The Black Book

At a Literary Retreat, Authors Debate the Mainstreaming of African American Lit

My favorite writer of all time is Toni Morrison, which prematurely reveals much about where I stand on the major issues of modern black literature. When literary tastemaker Oprah Winfrey canonized Morrison's Paradise in her book club years ago, I was intensely dismayed by the readers' televised difficulty with the text. I shook my head with elitist disdain at the dumbing down of America. When it comes to black writers of the Now, I snobbishly fall out on the side of Edwidge Danticat, Colson Whitehead, and Zadie Smith rather than the intentionally less challenging, more populist E. Lynn Harris (the largest-selling black male author ever? How the fuck did that happen?), Omar Tyree, and Eric Jerome Dickey. However, success stories on both sides of my aristocratic dividing line have led to the book industry publishing more work from African American authors than ever before, as well as the recent establishment of several black-targeted imprints by major publishers.

Emblematic of the current attention raining down on African American letters, the black literary world came together at two separate events a few weekends ago: the second annual Black Writers' Retreat, held at the Betty Shabazz Wholistic Retreat Center in upstate New York, and the third annual Harlem Book Fair and Uptown Arts Festival on 135th Street. The Black Writers' Retreat, founded by Third World Press publisher Haki R. Madhubuti, hosted 70 writers at varied stages of their craft, honing skills in workshops led by Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and others over a four-day weekend. The Harlem Book Fair featured panel discussions with writers like Nelson George and Colin Channer, as well as readings and expo-style booths. But the conversations and issues raised at both events were similar: Whom do black authors write for, and who should our audience be? Will the imprints of the major houses—newly geared up to reach a broad black readership—release mediocre work and ghettoize the literary marketplace, or will they prove a boon for black voices?

The growing popularity of black books is evident on bestseller lists and at the 2001 Harlem Book Fair.
photo: Edwine Seymour
The growing popularity of black books is evident on bestseller lists and at the 2001 Harlem Book Fair.

DAY ONE OF THE BLACK WRITERS' RETREAT: Otisville, New York. Sixty women and 10 men—an assortment of writers from all over the country, both seasoned and aspiring—sit assembled in the ranch house conference center, surrounded by five acres of plush green land, at this opening session of the retreat. As per tradition, the eldest writer present is asked permission to commence an African libation ceremony, honoring the spirits of inspirational writers past as well as ancestors on the whole. Water is spilled; names are called out from every corner of the rambler. Zora Neale Hurston. James Baldwin. Jean Toomer. Ralph Ellison. Gwendolyn Brooks. Richard Wright. A prayer is sent up for poet June Jordan, suffering from breast cancer. The ritual is intended to place writers in a higher, literary mindset rather than focusing on the capitalistic angle (i.e., what it takes to sell a book).

"You have major publishers which are primarily owned by multinational corporations starting black imprints," Madhubuti says in his opening address, referring to specialized presses like Strivers Row, Amistad, Harlem Moon, and Dafina Books (which are part of Villard/Random House, HarperCollins, Random House, and Kensington, respectively). "I think there are about seven now. And these publishing companies have brought in black editors and put some serious money around trying to capture that market. So when you begin to look at what they're doing and the type of material that they're publishing, there does seem to be some promise in terms of at least having the resources to publish writers in many different genres."

Though black fiction stands at a promising juncture—writers are being granted the previously unavailable opportunity to realize mainstream potential, offering readers access to a wider variety of talent—the nationalistic faction of the black literati has cause to remain wary of "multinational corporations." (Madhubuti's own Third World Press, founded in 1967, is a political and cultural house publishing in many genres—fiction, nonfiction, spiritual—and has provided an inspirational model for the likes of Moore Black Press, Black Classic Press, Africa World Press, and Just Us Press.) Strivers Row has already kicked up a bit of controversy; ads for three new titles—placed in mags like Good Housekeeping and Family Circle—are sponsored by and double as a plug for Pine-Sol cleaner, sparking fears that these imprints will further ghettoize black fiction. A recent article in The New York Times cited contemptuous comments from authors Terry McMillan ("What does Pine-Sol have to do with books? It is really insulting. It is sad. Once again we are back where we started") and Jill Nelson ("These ads are insulting and condescending. It's racist, and I bet you it's bad marketing").

"Every other form of popular culture in this country uses some form of underwriting," counters Nelson George, veteran music journalist and author of contemporary relationship novels like Seduced and One Woman Short. "Cross-marketing is the norm in TV, film, music. So why would books be sacrosanct? I think it's inevitable. The next John Grisham novel may be sponsored by Lexus, and definitely I know Tom Clancy would get a big deal! The U.S. Army would be happy to underwrite his shit. It's fascinating. All the controversy is about a black title, but the effect of this deal will affect the entire publishing industry, if it works."

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