Friday, October 24, 2008
Zora Says: The Literature of Urban Affairs
Not only have we had to suffer the indignity of having great African-American literary works shelved alongside bad Iceberg Slim knockoffs, we now have to endure a New York Times discussion of those knockoffs as a window onto the "urban" experience. So now "ghetto lit" / "urban fiction" reflects my life as an Oakland transplant in New York City? Of course, not. It's supposed to reflect my life as a Negress in modern America --> urban=Negro.
One expert on "urban affairs" offers in the article, "... the genre tells the stories of African-Americans who survived the 1980s drug wars. This is about documenting history, or, I should say, collective memory." Can I ask whose collective memory? A more accurate comment might have said that this genre of fiction is about documenting a collective imagination. In that collective, I would include all of America -- black and non-black.
A parallel can be found in gangster rap with its exaggerated violence and masculinity. The more it was sold to American audiences as an authentic representation of the Negro experience, the more we saw young, black suburbanites posturing as thugs at the local malls with their white friends in tow. We also witnessed white, frat boys hosting "ghetto" theme parties where they would talk, dress and act as they imagine black people do. The members of NWA, and currently Rick Ross, are masters of performing and reinforcing this collective imagination of authentic Negritude. (The reality is that they all come from lower-middle to middle class backgrounds.) Travel around the world and you will see idiots of all nationalities performing as Negroes, as hawd rappuhs. At one point, it seemed that all you had to do was have a jerry curl and hold a forty-ounce in your hand in order to get a record deal. Remember looking around wondering what happened to groups like Tribe Called Quest and Poor Righteous Teachers?
In the same way that gangster rap played into the collective imagination of black men as aggressive, thoughtless criminals, ghetto lit is playing into the collective imagination of black women as hard, gold-digging whores: "And then there’s Angel, a Versace-clad seductress who shoots her boyfriend in the head during sex, stuffs money from his safe into her Vuitton bags and, as she fondles the cash, experiences a sexual frisson narrated in terms too graphic to reproduce here." Says Shonda Miller, 35, "I read what I can relate to. They’re writing about what I’ve experienced. It’s easier than reading about Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive.” Really? If this is what she relates to, am I wrong in thinking that Ms. Miller should be in jail, or at least in counseling?
I am fearful of what ghetto lit will do to the already negative images of Negro women in America. Yes, there was Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines before, but they were never legitimized in the same way. They simply weren't placed in the same category as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Publishers were not falling all over themselves to produce them and they certainly weren't getting regular press in mainstream newspapers. The images of Negro women as oversexed and threatening are being articulated as never before. And sadly, I have to add, by ourselves. While we may be writing this smut ourselves, we certainly are not the only ones consuming it. I have found ghetto lit dominating the African American literature section in bookstores across Vermont, Idaho and Maine. New Englanders, Christians, Main Streeters, Gun Enthusiasts and Real Americans are reading these books, gaining perspective on "urban affairs." Shiver, shiver.
The New York Times praises the genre for bringing in new readers: “We’ve got people who are reading for the first time. We’ve got people coming into our building asking for Teri Woods who have never come here before,” said Lora-Lynn Rice, the director of collections at the Martin Library in York County. “Why would we not embrace this?” Why? Because not only is it negative, most of it is terribly written. Have these librarians read these books for themselves?
One reader responded to the article by saying, "People often miss the point when discussing these "urban fiction". They are poorly written, loaded with grammatical errors and typos, since most of them are self published. They are found mostly in areas where there is a vast population of African Americans. Young African American readers are being exposed to these materials that are filled with errors. So when they're test scores in reading, for instance, are lower than other students; how rewarding that they were exposed to poorly written materials such as these overrated urban fiction materials. Furthermore, I don't want my stinkin' tax dollars paying for a book called "Gold Digga" or "Wifey". Yuck!" Well-said.