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9780312536961Growing up in the early 80s and recognizing my likeness and its celebration in every area of mainstream media was like finding a four leaf clover in an abandoned cemetery; rare.

But as the years went by, media granted us more room to express ourselves. On television, we quickly graduated from the Cosby Show to the independence of Girlfriends. In music, we saw the path grow from Grandmaster Flash and onto the era of Jay-Z. And make no mistake about it, more of our stories were being bound within the pages of a fiction novel.

Tyree, Dickey, Harris, Cleage, Danticat, Campbell, Jackson, Morrison, McMillan, Monroe, Walker, Haley, Sister Souljah and the list continues. Not only were those the African American Authors to whom which I personally fell in love with, but I feel they also presented a platform of relatable work that touched the souls of a multicultural audience.

I spent most of my youth with my nose tucked inside of books by these authors. It was there within those pages where I happily absorbed words of magic and read many a black tale that easily defined my point of view. It was also through their words where I became inspired to pick up the pen and build my own reality from a blank canvas.

But somewhere from then to now, during those excessive hours when I wasn’t pushing creativity through the keys of my own computer, I’d be out heavily thumbing through the book aisles in search of those new brown skinned authors to whom which I could support during my reading endeavors.

But for some reason I got lost trying to find ones who spoke of my journey.

As more and more people in the world demanded a tailored voice to highlight their own personal stories, so came a facelift to our written reality; a change that could either be embraced by readers, or one that some feel suffocates our growth.

Through articles like Why Radio Is a Piece of Gahbage, and BET Why Do You Hate Us, we’ve come to recognize the downshift in Black Radio and Television content. Although we don’t like it, we’ve accepted the ill truth behind the media’s comfortable stance in insulting our overall character as well as our intelligence through each production.

So where does the madness draw the line? Well… we’ll always have literature to fall back on won’t we?

Well, depends on who you’re asking.

As more and more authors popped into the market, and as big publishing houses like Random House began to offer “imprints” to advance the publication of Black fiction, that same shift altered the dynamics of story telling and no longer were we locked into the safe themes of reading about success and romance.

And then came…

Ghetto Fiction – a blanketed term used to describe the endless volumes of HoodRat-esque novels plaguing the shelves of a bookstore near you. To many people these street chronicles are a welcomed presence in the African American book market, but to others these “thuglife fairytales” are as undesirable as the world many of us are still struggling to get away from.

Section 8: A Hood Rat Novel, Stackin’ Paper, The Last Bitch Standing, A Project Chick, Married to the Game, The Dopeman’s Wife…

The titles above and many others like it that target the struggle, the streets and the ghetto lifestyle have become more the norm than books like Breath, Eyes, Memory, and to many readers, these hood chronicles are deemed to be quite entertaining, which is okay in my opinion.

But when does the introduction of each street driven lesson that these stories evoke, go from being a welcomed change to the fiction game to nothing more than another bound tale of backsliding monotony that keep us from getting ahead in the Black Community?

Rather than impose my one sided opinion on this piece, I decided to sit down with a couple African American Authors and a few readers to get their take on the state of African American Literature.

But if I was to offer up my personal sentiment on this topic as I often do in many of my pieces, whether by a true opinion or journalistic fiction, I’d say this about street novels: I sometimes wonder if during our victory dance towards affirmation, if we’ve focused too much on having a voice in literature, that we’ve somehow forgotten to care about the content within what we’re saying to one another through that platform.

Author Keith Walker on the shift in Black Literature:
“I think it has a lot to do with the Hip Hop Culture and the way it’s been glamorized and how it’s become extremely popular as of late. To feed that market, a lot of the publishers are just following what else is selling and since the Hip Hop Culture seems to be selling well and a lot of different people are attracted to it, publishers don’t necessarily want to publish anything they consider weak or wholesome that they think won’t attract a crowd. The publishers are filling the demand as the Hip Hop culture becomes more commercialized with people like Lil Wayne branching out so much. It worked its way into literature and got stuck there. Every time I go into a bookstore, everything seems to be the same in my opinion: the bad girl characters in the hood doing those kind of things, or the struggling woman looking for Mr. Right- I try to go a different route with what I write in my books.”

Keith Walker writes Romantic Fiction and is the author of Fixin’ Tyrone which is available in bookstores everywhere or at www.keithwalkerbooks.com.

Author Steven Morgan on his stance of street literature:
“Overall, our culture has become more and more diverse. Hip Hop has opened a lot of doors so now people are becoming more aware of black literature so we can now put more of an emphasis on the streets which hits home more so with our black readers and urban minorities. I feel that Donald Goines and Fillmore Slim paved the way for us and now we’re creating our own lane. I think it’s important that we speak through street literature because this is what happens in everyday life. We’re writing about what we’re experiencing and not something made up. I don’t believe other African American authors who cover a different genre are losing their voice. I believe they’re in their own lane and have created a foundation for themselves that successfully targets their readers. They’ll always have an audience because they’re the forerunners. I do think people are now taking heed to street literature because it’s very raw, very violent, and blunt and that’s exciting and entertaining to all readers.”

Steven Morgan writes Street Fiction and is the author of the upcoming book Discombobulated due in stores this year. Please visit www.citystonepublishing.com/discombobulated for more information.

Tomi Bean, reader from Los Angeles, CA
“Too many people are internalizing the messages in these books and life’s situations and making it their home environment rather than opting for change. If you don’t think you’re better or believe you should have better, then you won’t achieve it. That information crosses over in these books because none of them strive to get us out of the ghetto rather they tell us how to survive and profit illegally in the ghetto. They think the thug is going to save us or be the one to uplift us. There’s a Native American tribe who practice the Seven Generations Philosophy: What do I do today that’s going to impact us 7 generations from now? That philosophy needs to be adapted into both our books as well as our lifestyles because this ghetto lit is setting us back ages.”

B. Still, reader from Minneapolis, MN
“It’s not really about not writing books like this or trying to write books like Dean Koontz, Clive Barker and so on, it’s about challenging yourself and your audience. These books don’t challenge me. It’s sad in a way. Black writers could do something that could be the voice of the generation. Look at Lord of the Rings. You have to give guys like Tolken and all the others credit because these people created universes out of their work. To this day you can see it in film, you can see people role-playing his books. It changed popular culture. You can’t go anywhere and say Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and not have people know what it’s about. People all over the world love these books; Black, White, Asian, Hispanic or whomever. They identify with the myth because it gives them hope. I’ve seen more adults buy these books then children, and that’s because they want something that takes them away. You don’t get taken away from books like “Jameelah’s Revenge” or “Baby Mama Drama” or “Requiem for DeAngelo,” which are just titles I’ve made up, but you know what I’m saying. Books like that take you to a sad state of street issues, from authors who don’t explore any creativity. These books are carbon copies, of carbon copies upon another carbon copy. What these books teach people is how to have dysfunctional lifestyles and relationships and they glorify being a thug. They teach the black woman that you will never have a suitable mate, you will never be that woman who gets swept off her feet, and that you will never get anywhere further than the streets. The same kid who reads a comic book about Superman might be influenced to go fly airplanes someday, just like a kid who enjoys Star Wars novels will probably lead our generation further into outer space. When our black children read these street novels, what do you think that’s teaching them to grow up and do? When authors don’t inspire their audience with substance, they’re leading our youth to fulfill these ghetto prophecies.”

Alicia Miles, reader from Rustin, LA
“I personally enjoy reading street fiction because most of the authors write to such a degree of depth that you feel like you’re sitting in a movie theatre seat watching it happen right in front of you. I’m an educated woman, who doesn’t mind getting off into a little danger, suspense and drama. What’s wrong with that? I think if you have a level head and can differentiate between real life and that of a book, you should be able to sit down and read a K’Nan novel just like a person who runs to the theatre to watch Saw 5 or Lethal Weapon. Why should we censor our content or whitewash our stories. Black people know we come from struggle, these books just explore that and give us a different look at how the world is for others. I say, keep em coming because there’s power in diversity and I’m tired of reading about some chick getting married or left at the alter for a younger woman. Street Lit keeps it fresh and entertaining and we need that so I applaud these types of books.”

So Clutchettes and Gents… What’s your take on “Ghetto Fiction”?

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  • I am an avid reader and read all types of books (i.e. American classics like Hemingway and black classics like Hurston). But i think we as black people keep us back. People need to stop blaming the literature, the music, the clothes and the shows for how we are portrayed. It is up to each and every one of us to take a stand and define ourselves better as people. There is tons of white bull$%^& that is out but no one complains about it because its white. But its there. I enjoy reading the “urban lit” because it isnt the only thing I read and I know that all of this is purely entertainment. Our voices run the gamut and it is important for stories to be heard. Now granted, sometimes the grammar and punctuation can be poor and the storylines redundant but so are a lot of the black books that have to do with us not being able to find love, a good man or not wanting to date the trash man. Besides, who knows if this is just a stepping stone for these writers to write something else. These street novels can be under a pseudonym for all you know and the work you like reading can be from the same author of the “urban lit.” Food for thought…