pity-me crap. Write books of universal interest and they will sell universally. Write ethnic tripe in a vernacular that is repulsive and filled with obscenity and it won't sell, at least not to me."
There were a number of comments that accused me of not being able to string a sentence together or being a racist, bitter and whiny ---- (Shrugs shoulders.) Someone even felt the need to remind me that Africans sold their brethren off to European Slave Traders. What in the world does that have to do with the essay?
And this comment tickled me to no end:
"Perhaps she should consider joining the American writers section. Self-segregation stimulates a segregated response. How about just being an American author rather than an African American author?"
I thought that's exactly what I was trying to do???? LOL
Onward and Upward!
Causes Bernice McFadden Supports
Hurston Wright Foundation
Girls Write Now
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS)