Saturday, January 03, 2009

Reading and Race

I'm seeing a good bit written about race and reading, lately. It's a topic I think about almost daily at the library. It's not that you start with someone's race, of course, when helping him find a book, but often it comes up. One person asks where to find African-American authors; the next says she wants to read more books by authors like Zane; and then some parent will want a book for her kid that has black characters who are good role models (i.e., no street lit for my kid!). I have helped a tiny number of white people find street lit ("more by, like, Nikki Turner and stuff").

There's a precept in librarianship: Every reader his / her book. Find out what the person likes to read, and help him or her find some books: easy (with practice, anyway). And then there's the one that goes, Save the time of the reader. That's when you can get into murky waters. Trying to save time is why a librarian might want to keep a section for mysteries, a section for fantasy, and a section for black authors: so readers can go straight to their favorites. The latter "genre" throws my liberal white guilt into overdrive, though: I don't wanna segregate the books by race!!

Carleen Brice, a black author, seems uneasy with it, too. She took up the subject of separate sections in bookstores in a recent Washington Post editorial:
To me, it seems a bit ironic that, at a time when black authors are fighting not to be marginalized, some black readers are asking for African American fiction sections. But I can understand their reasons. Some blacks read only books by black authors out of loyalty or a desire to keep seeing stories about themselves in print. It makes sense that they'd like to find those books in one location, but it also speaks to the way readers have come to expect a dividing line, books clearly marked "us" and "them."
She's encountered merchants who want to Save the time of the reader/shopper, and it made her ask, " 'Who says all black readers are alike?' " Who says all black-authored books are alike?, I reply. In a small library or bookstore does it feel right to have Alice Walker and Zane so close together there at the end of the alphabet? And, I just learned I was missing a genre nuance I thought I got: that some of my library's African-American authored books were "Christian" (clean, "gentle reads") and that all of those were "safe" books . It turns out that there's Christian / inspirational, and then there's urban inspirational: the latter will have the sort of graphic details that readers of street lit like, but then the main character finds God and is saved from a wicked life. The former skips the rough stuff, and readers who prefer that don't want the grittiness of the urban inspirational story. (For more, see Leonard Thompson's conference notes, here.)

Brice has a material concern about African-American sections: she wants all people to have a chance to find books she's written. "I'm black and would never feel out of place browsing in the black books section. A white reader, on the other hand, might not take that same look and might not know that the books exist at all," she explains.

Author Tina McElroy Ansa also wrote recently about the current trends in popular fiction by African-Americans. She called for a balance: it's nice to have page turners, like street lit, but let's have the middle-of-the-road stuff, too:

Yes, we must, indeed, care what they read. It is not enough to merely fill our minds with words and distractions and lowest common denominators. In these fragile, turbulent, uneasy times, it is more essential than ever to make sure that we and our children are digesting wisdom and strengths and possibilities and dreams of all kinds. Dreams that lead to the White House as well as the jailhouse. This is no time for one kind of reading, living or thinking. . . .

It behooves all those folks who decry the hijacking of African-American culture and literature by urban fiction to let their public libraries know that they wish a balance of high-brow, low-brow and everything in between on their bookshelves.

(link to full Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece)

Ansa calls a greater variety of kinds of stories, and Brice desires an greater audience, two nobel goals. Ansa's call could be the more important one to libraries: when people ask for and check out the high-brow and "in between," libraries can direct more resources towards them. At my library, paperbacks by African-Americans are in their own section (as are Classics, Mysteries, and several other genres), pushing against Brice's desire for a broad audience, but meeting the need our customers repeatedly express.

For a long time, we had a permant "end cap" display with books by African-American authors at my library. Literary titles shared space with Omar Tyree and Nikki Turner. Zadie Smith (an English author, who's black) ends up there, too, as do books by J. J. Murray, so that display always felt dishonest to me. A book display should say, "If you liked Harry Potter, try these next," and linking authors by race isn't the same as by genre (but it is a customer need! Save the time of the reader!). For a while, under a co-worker's initiative, that display was filled with more literary titles by blacks. Okay, that's one segment's need. Does that mean we need to address the other sement, too? Will we soon change it to Street Lit? Can we live with the high risk for complaint, as in "you're spending our tax dollars on this?" (A perpetual complaint in public libaries, anyway.)

Can you tell I don't know what to think? I want people to find the books they'd like, I want to be fair to authors and readers. I can't seem to get to "In conclusion, I pledge to . . . at my library." I can only pledge to listen to, think, talk, and read about race, publishing, reading, and libraries.

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