The Black Book

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

Contrary arguments notwithstanding, it still seems unlikely that a title by a new black author—Rails Under My Back, by Jeffery Renard Allen, for example—will be taken as seriously when used to hawk household cleanser. Literary agent Anna Ghosh detects an implicit differentiation between populist fiction and literary fiction where these imprints are concerned. "I think the way some of these imprints are publishing popular African American fiction is kind of like how they think about genre fiction—and literary fiction is always different: Each book is unique," she says. "But I think an incredible number of new novels are being published every year, and many of them disappear without anybody taking any note at all. In some ways, African American writers have an advantage because they'll stand out. It's not yet another novel set in rural Iowa about whatever, so they can get a certain kind of attention, and there's an audience that will find it." This audience is confirmed by a glance at the bestseller list: E. Lynn Harris's Anyway the Wind Blows is at No. 2, Lalita Tamedy's Cane River's at No. 3, Alice Randall's controversial The Wind Done Gone is at No. 9, and Eric Jerome Dickey's Between Lovers is at No. 16.

DAY TWO, 1:30 P.M.: Radiant, almond-complected poet Sonia Sanchez jokes amiably with her old friend, the notoriously cantankerous author Imamu Amiri Baraka, both resilient elders of the 1960s Black Arts Movement. During the third session of the day, Sister Sanchez teases Brother Baraka about his conservative "buddies," Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and conservative critic Stanley Crouch, before pontificating on the state of black literature. Amid factionalism about highbrow literature versus populist, Terry McMillan trickle-down writing, Sister Sanchez takes a wider view. "Black literature is alive, and it's singing, my brother. It depends on what song you want to hear, OK? There's a song of tradition, there's a song of what I call great writing, there's a song of fun, there's a song of romance and adventure. I'd say, support 'em all. And don't take an attitude, but know that you must always support that song that says great tradition, great history, great herstory, great literature. There's enough room for all kinds of literature to advance and be listened to, and be bought and read."

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 THREE, NOON: After a night of jovial bedlam, filled with African storytelling from the elders (tales of director Bill Duke's hoodlum screenplay, Brother Baraka's near-confrontation with Ralph Ellison over a book critique), every last one worth the retreat's $450 registration fee, tensions begin to surface during a fiction-workshop session on Saturday, the last full day of the retreat. One or two of the more seasoned writers grow frustrated, as more basic advice is disseminated to the novices, cutting into time intended to demonstrate and apply techniques. Baraka heads a session that leads into lunchtime, discussing the mainstream-versus-literary-fiction issue with a more nationalistic perspective.

"They wanna push a literature and an art that's noncontentious, that's actually a soporific—that puts you to sleep, that makes you content with things rather than trying to find out how to transform them," he says. "That's something that's been proposed by the people who rule this society. They don't want you to think. If you start thinking, you would know that they need a better society than this one."

Walking across the grassy expanse to the dining room, the bespectacled Baraka expounds further. "The whole intellectual life of America is suffocating. Now that the big publishers, such as there are remaining in the United States, found that black people can read, they're publishing a whole mountain-load of essentially mediocre, useless kind of materials. I think it just goes back to the need for black and progressive writers to begin to create their own kinds of journals. Black people live in 27 different cities in this country: How do we produce the kind of journals where we can publish a maximum of people, have a maximum discussion, and get a maximum of new writers emerging? Until we begin to publish our own journals that are independent from big money, do our own publishing independent of big money, we are always gonna be stifled in terms of our development."

More harmony exists on the subject of the black-targeted imprints sprouting from the major publishers: They ain't likely to last in the long run. "Many of these black authors, writers who are being published today, they're not going to be around long," Madhubuti declares on the last day of his retreat. "You read the books and you're not led to much of anything. At some point, it becomes the same ol' same ol'. Now obviously, there's gonna be junk in everything. But it's not my responsibility to put the junk out. That's not gonna happen at Third World Press. I think that with these seven imprints, they're going to erase each other. If you go the next five years, we won't be having this conversation because they won't exist."

Nelson George agrees in essence. "I'm sure there'll be fallout. There's fallout in every genre: hip-hop labels go, dotcom companies go. Not all of these things will make it. But all you need is one or two good editors to find one or two flagship artists. The opportunities that are being created by these imprints are unprecedented. If the imprints all are closed down in five years and they've spawned three good writers who'll have a constituency and continue going on, then they'll have served their purpose."

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