black computer

I’m not a black artist, I’m an artist — Jean Michel Basquiat

After coming to terms with the “African-American Interest” section of Barnes and Noble, different variations of this quote haunted me. I found its remnants in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and Skip Gates’ Signifying Monkey. I heard it echo whilst guidance counselors and English teachers lent me books, by authors they thought I’d one day aspire to be. I strolled the fiction section of the bookstore witnessing no partitioning of the genre, but “our” section. My biggest fear leaped from our isolated table, a lineage of contradictions aligned with one another, Toni next to Zane and “True to The Game” on top of T.D. Jakes:

What if they put me here?

What if I’m thrown into confinement, a crossover hand to never touch my pages? What if I’m Caribbean-American? What if I write about the war in Iraq? What if I become lost under an abundance of typo-ridden, half edited, urban novellas?

I was excited at first, when I realized that the section was gone, one day. My feet quickly made their way to the M’s of the fiction, eyes beckoning “Sula.” It wasn’t there, so I walked to the counter to inquire.

Inquiry: Hi! Can you tell me where I can find … ?

Response: Oh. We had to put all of your books behind the counter. You guys keep stealing them.

After I laid a NYC tongue lashing on her ass, I strolled downtown Brooklyn in a stupor. Something shameful cast over me, temporarily. (Let’s put the racism on hold, that’s for an entirely different post.) I was angry; because the cashier couldn’t tell the difference between the trashy urban lit, that the teenagers were slipping into their bags, when no one was looking, and one of the most revered authors of our time. I was hurt, because there was this division waiting for me to be hurled into. I would be punished, because I’d chosen to write about the brown skin I loved and the moments that petrified me. As an African-American writer, it would only be seen through that lens. There would be no correlation to the hurt we all feel when we’ve lost a loved one or a connection to the fragment we all sometimes become. Through their lens it would read as a black loved one or black fragment.  Well, when it came to publishers.

I fell into a coma of sorts, writing only for me. I cast the inklings of the book, I was working on, into a drawer and filled my personal journal instead.

One day, while taking the shelves in, I spied one of us …

Intermingled with the “feature” books was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. (Well he’s Hispanic, but that’s close enough.) I devoured the manuscript morsel by morsel, only stalling for bathroom breaks and consumption of real sustenance. I was enthralled; Diaz was equipped with an infrequent equilibrium. He was a street smart intellectual, placing profanity parallel to footnotes on the history of the Dominican Republic; there was no box for him, he could not be pigeonholed.

I discovered other authors like this, a sub-culture of Afro-Nerd literature. (My mentor dubs the lineage.)

Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle, Tayari Jones, etc …

Here were authors who ignored confinement. Through their words it seemed as if they were fearless and unheeding to the destiny usually slated for us. They spoke of the post-apocalypse, science fiction, and the dysfunction of the modern family through beguiling prose.

Well, hello there …

I was inspired. My inkling of a novel jumped out from its hiding place and I begun to write, like crazy. I spent hours pining over background and meticulous description …

The theme must be prevalent.

Gentrification, Afro-Caribbean, our demise and rise…  

All your characters must have meaning.

Melinda was lost without him; she trembled with a fear insurmountable to the earthquake that shook their home two summers ago.

Oh! Oh! Don’t forget metaphor.

I drove myself crazy. I didn’t realize how harmful this was until I looked up and realized that I didn’t enjoy writing anymore. I let the fear of the “black box” consume me. It was the final thing I had to conquer …

After worrying about my parents’ raised eyebrows …

After simmering love stories, so lovers wouldn’t think I’d experienced the instance …

After keeping characters neutral, so that they wouldn’t be recognized in reality …

After a fit of panic and an email to my mentor, I was put at ease. He was the only writer, I knew, unafraid of the masses’ opinion of his work.

His words w/ a few disturbances, in parentheses, from me:

“As far as what constitutes literature, that part is subjective… 

We all want to be… (Insert the names of the authors you idolize here). I feel you on that, and I respect you so much for aiming there. But I’ll let you in on a secret: they probably harbor strong insecurities about their own works and are elated beyond relief that critics tend to like what they do…

This is a new year and a new opportunity, and I have no doubts you will finish your book and be happy for your literary, yes literary, contribution.”

He’s right.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” –Marianne Williamson

I can’t let the secluded arena that big name publishers have built for us, define me. I can’t allow it to diminish something I’ve worked almost a decade to create.

Inadequacy is a myth and I’m all about debunking.

What’s your greatest fear?

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  • wait, this happened to you at the B&N downtown? I used to liive in that store lol…and the AA section always got under my skin for all the reasons you listed. But I’m mad the lady at the info desk said that….smh.

  • Starla

    Irrespective of who the primary audience is, books should not be categorized by the race of the author, but by the subject matter. So romance titles have their own section, autobiographies, history, true crime etc. It is a vile practice to have a “black section”; this is art, creativity has nothing to do with race. Even the trashy urban novels can go into the erotica, or contemporary titles section. Nobody wants to be zoned, especially when it affects your income and your work reaching the larger market.

    • Mademoiselle

      I agree. I think your sentiment also extends to the “ethnic foods” sections and the “ethnic hair products” sections in other stores. It seems retailers were able to get around the dissolution of “separate but equal” laws.

  • Barbara

    @ Ask-Me
    I too watched the documentary of Winfred Rembert. His art is brilliant. The life he lived in the segregated South was astounding!! He lived 40 miles from my home town.

    He wants more Black people to support his art; and I wish Clutch would at least direct people to the doucumentary at PBS.

    • Ask_ME

      Yes, Mr. Rembert is brilliant. I encourage everyone to Google his art.

  • I feel like most of the black authors that I use to read were like not worldly and went for a niche…ghetto girls involved in some drama with gangs/boys/hiv/sex it didn’t have any deeper meaning and was like somewhat everyday stuff….the books I feel get recognition seem to create it’s own “fantasy” world that isn’t in touch with ourselves and we have to daydream and create characters for….Some books that I like now are Kurt Vonnegut, Leonardo sciascia – equal danger, death in venice

    I feel like when someone writes it should be something that will be remembered after they have died….why would you want to do something half-assed?

  • ruggie

    I love this topic, am so glad it’s being mentioned here. I think a lot of black authors want that crossover but not all the things that come with it. This article quotes Basquiat. As a black artist he was exoticized as much for his cryptic style as for his Haitian heritage, socializing in white circles and distance from the black arts community. I love his work, but the way he was promoted took its toll. Kara Walker is another example. She stays on the same silhouette cutouts (even though she can do so much more) and the themes of race, slavery and sexual attraction to one’s “master.” This happens in the book world, too. White consumers of black works like something they can latch onto, a feminist perspective, slavery and race, the “negro problem.” An exotic locale like Haiti, as in Edwidge Danticat (and Basquiat) or the Dominican Republic, like Junot Diaz.

    Maybe the black book section needs to be refined so that it excludes fiction but keeps history and cultural criticism only. Let the fiction fend for itself among the romance, literary and scifi works, or with the gritty crime novels where most street lit belongs.

    Speaking of street lit, I think that literary writers could make a nice side gig out of editing some of these books. Why not use that great education and training to get paid elevating the game of street lit to make it more readable? Those books make money and you could make the case to those like Triple Crown Publishing that their output could be better. Hell, they have money to spend. Even teenagers are risking embarrassment and arrest to cop their stuff.

    • Kema

      ” Why not use that great education and training to get paid elevating the game of street lit to make it more readable?”

      YES!!! Many of these urban writers excel at telling a story however the writing skills (structure) could use some tweaking.