Why she gotta be black?

Warning. I’m climbing on a soapbox and it might take me a while to get off.

I’ve been fascinated with the discussions about the movie version of the bestselling book The Hunger Games and the racist tweets that flew around the internet.  The tweets expressed disappointment and downright anger of some fans when they discovered that a black actress was cast in the role of one of the more sympathetic characters in the story. Amandla Stengerg, in my opinion, was perfect for the role of Rue, but evidently some readers not only didn’t like that she was black, they claimed that her race changed their positive opinion about the character.

“Now I don’t care that she died,” one young tweeter wrote.

Clearly, their reading comprehension skills weren’t up to the task of visualizing a character in a story they enjoyed as being anything other than white.

As shocking and disturbing as the tweets were, they served to prove a point I’ve been trying to make for some time.

In 2008, I blogged about my frustration with brick and mortar bookstores and their practice of sticking every book written by a black author in the African-American section of the store.

“To make it easier for shoppers to find what they want,” I was told when I asked about it.

But, the only people who browse the African-American section of the book store are African-American. I’ve never seen a white person shopping in that section. Why would they? When I wrote my blog post on the subject, I argued that the bookshelf segregation only serves to ensure that black authors aren’t exposed to an audience made up of people other than their own race.

Sure, lots of white readers are fans of Walter Mosely, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, the black mega authors whose work crosses the racial boundary and authors the brick and mortar stores feel comfortable placing on tables alongside books written by white authors.  But for the most part, African-American authors are segregated into the African-American section, where only African-Americans shop.

Frankly, even I don’t shop in those sections. I’ve found that a majority of the books offer views into Tyler Perry-type worlds where black people only live and work with other black people. Their lives are all about being black, about the black experience, basically books centered around race.

That is not how I live. That is not my life. That is not the life my characters live.

A recent critique I received from an editor about my novel went something like, “Okay, your character is a female soldier and she’s black. So what? I kept expecting to see more of her blackness in the story.”

Because I’m a black author, all I get to write about is being black? Do female authors only get to write about being a woman? And when has a white author written about what it means to be white?

The editor’s reaction leads me to believe the only reason black authors are writing about being black is because white publishers expect that from us. Black = the black experience, whatever the hell that is. The character can’t just be black, they have to talk black, act black, suffer some sort of discrimination, be a drug dealer or gang banger or fill some kind of stereotypical role to remind us all that they are black. After all, all characters in books, unless told otherwise, are white, so we’re forced to make the distinction.

The tweets from the disappointed movie goers proved to me that I was right about the African-American sections of book stores. These sections do nothing but segregate authors from people who would simply not browse there. If you don’t want to read a book that features a black character, you can easily avoid the exposure to them.

I hoped that ebooks would change the practice as they’ve changed so many things about the publishing world.  I am happy to see that there aren’t African-American sections in ebook stores.

Instead ebooks written by black authors are simply stuck in the mass ebook pile. They’re not also listed in Romance, or Mystery, or Fantasy. They’re just in the giant list of ebooks which means they rarely, not even Walter Mosley, make it into the top 100 lists.

One of the racist Hunger Games tweeters said, “Why does Rue have to be black? Not gonna lie. Kinda ruined the movie for me.”

The tweeter doesn’t have to worry. When it comes to black characters, it’s unlikely they will ever stumble across that unwanted black central character just by browsing the ebook lists.

Not gonna lie. Kinda pisses me off.

8 thoughts on “Why she gotta be black?

  1. I feel absolutely the same way. That gangsta-hood-ghetto-tyler perry universe is not where some of us live, work or want to write. The whole “race of my characters” thing has been on my mind a lot lately and one day I want to bridge that racial gap like the big authors that you’ve mentioned have done. However, working for a bookstore I’ve even seen Octavia Butler deliberately shelved in the African American/ Urban interest section, and not by choice of the in house employees, but by the computer’s shelving system dictated by corporate. It is a shame, and rather discouraging!

    Quite frankly, the more I read online, and explore this issue, the more pessimistic I get. I feel like the powers that be still segregate us in ways that aren’t illegal. That’s how they still get their way of keeping African Americans behind the curtain, away and out of view, stuck in in our damaged mentality.

    I think African American authors dedicated to portraying a new, more accurate image of the black people need to support each other and lift each other up.

    Your blog has helped me a lot in terms of thinking about my writing and how I choose to portray my characters. Thanks.

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    • Strawberry,
      I totally agree on the support for each other. If some of the big names that benefit from the cross-over selling of their books would put up a fuss, this wouldn’t happen. As someone who works in a book store, wouldn’t it be interesting to track just how many people even GO to that section, let alone buy something there? Do you know ANYONE who regularly shops there? I have never walked into a bookstore and thought, “hey, I’d really like to read something about black people!” I just want to read a damn good book and when you don’t see a book on the main table, you don’t think it’s generated the interest good books naturally generate.

      Oh don’t get me started! I’m glad this post generated more thought for you and I hope that you aren’t afraid to bring it up at work. I’m thinking about going to an African American writing conference in August in Baltimore and I plan to bring up the subject in any way that I can. I think black authors are really getting the shaft when it comes to ebook commerce because of that segregation. I’ve not heard of one black author who has had sucess self publishing the way some of the white authors have enjoyed. It’s very frustrating.

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      • I dont work in the bookstore anymore, but from what I can remember, A LOT of people go to “that section.” I’d instantly recognize the covers when they came to the check out line. Actually, and quite unfortunately, I’d say a good portion of black people looking for fiction titles would be looking for something in that section. I don’t know anyone personally, but many people do shop there.

        I never brought the issue up with my boss in a way that suggested that I was offended by the section. In one of the stores I worked at, I was the only black employee (North Carolina), that was awkward enough in and of itself. I never wanted to be the black chick who has to make everything into a race issue.

        I transferred to a store in south Florida (much more diverse) where that particular section even better than in NC. They added a special table (at the manager’s discretion) with mostly urban fiction titles in the middle of the store because it did so well. Those books continue to sell because many African Americans are still stuck in that mindset where that is what they want to read; it’s sad.

        I actually considered writing/calling corporate about the issue because they are the ones who ultimately make the decision. I never did. I don’t know why. I guess I felt like one of their minions with very little power.

        I remember a guy from England I worked with that thought the section was kinda racist. But the management is focused on what sells. What sells well is what gets featured placement. Its all about the money.

        Sorry I wrote so much… Like I said before, I think we need our own support system to take care of our own. It’s hard to change things within an organization that is stacked against us.

        –Talia

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    • Thanks Strawberryleo! It’s always good to know you’re not alone in your thoughts! But don’t be pessimistic. I’m encouraged by the fact that I have an editor and publisher now, both of whom are white, that are encouraging me about my characters and writing. I’ve written bi-racial love scenes, black characters that aren’t from the hood and characters who are multiracial and they are cool with it, so I’m just going to keep on doing that.

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  2. Talia,
    Thanks so much for giving me your experience on the subject! I had always assumed that no one shopped there and now I know that isn’t the case. If, as you say, those titles do well, I guess I can’t fault them for wanting to continue the practice. It just seems to me, that while they may be making it “easier” for their black customers to find the titles they want, they are also ensuring that no white or other customers will find those authors. Very short sighted in my opinion! The idea of having an urban table in the center of the store would go a long way to changing that, but I have to wonder where my books would go?

    Is “urban” now the code word for books about black people? What if there’s nothing urban about my stories? My central character is a black female soldier. She carries a weapon but not in the way urban stories would portray it. My agent shopped my book around to NY pubishers for several years and while many wrote great reviews of the work, they all passed. Considering the confusing question of how to market them, I guess I’m not surprised.

    Thankfuly, a new, small publisher is interested in them and I hope they will be in print by the fall. While they probably won’t be in one of the big box stores, I still have to wonder how to market them in our online world.

    Talia, thanks for your input on this! I’ve learned a lot. Keep in touch and let me know if you have other thoughts on the subject!
    mldoye

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  3. THANK YOU for not fitting into a stereotype! And thank you for not being quiet about it! I don’t care what color you are, where you came from, or what kind of accent you have. Humans are humans. Deal.

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    • Deal! It always facinated me that we are supposed to fit into “stereo” types…when what it really is, is a “mono” type. I think most people are more like high definition when it comes down to it…sorry. Ramblin’

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