Thursday, August 14, 2008

August 14, 2008: Essentially Black

Recently, I came across Naki, the blog of friend, literary goddess, and fellow author Bernice McFadden. Check it out here. The post from Sunday, July 27, 2008 truly resonated for me. It’s called Dear Potential African-American Author, which is framed as a fictional rejection letter written by “Ms. Ann,” Senior Editor at XYZ Publications.

Giving you the Cliff Notes, Ms. Ann suggests that a novel submitted by an African-American author is way too literate and provides recommendations for said African-American author to revise in order to make it saleable. Here’s a taste of some of these suggestions: 1) Nix the PhD; the heroine must only have a GED; 2) The heroine should be a single mother, either or welfare or with a long track record of having received it; and 3) In the vein of Superhead and baby-mama drama, the book should have “sex, sex, and more sex.”

The tone of the post was playful and very tongue-in-cheek, and I hollered with laughter as I read it. As the laughter died down, though, I realized that behind the humor is a sad reality… the reality of the essentialist notions of what all Blacks should be like as a people. You’ve heard some of them, folks. All Black folks can dance. It’s easier for a woman to find a Black mate in jail than in college. And my personal favorite: She’s Black but she’s talks so White. In essence, when people think of us – non-Blacks here in America, and people of all stripes in the world at large – they ascribe to us the four verbs that the Hill Harper character, X, mentioned in Get on the Bus: Rap, Rape, Rob and Riot.

I would be the first person to agree that we as a people have our own set of problems that are unique to us. Anyone who recently watched CNN’s groundbreaking two-part series Black in America heard the most recent stats on the usual suspects – unwed parenthood, incarceration rates, health issues, etc. But those are the things that make similar a population that is as widely diverse as those in the dominant culture. As the great Angela Davis said when I saw her speak at Syracuse, we are not a monolithic people. However, the dominant culture – and newsflash, they’re the purveyors of media and of the reality they manufacture through its lens – still clings to this calcified, archaic concept of “the black community.” And they make the writer of the genre of fiction that Ms. Ann touts an accomplice to this hate crime.

Please, don’t get me wrong. If you write the type of fiction that’s selling now, go ahead and make that paper. I love it when brothers and sisters succeed. But when myopic editors prop up that genre of fiction as a reality of Blackness, it diminishes us all. I’ll share with you one unqualified assumption made by editors in rejections of my book Triptych: “…So much of the book happens in the Bahamas, and with commercial novels like this [sic] it can sometimes be tough to get readers to want to read outside of their geographic location.” Translation, if it ain’t set in America, Black folks don’t wanna read it. Don’t they think that some of us bought copies of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner? Or Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, both largely set outside of the United States? Is it so far outside of the capacity of the Black reader to imagine life in The Bahamas, a country that’s a 45-minute plane ride from Miami, Florida? Whose population is 85% Black? I find it troubling that people whose knowledge of the diversity of Black culture is so limited have aggressively positioned themselves as the arbiters of it.

It’s not just me. One writer complained to me that his editor took it upon herself to change his characterization of his friend as his patna to the most grammatically correct but sanitized partner. Another writer, hugely successful, told me a story about having to explain to his editor the concept of C.P. time. She remained stymied, disbelieving that this actually existed. Much later, as they sat waiting for the NAACP Image Award ceremonies to begin, she looked over at him, wondering aloud why the start of the show was bordering on ridiculously late. “C.P. time,” he simply explained. She finally got it.

So, what’s the point of this rant? It is this: Regardless of the present climate in our fadistic (and sometimes sadistic) industry, we need to keep writing, keep pressing on as the purveyors of stories from our own unique perspectives as Black folks, keep storming our own equivalent of the Bastille. Because if my hugely successful colleague’s editor can get it, there just might be hope for us all…