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?


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."

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 Goneis 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."


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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