When I published my first novel, The Ebony Tree, I will never forget how I later learned that my then 23 year old niece had run through the house and was screaming with laughter at it have read the book. Now notice, my niece had always been an avid reader of white romance novels since she was a teenager, but reading my book was like landing on Mars for her. She reportedly asked her mother, "Mom, did Aunt Maxine make this up? Did you actually 'play white'?"
My sister-in-law told her, “We not only played white, but we dreamed white. That's all we've ever seen in books or on TV, they were white characters. It looked like they were having all the fun. "
Typically, most black people grew up in their 50s with pictures on the wall of white Jesus, white Santa, and even white angels. There was nothing in the media or in the books that reflected the beauty of the dark. Needless to say, if there were any books next to the Bible at home, they weren't black books. It sent a silent message that black was ugly and white was beautiful. It was as negative for an experiment as it was when reading was forbidden to slaves.
Fastforward almost half a century. I know from raising my children, who are now all adults, that having had black books at home has been and remains a good influence on their self-esteem and confidence. When a person sees themselves reflected in the literature they read, it indirectly helps to build a better self-image. Because in literature, we find our models, our archetypes from which we can learn life lessons. Specifically, in African American literature, the stories are relevant to the experience of blacks in this country. These experiences range from people from different socio-economic classes, from different urban areas to the countryside, to different professions. We often get the story of Algiers Horatio from rags to riches to its overthrow, the history of riches to rags. Most of these stories make social commentaries on how we all play a part in the American Dream Symphony.
"Black Writers on the Rise," screamed the headlines. I believed them. After all, seeing the different genres of African American books in local, predominantly black bookstores, who wouldn't think so? Hadn't things improved for us as black writers since the late 1980s? However, after attending the Book Expo of America (formerly the American Book Association) held in Los Angeles, California at the end of April 1999, I had a rude awakening. Seeing all the books in the predominantly black bookstores scattered around Los Angeles, I had been lulled by a false sense of complacency that we, as African-American writers, were being published at the same rate as the general public books. To say the least, I was disillusioned.
Yes, the 1999 Book Expo was a big eye-opener. The bad news is this: Our problems (as African American writers) are far from over. When I compared the books represented by the major publishers, I saw that the percentage of black books is infinitely small compared to that of other races. Not the diviner type, but I think the number of African American books may disappear like they did after the Harlem Renaissance, after the late 40's and after the revolutionary 60's, though we don't take control of our own writings.
However, the good news is this. The increase in the number of African American books can be attributed, overall, not only to more black publishing companies, black publishers, but to self-published books. . With the advent of desktop publishing, the internet, and black book clubs, many writers are taking control of our destiny and empowering themselves by publishing our own stories.
So consider these questions. In what other ways has having more black books helped? Is it easier to be published by the general public as a black writer, in a tight publishing market? Why is self-publishing so important, especially for black writers, if you can't get your books published by the general public? To encourage other writers to write their stories, here are some of the good things black literature has brought to this country.
1. Hi. To paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara, fiction delights you as a black person in America.
2. Continuity with your ancestors. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, "If you don't write about the village you come from, you aren't writing anything."
3. A reading audience eager to see stories that reflect their reality.
4. A way to restore history that could not be written in the past.
5. One way to uplift the next generation through the printed word, in addition to our oral tradition, which is reflected in rap, hip hop and poetry.
6. A way to promote racial understanding for other ethnic groups. I learn a lot about other parts of the diaspora when I read books by Haitian Americans, or when I read Chinese American literature or any other cultural literature.
Recently, a teacher told me at a book signing that a study had been done in her school. It was found that all the little black girls said their beauty image is always a blonde child with blue eyes. Imagine! It was December 1999! It reminds me of the tragic story in Toni Morrison's book, The Bluest Eyes, where the scourged black child, Pecola, went mad, all because she wanted blue eyes. The setting for this book was circa 1940.
My point is this. If we keep writing our stories, we as African American writers may never have parity in the world of books. But at the same time, we won't have another generation of little black girls playing white, like my friends and I, with scarves and towels draped over our hair, which we felt was not beautiful enough. Or maybe the little girls won't go crazy like the fictional Pecola.
Copyright 2006 Black Butterfly Press