Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Where's the Beef?: Toward a Definition of African American Literature

Today I walked into my favorite chain bookstore (I mostly frequent used bookstores or independents), and I was immediately greeted by the manager who informed me that the store had greatly expanded its African American literature section. I had previously complained to him about the paucity of African American literature.

Let’s just say I was somewhat taken aback by what I saw. Indeed, the store has expanded its collection of African American literature. However, this expansion was predominated by what is commonly referred to as urban literature. Titles such as Thug Misses, In My Hood, and Thug Matrimony stood out from the shelves. In fact, every title seemed to have either the words “thug” or “‘hood” in it. They even had rap artist Fifty Cents’ G-Unit collection. I didn't even know he had a book collection.

They did have the old stand-bys available, you know Frederick Douglas, Toni Morrison, the classics. But as I said, the bulk of the collection was made up of urban literature.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m perhaps not as bourgeois as you think. As a young man, I read Iceberg Slim and the entire Donald Goines collection. And after each reading, for a few minutes I was gangsta’, but then reality set in and I went back to my ordinary, everyday busta’ self. Even now, from time to time I'll pick up some absolute foolishness.

But my question is if African American literature is supposed to reflect the African American experience, what does mainstream America define that experience to be?

I believe that the African American experience is varied and all facets of this experience should be represented, but what happens when only one facet becomes representative of the whole experience?

Perhaps, I am being a bit snobbish about this. Maybe I should be glad that more African Americans are writing and more African Americans are reading, regardless of what they write and read. But in the same instance, I recall the old Wendy's commercial when the old lady demands, "Where's the beef?" So, I am asking, "Where's the substance?"


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