Dispatches | December 12, 2007

Being a black woman in the world of creative writing today is very intimidating. As I prepare to graduate, I have started thinking about what I have learned over the last few years and find myself coming up with some difficult answers.

The other day I was walking through Barnes and Noble and wondering where the African American section was. To my disappointment, it didn’t exist. After sitting in one of the big comfy chairs with some random book picked off the shelves, I started to wonder: if I write a novel, where will it go? Where can I possibly fit in with the different types of genres that are available? My greatest fear is having a novel that is simply placed in alphabetical order on the shelves of the Fiction section or, if I’m lucky, in Women’s Fiction, where no one will see it.

Not only are African American works lost in the aisles of stores, but stories are lost to the white publishers who wish to change them because of fear. In the book, Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, John K. Young, shows how black writers lose to white publishers with more power. In many cases, titles, scenes, and characters have been changed to create a more politically correct read. Nella Larsen switched the title of her second novel from Nig to Passing because an editor felt the original title “might be too inflammatory.” Under similar pressure from white editors, Richard Wright deleted an important scene from Native Son depicting Bigger Thomas masturbating. The purpose, ostensibly, was to make the book more accessible to a wider audience. However, through this kind of literary censorship, the creativity of the African American writer has been lost. Someone needs to have influential input to bring it back.

This is why I want to go into publishing. With an industry that is controlled primarily by white men, I feel somewhat, if not completely, left out. I want to help create a world where the black woman’s voice can be heard in the literary market. Publishing involves not only helping to create a work of literature, but marketing that book as well. If no one can find an African American work of literature, how will anyone read it? I want the readers of the African American genre to be able to walk into a bookstore and be able to find what they are looking for just as if they were looking for a mystery, romance, or cookbook. The only way I see that being possible is if someone who is interested in promoting African American works is in charge of creating sections specifically for them. Ultimately, this is what needs to happen.

It may seem selfish and unnecessarily divisive to want bookstores to provide an exclusively African American section. In an interview with David Sedaris in the Spring 2007 issue of The Missouri Review he expresses his anxiety at being lumped in with gay and lesbian writers just because he uses the word “boyfriend” in his works. He argues “It’s not that I’m ashamed of being gay. It’s just that first on my list right now is that I’m foreign.” While it is a valid point that literary productions shouldn’t be lumped together simply on the basis of a word or lifestyle, the “American” culture is comprised of many different cultures and lifestyles. It comes down to how you categorize yourself. In Sedaris’ case, he is a foreigner before anything else. In my case, I see myself as an African American woman. To me “African American” is both a culture and a genre, so why shouldn’t it have its own section?